Georgia State’s soccer team had just learned how to win last year.
It made the Colonial Athletic Association tournament or the first time. It earned its first at-large berth into the NCAA tournament.
Since that pinnacle, the Panthers have suffered losses deeper than on any field of play, losses that coach Brett Surrency is still trying to come to grips with.
Two players killed. Another player seriously injured. Three tragedies in three months.
Now, with the season set to begin Friday, the team is learning how to go on, and that the little things are so important.
A hug from a stranger. A random phone call. A simple red wristband.
Surrency calmly recounts the offseason that changed everything:
• June 27: Midfielder Tim Nixon, who had graduated in December, wrecked his car near Underground Atlanta and died.
• July 5: Defender Jordan Weise, who scored three goals last season, fell down a flight of stairs at home in Roswell, bruising his brain and causing swelling. He is recovering.
• Sunday: Forward Ayokunle Lumpkin, who scored five goals as a senior last season, had been shot after a confrontation in southeast Atlanta. Surrency got the call at 2 am, raced to Grady Hospital to join several players waiting. In the family room with Lumpkin’s mother, doctors told them that Lumpkin was dead.
Because the first two tragedies occurred during the summer, when the team wasn’t together, some players had to deal with the hurt on their own, without the shoulder of a teammate to lean on.
The players had reported when Lumpkin was killed. Those waiting at Grady heard the news first-hand from their coach. Those who couldn’t get there were called.
The team gathered for dinner later Sunday then attended a vigil in Lumpkin’s honor.
The next day, perhaps to try to forget about what they’ve gone through, or to remember their teammates, the team gathered and played soccer.
Surrency didn’t give them any instruction or coaching. They just played.
Tuesday afternoon, they went to a counseling session, then hit the field.
“We are just trying to do what we can to help these guys move forward,” Surrency said. “There’s no standard for this.”
For Surrency, 30, who is in his first head coaching job, his emotions come in waves. He has leaned on his wife, other coaches and grief experts to help him find the strength to help the team.
“It’s hard,” Surrency said. “I’ve not experienced anything like this. It’s hard to believe. It’s hard to understand.”
He’s led the team in finding formal ways to honor their former teammates. There will be a moment of silence before every home game to remember Nixon and Lumpkin. Each player will wear patches on their jerseys with Lumpkin’s (22) and Nixon’s (25) numbers. No one will wear those numbers this year.
But it’s the spontaneous moments of compassion and love that Surrency said have helped the most.
He points to a red rubber wristband he is wearing with “Live a little,” written on it. That was Nixon’s favorite phrase. Softball player Chelsea Sparks had them made.
Assistant coach Dave Meiklejohn was walking through a parking lot, wearing a Georgia State soccer T-shirt, when a random student walked up and hugged him.
Surrency said athletic director Cheryl Levick rushed to Grady as soon as she heard about Lumpkin. Football coach Bill Curry left him a voicemail.
“Those are things that sometimes seem so simple but really are important,” Surrency said. “Everybody’s been incredible. It’s something that does really, really help; even the things that seem so minute. As much as we want to be able to [say], ‘This is it, this is going to make things better,’ it’s not the case.”
Surrency has no idea when he or his players will transition from thinking about the tragedies to thinking about soccer. Right now, that’s not his priority.
“Right now, even for our purposes, it [soccer] isn’t the main focus,” he said. “The kids’ well-being is.
“If soccer can be a step in the direction, to get them back to a healthy and positive mindset, that’s great. But it will be different this year. There’s no question about that.”
– Doug Roberson, AJC. Please follow me on twitter @ajcgsu