In the wake of tragedy, Oxford High's Tate Myre is here forever as an inspiration

(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports illustration)
(Erick Parra Monroy/Yahoo Sports illustration)

OXFORD, Mich. — In a small town once best known for its gravel pits, on a football field next to a high school where just over two months later he and three others would be shot and killed, Oxford High’s No. 42 had the ball in his hands.

At the far side of the stadium stood Mel Tucker, the Michigan State coach who was there to recruit some talent. The thing was, he’d been told all of it was on the other team, powerhouse West Bloomfield. Lowly Oxford had won just three games, combined, the previous two seasons. By the end of this one, it would fall to 0-3 on the year.

Yet here came 42, a junior running back/linebacker, making two bold cuts and dashing into open space. “He broke up the sideline,” Tucker recalled. Ten yards. Twenty. Thirty. “With three guys on his tail,” his mother Sheri said, proudly. It was actually four, and one of them was a prized Michigan State recruit.

Tucker had already noticed the 6-foot, 190 pounder. How couldn’t he? He played fast. He hit hard. Now, came a blistering 66-yard touchdown run? That’s a Big Ten athlete.

Yet the kid had no Division I offers, no Rivals page, no nothing. He was unrecruited, a late bloomer on a losing team. He hadn’t pestered colleges with scouting tape. He’d never been to an ID camp.

He was a throwback who never considered major college football because, as strange as it sounds, all he ever focused on was competing in high school, his high school, Oxford High School. He was a kid who, rather than bulk up in the offseason, would slim down so he could wrestle; a multi-sport athlete in an era of specialization.

He hailed, as Tucker would later find out, from a family who believed in an ancient concept — do what’s best for the team, pour yourself into your teammates, and somehow, someway, it’ll all work out.

“Culture,” his father, Buck, would say. “We are a big ‘culture’ family.”

As 42 crossed into the end zone that night, Tucker turned to the Oxford athletic director standing next to him.

“Who,” he asked, “is that?”

“That,” he was told, “is Tate Myre.”

Tate Myre
(OCTV)

This is a story about how Tate Myre lived. This is not a story about how Tate or three equally inspiring teenagers — Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana and Justin Schilling — died, let alone about who killed them, how, why or who and what is to blame.

It’s about another life cut short by this country’s school shooting epidemic, a nightmare that came to the country roads and quarry lakes on the far north edge of Metro Detroit, shattering the otherwise quiet afternoon of Nov. 30, 2021.

It’s about a foundation — “42 Strong” — that his family hopes can push past wedge issues and politics to find common ground via a peer mentoring program — one that, by utilizing Tate’s best traits, can perhaps spare at least one family the hell that has engulfed them.

“Our world is about dividing people,” Buck Myre said. “We are about bringing people together.”

But this is mainly a story of a young football player, just coming into his own, here on the eve of the senior season stolen from him. Oxford, now without Tate Myre, opens at Romeo High on Thursday.

'This guy is a freak'

It was a year ago, the summer of 2021, that things began to get serious for Tate. His high school team was running a preseason “combine.” Bench press. Cone drill. Broad jump.

Tate’s oldest brother, Trent — himself a former football and wrestling star at Oxford — was helping out that day by handling the 40-yard dash.

Trent knew Tate had been growing stronger and faster. He knew his work ethic. He witnessed Tate spend the COVID quarantine burning through endless reps with water jugs — “we didn’t have any dumb bells” — or grinding out pushups in the living room as everyone watched a movie.

When he clocked Tate at 4.37 in that 40, though, he figured he’d made a mistake. Yes, his little brother was fast, but not that fast. “No way,” Trent said. “I definitely messed up.” He made Tate line up again. Five coaches and trainers gathered around with watches. Everyone got something sub-4.4. Still not believing it, they wrote down 4.47.

The number caught Buck’s attention. He had played a season of small college football back in the day. A former teammate of his, Reggie Wynns, runs an elite football training program in Southfield, Mich., that works with big-time area talent. Tate soon went to it.

“Reggie knows what a D-I player looks like,” Buck said. “He called me that night, ‘This guy is a freak. Tate is D-I.’ ”

D-I?

“We never thought about college,” Trent said. “And then the first person we speak to says, ‘He’s D-I?’ Whoa.”

It's all about the team

The Myres are a family of athletes. Sheri starred in softball and volleyball. Buck played football, which became a family passion as Trent (age 20), Ty (19), and Tate (16) gravitated to it. “One of my favorite sounds is pads smashing,” Sheri said.

The kids played just about every sport growing up though, not to mention often heated games of backyard whiffle ball and driveway basketball, at least until a light fixture on the side of the garage got smashed or something. Epic family putt-putt tournaments are still recalled with reverence and no one is sure how the basement of their old house survived the hockey games.

“We’re a competitive family,” Sheri said. “Board games don’t even end well.”

What the Myres mostly avoided were the elaborate travel teams that criss-crossed the country, even in elementary school, in pursuit of who knows what. They mostly played local.

“We just didn’t put a focus on it,” Buck said. “It drives me nuts, all the parents focused on all the wrong things.”

The plan was to compete in high school and even then, it was all about team success, not individual promise.

With Tate, it had to be, because early on the Myres realized he was detrimentally competitive. Striking out just once in Little League would leave him crying inconsolably.

“We were like, ‘Dude, you aren’t even having fun. Why are you playing?’ ” Buck recalled. “We soon realized he didn’t know how to channel it. He needed to focus on other people. We started talking every day, ‘Just be a good teammate. Make everyone else better. If you win, who cares if you went 0-for-4 with four strikeouts?’ He took it and he ran with it.”

Everything became about the team. Everything became about winning. He’d play any position. He’d practice at any hour. In wrestling, he’d volunteer to move up in weight class — embracing a disadvantage — if it might help win the meet. Or he’d cut weight and drop down.

“Even in middle school, he’d always step up and say, ‘Coach, I’ll do it,’ ” said teammate Kade Rushlow.

Tate’s freshman season on Oxford football — an often struggling program — he would ride home from practice with Ty, then a junior, and talk not like a 14-year-old just happy to be on varsity, but a veteran coach seeking a motivational edge.

“He’d say, ‘What do we have to do to get this team working together?' ” recalled Ty, who would often shake his head at the overambition.

Tate’s goal was to make the team a point of pride. It could be anything. Extra work at practice. Calling out the defensive assignment, despite being a freshman. Shouting “One Heartbeat” before critical snaps to inspire togetherness. Even just dressing up in his uniform late at night and sending ridiculous pictures to teammates in an effort to get a laugh or create a connection.

He wanted it to be something out of a movie.

“Friday Night Lights,” Ty said. “Football teams can kind of bring towns together. But some people around town and school saw the football team as terrible. He wanted them to rally around the team.

“We were 1-8 that year,” Ty continued. “But he was always encouraging. He just wouldn’t quit. The whole team would quit and he would just try to encourage them, which is something you’d never see from a freshman.”

OXFORD, MI - DECEMBER 07: A memorial outside of Oxford High School on December 7, 2021 in Oxford, Michigan. One week ago, four students were killed and seven others injured on November 30, when student Ethan Crumbley allegedly opened fire with a pistol at the school. Crumbley and his parents have been charged in the shooting. (Photo by Emily Elconin/Getty Images)
A memorial outside of Oxford High School on December 7, 2021 in Oxford, Michigan. Four students were killed and seven others injured on November 30, when a gunman allegedly opened fire with a pistol at the school. (Emily Elconin/Getty Images)

Trust. Love. Build.

Mel Tucker left that Oxford-West Bloomfield game with a new name to pass onto his recruiting department. “I said, ‘This is a good player. Let’s get his film, let’s get an evaluation on him, let’s invite him up to a game so we can meet him.’ ”

Oxford, winless after three games, had more pressing concerns. Tate was playing both ways — middle linebacker and running back — but Coach Zach Line asked him to move to tight end on offense, so he could bolster the line with his blocking, too. They already had a quality running back in Sal Vackaro.

A move to tight end, however, would potentially impact Tate’s recruiting. He was too small to play that position in college and getting fewer carries meant fewer chances to show the speed that caught Tucker’s eye. Besides, blocking was thankless grunt work, not exciting touchdown runs.

What was good for the team would probably not be good for Tate.

Yet he never blinked. He didn’t even mention the position switch to his family, let alone complain or question.

“Coach Line called me and asked what Tate thought of the position change?” Buck said. “And I was like, ‘What position change?’ He never said anything. He just did what the coach said.”

It worked.

The following week, Oxford won its first game of the season. Two weeks later, it won again. Then again and again and again. After years of struggles, Oxford was hot and, quite incredibly, in the state playoffs. Suddenly, just as Tate always wanted, everyone rallied around the team. More talk in the hallways. More fans in the stands.

In a cold, late October rain, Oxford pulled off a dramatic first-round upset over Clarkston to win for the sixth time in seven games. Tate had a touchdown catch and the game-ending interception. Vackaro, meanwhile, rushed for nearly 300 yards and four scores behind that renewed offensive line.

As students and fans stormed the field to celebrate, a local football website, The D-Zone, asked a beaming Tate, how did they turn the season around?

“We didn’t quit,” Tate said. “We came back. We grinded. Worked every day. We all trust each other. We all love each other. We just started building. Week after week after week.”

Trust. Love. Build.

The season would end with a loss to eventual state champion Rochester Adams, but it hardly mattered. This was everything Tate had wanted and a foundation had been established for the 2022 season, his senior season, his big season to be.

Tate's word was his word

On the last Saturday of his young life, Tate rose early for what felt like a beginning.

Ricky Ciccone, the recruiting director at the University of Toledo had called on Monday of that week, Thanksgiving week, and asked if Tate wanted to come down to the Rockets' upcoming game against Akron.

Word of Tate had begun to spread. Recruiting mailers arrived at the house. Coach Line talked to Iowa about him. Toledo had been tipped off by a contact in Metro Detroit and offered Tate sideline passes and a chance to meet the coaches and see the facilities.

This was a Division I recruiting trip. It didn’t assure a scholarship offer, but it was the start of the process of getting a scholarship offer. Yet the question was, should Tate go on the visit?

After all, on Wednesday, two days after Toledo reached out, Michigan State called with the same deal; come up to East Lansing for a game that weekend and meet Mel Tucker and the staff.

Now this — Michigan State! The Big Ten! — was really the goal.

Toledo is a good, solid program in a good, solid league, the Mid-American Conference. MSU was ranked 12th in the country. It would play rival Penn State that Saturday on national television inside a 75,000-seat stadium. Besides, Tate grew up a Spartan fan. This was his big break with his dream school.

Generally speaking, there is no honor in college football recruiting. Recruits juggle numerous schools and even back out of verbal commitments. Coaches regularly string prospects along and pull offers.

It is an inherently selfish pursuit, everyone working an angle.

Well, almost everyone.

To Tate Myre, his word was his word. “He believed in what he believed in,” Tucker said. Yes, Michigan State was more successful and prestigious but Toledo had asked first and he accepted. There was no debate. He would ask the Spartans if they could do it another time.

“That doesn’t happen,” Tucker said. “What happens is the kid calls the other school and says, ‘I know I said I was coming but I’m in position for a better opportunity and I have to take it, I have to go visit Michigan State.’ "

Instead, Tate stuck with the Toledo trip.

“Pretty awesome,” Toledo coach Jason Candle said. “We’re always searching for high character people in our program and that decision stands out.”

Road trip to Toledo

The Myres, being the Myres, were not going to take this casually, either. If someone was going to recruit them, they were going to recruit right back.

It was the polite thing to do. And strategic.

“I’m in commission sales,” Buck said. “So I know a few tricks of the trade to get people’s attention. I said, ‘We need to be the first people there.’ Tate said, ‘Why?’ I said, ‘There are going to be 50 recruits there, so you need to make this feel small. And the way we make it feel small is to get there first.’ ”

They rose before 6. Buck made breakfast burritos, wrapping them in tin foil so they could eat on the way. He heated his F-150 up, melting the gathering frost off the windshield. They pulled out of the driveway by 6:30 with 104 miles and the world in front of them, father and son barreling down Interstate 75 uncertain about everything but the value system that got them there.

Buck sipped black coffee and played some Tedeschi Trucks Band songs. Tate nodded in and out of sleep at first, but soon began chatting with his dad about the future. Possible majors. Possible careers. College life. What they might see at Toledo.

“We talked about how there are no athletic decisions being made,” Buck said. “You are going to find a spot where you fit and if there happens to be athletic money then there is athletic money.”

Everything felt familiar and different at the same time. The weekend prior they’d gone deer hunting at a friend’s place in Northern Michigan and it felt like a passage of sorts.

Tate was trusted to hunt deep in the property alone for the first time. He shared a beer with his dad for the first time. At night, as they watched college football and played cards, the other men treated him a little more like a peer than just their buddy’s kid.

The miles quickly passed that Saturday morning, the traffic light as they rolled through Detroit, Downriver, past Monroe and across the Ohio border. Just as they planned, the Myres were the first recruits to arrive at the Larimer Athletic Facility.

And just as they thought, being first mattered. Tate was able to speak with Candle and some assistant coaches. Buck stayed off to the side, letting his son handle all business.

Soon they were out on the field pregame. Buck took a picture of Tate standing in the endzone. Befitting the cold, his face was taut and his hands jammed into the pockets of his letterman’s jacket. A game pass hung around his neck.

“Tate Myre, Oxford (MI) 2023,” it read.

The next day Tate posted the picture on Twitter, complete with a thank you to Toledo for having him.

Two days after that, it would be splashed across cable news channels, websites and newspapers around the globe.

Several '42' jerseys line the walls inside Tate Myre's bedroom, including one from Michigan State. (Yahoo Sports)
Several '42' jerseys line the walls inside Tate Myre's bedroom, including one from Michigan State. (Yahoo Sports)

'I just don't understand this'

The Myres' split-level home backs up to a small lake and it is easy to envision a time when this was a house of constant activity, constant energy. Noise, laughter, arguments, homework, whatever. A home full of growing boys and their friends.

This was a family family. This was a community family. This was an Oxford family.

Now it is a family trying to find its footing. Frivolity is in short supply. There are quiet stares and impromptu tears and a lingering question of what’s next, what’s possible? “We hope to one day once again find joy among each other,” Buck said. Grief therapy has taught them it's a challenge to keep a family together after such trauma.

They refer to Tate’s death as nothing more than “November 30th.” Anything more descriptive is just too much. There is rage and anger and hurt, their son shot and killed, taken from them, while simply walking between classes. The days and weeks and months have been a blur, but the pain never subsides.

Some days are better than others. Many are worse than seemingly imaginable.

They just keep going.

Football has provided both relief and grief. Tate’s teammates rallied around them, of course. All of Oxford did. Jason Candle has stayed in touch. Detroit Lions coach Dan Campbell called and later dedicated a game ball to the entire community, reading out not just Tate’s name, but Madisyn Baldwin, Hana St. Juliana, Justin Shilling and all of those injured as well.

The University of Michigan hosted the Myres at the Big Ten championship game and wore a patch “TM 42” on their jersey. The Wolverine women’s basketball team did the same for St. Juliana — “HSJ 52” — who died the morning after her first freshman basketball game. She was 14.

Aidan Hutchinson, the Michigan star defensive lineman and now Lions rookie, eagerly attended a fundraising golf tournament. Robert Saleh, a native of Metro Detroit and head coach of the New York Jets, spoke of Oxford at a news conference.

The tributes came from all over. Letters and emails, of course. Social media posts. Stories of coaches gathering their high school teams and talking about Tate.

At Tate’s wake, a man handed Buck a box and told him to open it later. It contained a letter and scholarship offer from Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher, who was so moved after reading a story about Tate that he brought him up at a staff meeting. Later, Fisher found out that the Aggies were Tate’s favorite SEC team.

“He sounded like an incredible young man of character and leadership, just selfless,” Fisher said. “I wish I had gotten to know him. I wish I had gotten to recruit him and coach him …

“I guess,” Fisher said, “when you hear about these stories, you don’t know what to do, you don’t know if there is anything you can do. We all feel the same way. This felt like the littlest thing.”

The letter, the scholarship offer and a Tate Myre 42 Aggie jersey hang proudly in Tate’s room. It was a little thing that was a very big thing to the family.

Mel Tucker called, of course. Multiple times. November 30 impacted many people in Michigan, but for the Spartan coach it hit in ways he didn’t anticipate.

“I heard what happened at the high school and then I saw his name come across and I just said to myself, ‘I just saw him. I just saw this kid. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe it,’ ” Tucker said.

“I was looking forward to recruiting him, getting to know him and the family,” Tucker continued.

On national signing day in February, Tate was announced as the program’s first signee. A framed 42 MSU jersey and a poster of Tate as an “Honorary Spartan Dawg” hangs on his bedroom wall. Again, a small gesture with outsized meaning.

“I don’t know,” Tucker said, his voice catching. “I don’t know what to say. It’s terrible. This kid had such a bright future. Now he’s gone …”

Suddenly Tucker was just a father of two, not a Big Ten football coach. Emotion overwhelmed him. He gulped back tears. It’s all terrible. It’s all just terrible.

“I just don’t understand this …”

No one does. The reminders are constant. Once Tate was identified as a prospect, his name was added to automated recruiting mailing lists used by some football programs. This came in addition to the regular tonnage of college admission brochures that inundate all soon-to-be high school seniors.

Bulk mail doesn’t watch the news.

Each afternoon, the Myres dread the trip to the end of the driveway where they find mail often full of pictures of smiling students walking across manicured campuses or sold out, sun-splashed stadiums. It is a daily reminder of what life could have been, should have been, for their son.

It often left them in tears hunched over by the mailbox.

Now it’s mostly resignation.

“It was triggering,” Buck said. “Now …”

He paused.

“It just bums me out.”

“It bums me out every time,” Sheri said.

Buck Myre, Sheri Myre, Kade Rushlow (scholarship recipient), Trent Myre and Ty Myre. (Yahoo Sports)
Buck Myre, Sheri Myre, Kade Rushlow (scholarship recipient), Trent Myre and Ty Myre. (Yahoo Sports)

The birth of 42 Strong

Trust. Love. Build.

At some point the Myres rewatched Tate’s interview after qualifying for the state playoffs and those three words jumped out. If they were going to do something for Tate, something big and bold, something more than just a scholarship in his name, then they needed to model it after what Tate believed. And there it was.

Those three words became their motto — printed on wrist bands and coffee mugs — but also their ethos and motivation.

“For our family, trust means, do what you say you are going to do,” Ty said. “Just do it. If you are going to talk about doing something, we are going to trust you are going to do it.”

As they poured over what happened on November 30, they saw both systemic and professional failures, but more than anything a lack of connection with the alleged shooter. Perhaps if he had just one person to talk with, one classmate, one trusted adult, none of this would have happened.

Tate’s friends told them he was always the peacemaker in their group, someone popular without caring about popularity, an honor student and football star who would spend time with special needs kids at school. He was a slob and a goof, yet that made him approachable. He was a leader, a lifter, a connector.

So rather than weigh into political issues that often define the aftermath of these tragedies, the Myres decided to try to find something universally agreeable.

Everybody needs a friend.

The result is “42 Strong,” an expansive peer mentoring, education and leadership program built on what Tate’s friends described as his core characteristics. “Tate would be doing this if he was still here,” Trent said.

Volunteer adult “leaders” from throughout Oxford work with trained “mentors” in grades 10-12 who in turn connect with “mentees” in grades 6-9.

The program is being implemented with professional help and aided by numerous groups, including the Pat Tillman Foundation. There is a board of directors, consultants and lots of momentum. Over 250 young people are already involved.

“One of the stages of grievance is bargaining,” Buck said. “For me, I feel like I've been trying to bargain and trying to believe it didn’t happen. Well, it happened. Tate isn’t coming home. For me, the bargaining is over.

“So what do we do?” he continued. “What do we do to make a positive impact? We are just trying to team kids up so everyone has a friend and you don't get to that hopelessness.”

Perhaps best of all, it’s a chance for everyone to do something small but significant against a problem that is so vast and political it often feels hopeless. “The feedback has been amazing,” Buck said. At least a half dozen surrounding cities have expressed interest in the program. As it gets refined, the Myres want to scale it. That, Buck, notes, is the “build” part.

It’s kept them busy with tasks and meetings they never saw coming. It’s also a connection to Tate, which they are constantly seeking, everything from having his friends still drop by the house to listening to the Spotify playlists they found once police finally returned his phone.

Now, though, comes football season, once their favorite time of the year. This was going to be bittersweet regardless, the last season of their last child, the last Myre boy at Oxford. Now though?

No one is sure how they will react. Buck has become a part-time coach, working with many of Tate’s lifelong buddies. Trent and Ty, both enrolled in college, will make as many games as possible.

Sheri said she planned on attending at least the home games, but now, as it draws near, she isn’t sure about the opener.

“I don’t know,” she said.

There is no wrong answer, of course, no wrong path. Oxford football, Oxford athletics was their life for a long, long time. Now everything is different. Now nothing is the same.

The games are going to happen. Life churns on. This is high school football. The band, the crowd, the smashing pads.

And yes, those flashes of magic when under the stadium lights, an unheralded kid cuts into the open field and races for an endzone, races faster than anyone believed he could, races toward a college coach offering the promise of everything he ever dreamed.

Here in Oxford, up here where a school shooting tore apart everything, one American football family, one American football community, doesn’t pretend to have the answers.

All they can do is somehow, someway, keep trusting, keep loving and keep building.