Pat Kelsey is no stranger to loss. He's no stranger to emotional anguish. And he's not a stranger to the soul-searching that every parent is doing this week.
His impassioned postgame speech Tuesday night about the aftermath of the Sandy Hook shootings and the need for change was not the first, nor even the first by a college basketball coach. But because of who Kelsey is, and what he's been through, he's uniquely qualified to speak on a subject that is affecting all of us.
For those who missed it, Kelsey spoke during his media availability after his Winthrop team lost to Ohio State. He spoke of his two little girls, and how he will rush home from Columbus to spend time with them, and how the parents of the children killed in Newtown, Conn., on Friday have empty rooms and empty beds.
"I don't know what needs to be done," Kelsey said. "I'm not smart enough to know what needs to be done, OK? I know this country's got issues. Is it a gun issue? Is it a mental-illness issue? Or is it a society that has lost the fact, the understanding, that decent human values are important?"
Kelsey echoed the feelings expressed by the president Sunday night in Newtown, but he did not vote for Barack Obama. He's from Cincinnati, a mostly conservative part of Ohio. And he's a brand-new coach in traditionally right-leaning South Carolina. So this isn't "politicizing." Pat Kelsey had no agenda other than trying to make society better. And his speech was a reminder that although college coaches are often overpaid and power-hungry, their job is to educate. They are leaders of young people, responsible for futures. It is their role to care about the next generation.
Kelsey is a protégé of one of the most respected thinkers in recent college sports history: Skip Prosser. The former Wake Forest coach was revered in college basketball not only for his strategy and gamesmanship, but for his dedication to bringing academics into athletics. One of Prosser's oft-repeated sayings was a quote from Thomas Payne, who made this call to action during the American Revolution:
"The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman."
No doubt Kelsey remembered those words Tuesday night as he sat behind the microphone. Shootings are becoming a crisis in this country, and Kelsey would not shrink from a rare opportunity to add to the momentum many already feel after Friday's tragedy.
"Parents, teachers, rabbis, priests, coaches, everybody needs to step up," Kelsey said. "This has to be a time for change. And I know this microphone's powerful right now, because we're playing the fourth-best team in the country. I'm not going to have a microphone like this the rest of the year, maybe the rest of my life."
A Prosser disciple does not spew empty words. Especially this one. Kelsey, a former Wake Forest assistant, left basketball a year after Prosser's sudden passing in 2007. Kelsey was overcome with the stress of balancing work and family. He had two young children at home, had seen how Prosser died without getting a chance to say goodbye to his own loved ones. Prosser was in the middle of recruiting season, felled by a heart attack after going for a run. Kelsey saw him there, dead on his office couch, before Prosser's own kin found out what happened.
"It was like a downward spiral," Kelsey told Yahoo! Sports in July of the time after Prosser's death. "You're lying there at 2 a.m., and you start doubting what you do and the lifestyle. I don't want to get a divorce, never see my kids, die of a heart attack and never set things right."
Months after Prosser died, Kelsey confessed to his father that he couldn't keep going like this, on the coaching treadmill. "I'm miserable," he said. So he left his new assistant's job at Xavier and sought professional help, visiting regularly with a therapist.
Back in July, sitting in his office at Winthrop, Kelsey was a little bit hesitant to open up about mental health. He knows that kind of thing can be used against him in recruiting. But after some thought, he went ahead and spoke. He believes in it – believes in what it has done for him and can do for others.
Whatever your stance on gun control, it's hard to argue our society would not be helped by better mental-health awareness. Perhaps you've noticed many of the shooters in these tragedies are in their late teens and early 20s. That's the age when mental illness hits hardest, especially in men.
"No coincidence," says Jeffrey Kutcher, a University of Michigan neuroscientist who works with many teenagers. "That's when mental illnesses like these typically present."
That's also the age of Kelsey's players. The Winthrop coach, as a father to two young girls, knows our kids need protection. But as a leader of young men, he also knows our teenagers need more guidance.
[Related: Bulls' Joakim Noah ends 'air guns' pantomime]
Some will say the sports world is not a platform for discussion of current events. Those people need to realize the public faces of most universities these days are coaches. They are, for better or worse, the voices of the college world. A lot of coaches just want to win games and make money. But that's not Jim Boeheim, who spoke out after his 900th win Sunday, and it's not Pat Kelsey.
A man who learned from Skip Prosser, and left an ideal job to be with family, and sought therapy, is not a man who has only his own glory in mind. Pat Kelsey wants to succeed. But more than that, he wants to be a good leader, a good dad and a good role model for those who follow him.
Those kinds of people need to keep speaking.
Related coverage on the Yahoo! network:
• Newtown girls basketball team returns to action, pledges donations
• Titans RB Chris Johnson's touching tribute to Sandy Hook victims on MNF
• Y! News: Coverage and updates of Newtown tragedy
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- Skip Prosser