AUBURN, Ala. – Pat Kelsey’s team had lost a basketball game. But all he could think about was how fathers like him, fathers he didn’t know, recently had lost so much more.
Kelsey, the 36-year-old rookie head coach of Winthrop, was asked Tuesday night about defending high-powered Ohio State, hampering Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft and nearly upsetting the Buckeyes before losing by 10.
He answered in his usual thoughtful, eloquent manner. But when the hordes of reporters had finished asking questions, Kelsey was struck numb.
“I was getting out of my chair,” Kelsey recalled, “and something … something from above, I think, just made me say, I do have one more thing. I just spoke what was on my heart.”
Kelsey launched into a powerful, sentimental statement on behalf of the 20 families in Newtown, Conn. who lost their schoolchildren in last Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He took advantage of what he admitted to be the most significant pulpit of the year – “maybe the rest of my life” – and pleaded to America’s leaders to step up and usher in change for the better.
Within hours, Kelsey’s e-mail inbox filled up by the thousands. 95 percent, Kelsey said, was positive, lauding Kelsey for saying exactly what they felt.
“It was overwhelming. I couldn’t get over the response,” Kelsey said before Saturday’s game at Auburn, his first time on a basketball court since his now-viral speech.
“Like every American citizen, it was on my mind and heart. I was sick to my stomach. As a father of a five-year-old and four-year-old, it hit home even more, because I tried to put myself in the shoes of those parents and what they were going through. You can’t even fathom what they can possibly be dealing with.”
Perhaps the most poignant segment of Kelsey’s closing statement Tuesday was his description of what he would do next. He was set for an 8-hour bus ride back to Rock Hill, S.C., where he’d go home and hug his young daughters – Ruthie is in pre-kindergarten, and Caroline is not in school yet. Kelsey and his wife, Lisa, are expecting their third child in March.
“It was awesome. My girls are early risers,” Kelsey said of his return home, about 5:45 Wednesday morning. “I walked in, and they actually woke up. There’s nothing like when they’re so excited to see you and they jump in your arms and they yell ‘Daddy!’ That’s what it’s all about.
“That’s the most disgusting thing, is those people don’t get to have those moments with those children anymore.”
A former Wake Forest and Xavier assistant, Kelsey actually took a year off from coaching after the untimely fatal heart attack of his mentor, Skip Prosser. Prosser used to tell people, “All I am is a ninth-grade history teacher from Wheeling, West Va.”
Kelsey’s never forgotten that.
“I spoke just like an Average Joe American,” Kelsey said. “That’s all we are. I just happen to coach basketball, and people care what basketball coaches say.”
In the aftermath of Tuesday night, Kelsey appeared on ESPN’s Outside the Lines, MSNBC’s Last Word with Lawrence O’Donnell and Fox News’ “Fox & Friends”, continuing to spread his message.
After Saturday’s game, the Golden Eagles take their 350-mile bus ride back home to Rock Hill. Kelsey will spend Christmas with his family of four.
And he’ll remember the sadness he feels that 20 families in Newtown can’t do the same.
“This isn’t a society that makes us the greatest in the history of civilization,” Kelsey said. “We want to leave that for our kids, when we’re all long gone. We want to leave them a safe society where they can grow up and be proud of the country they live in.”