OU's Kenny Mossman on how a group of Sooners in Haiti reacted to Austin Box's tragic death.
NORMAN, Okla. --
Bracelet presented by the women's basketball players to their football peers during the mission trip in Haiti.
Even in one of the most remote locations in Haiti, cell phones brought the news of Austin Box's passing to the OU contingent that was serving on that Caribbean island last week.
In one moment, brushes and rollers were splashing paint on school buildings, the next we were gathering the 18 Sooner student-athletes, nine from women's basketball and nine from football, on a gravel road a few yards away to share the heart-breaking news.
There is no good place to receive word of a tragedy, but receiving it so far away gave it a surreal quality. It sucked all of the air out of the day.
Some of the athletes cried, others stared blankly at the ground. Naturally, because it took a member from their locker room, the football players took it the hardest, but the women's basketball players were deeply saddened too. They seemed torn between their own grief and trying to lend comfort to the guys. It was just heartbreaking.
Finally, Adam Barnett, the college pastor from Norman's Journey Church and the leader of the trip, read from the Bible. He then called everyone to form a circle and asked them to hold hands and bow their heads. Some 4,000 miles away from Oklahoma, prayers were lifted for the Box family and for strength through the most difficult of times.
The work duties did not resume and the group returned to the old yellow school bus that carried them around the island all week. Most of those bus rides had been marked with laughter and singing. Not this one. It was subdued. Only the hum of the engine and the rushing wind through the open windows broke the silence.
Friday's final visit to the Mission proved a good distraction, but it was impossible to shake the aftershocks of what we had learned less than 24 hours earlier.
When we returned to the hotel, it was time to pack for Saturday's return to trip. One of the last orders of business was the team photo out on the beach.
After the picture had been taken, the women's basketball players asked their football peers to remain behind while the remainder of the group dispersed for dinner. Each of the football players was handed a large rock, the kind that are strewn across Haiti's beaches, and a permanent marker.
Whitney Hand asked each of the football players to think of their favorite memory of Austin, write it on the rock, then to fan out across the beach and throw the rocks into the sea to symbolically mark a bond with their former teammate.
The emotion was thick, but it didn't mark a departure from Austin.
Once the football players had regrouped, they were handed a bracelet by one of the women's basketball players. It's the kind of bracelet that is common in Haiti. Hand-woven with string, the bracelets often carry a message ranging from someone's name to something inspirational.
We hadn't seen a crimson-colored bracelet all week, but these
were, and they were inscribed with "Box 12."
The rocks stayed behind at the place where his teammates first heard that Austin was gone. The bracelets carried that same remembrance, but in a way that would return to Norman.
It was a poignant ceremony designed to celebrate and honor a friend, and it was orchestrated by one group of OU student-athletes for another.
We talk often of how There's Only One Oklahoma, and normally we're referring to the great tradition of excellence at the university. But that phrase should also call to mind our bond as Sooners.
That's what we saw on Haiti's shores as the sun set that night. In the midst of something so tragic, there was the warmth of the human compassion.
Note: The trip to Haiti was not sponsored or organized by the University of Oklahoma.