What's in a number?
At Kent State, number 54 brings back memories of Jason Bitsko, who died on August 20, 2014 from having an enlarged heart. The starting center was only 21 years young and was greatly missed by his teammates as well as the community. Nobody wore number 54 last year on their shirts, but the team honored his memory by putting that number on their helmets. On this date last year, they also put his number on the turf of Dix Stadium. A rock on campus was painted in his memory. The school also gave Bitsko's scholarship to a fellow walk-on teammate of his.
Haynes and his wife visited Bitsko's family at the hospital yesterday. The father wanted to make sure Jason's scholarship went to a walk-on.— August Fagerstrom (@AugustF_MLB) August 21, 2014
Last year I wrote a piece about honoring deceased players and teammates. How do we handle these situations? My emphasis for the article was more targeted towards the Eastern Michigan program with number 2, last worn by Demarius Reed who was shot and killed over his clothes after returning back to his apartment from a local night club. Eagle Totem, a local Eagles blog had their own demands from the EMU athletic department to have Reed's number be retired in his honor and to bring more awareness to the bigger problem of gun violence.
My response was pretty simple. In my conclusion, I wrote:
So however Demarius Reed and Jason Bitsko are honored by their respective athletic departments, they shouldn't have to necessarily fill our needs to be the most meaningful. There are many good ways of handling these issues, but not doing anything will not fill the needs for those that are most affected by these tragedies.
Today, Kent State honored Jason Bitsko yet again for their own heart-felt desires. After many discussions amongst the coaching staff and players, they ultimately decided to bring the number back. However, it wouldn't be just a number that could be given to anybody that wanted it. This was Bitsko's number: a young man who lost his life right before the season started after setting an example in the locker room for his hard work and dedication to his team.
After votes were submitted from the coaches and players, head coach Paul Haynes and offensive line coach Shawn Clark broke the news to the team, awarding number 54 to left tackle Reno Reda.
"I was extremely honored and excited," Reda said. "I'm still at a loss for words because this is one of the best honors I've ever received. I have so much gratitude for my coaches and teammates for choosing me. When I stood in front of the team, Coach Clark started to get emotional. I somehow kept my cool until after I was able to speak to the team."
source: Kent State Athletics press release (8/27/15)
Haynes was quoted in the release saying that he hopes that this is a tradition that stays at Kent State "forever."
The Golden Flashes will open up their season on the road against Illinois on Friday, September 4. You can watch Reda carry on his passion for the game and pride in his school, as Bitsko would have loved to do last year, in that number 54 jersey.
WATCH: ESPN's Neil Everett angry about the lack of coverage about Bitsko's death (8/21/14):