The coach speaks in a whisper, and the young wrestlers gather around him in a semicircle on the purple mats. They listen. They say nothing. A few of them are big and muscular. Others are smaller, their skin soft. They are teen-aged, but they are still children, really. And children should never have to witness a murder, especially not to one of their own. But it happened inside Romulus High School, and now everybody here must learn to live with the nightmares, and it is not easy.
This is a story about a moment of madness, about a young life snuffed out for no reason except the rush of anger that kids enjoy because it makes them feel grown-up, makes them feel tough, makes them carry a weapon. And then something tragic happens, a knife goes into someone’s chest, and they want to be kids again, but they never can be.
How could it happen that an 18-year-old senior, captain of the football team, goes to school in the morning and never comes home? And now there are broken pieces of dreams all over the place, and teachers hugging students, and flowers wilting on classroom desks — flowers left over from last Tuesday, the first time anyone can remember a funeral service taking place in a high school auditorium.
How could it happen? That was the question that buzzed through the parking lot that day, through the hallways jammed with reporters, and through the auditorium itself, where some 800 friends and family — most of them barely old enough to drive a car — listened quietly to prayers and eulogies for Robert O’Day, whose body lay in a coffin just in front of the stage.
And a few miles away, in a Wayne County youth home, a 16- year-old boy from Inkster — who had never met Bobby O’Day before putting a knife into him
— was being held in custody, facing a charge of murder.
Romulus High lies hard off Interstate 94, just a few miles west of Metro Airport, so that at any given moment there’s probably a plane flying overhead, landing or taking off. But inside, Romulus could be any high school, a spidery maze of hallways and classrooms and glass trophy cases and white porcelain water fountains. Bells ring every hour, and the kids scream and their sneakers squeak on the linoleum tile floor, and then the bells ring again and the doors close and it is quiet.
On the last day of his life, Bobby O’Day came here expecting, as usual, to go to class and then wrestling practice. And to have a few laughs with his friends in the hallway, and maybe to put his arm around his girlfriend. He was, by everyone’s account, simply a great kid, a strong kid, a football player and wrestler who had taken high school popularity to the mat and won easily. His handsome face fairly leaps off the yearbook page. He was 18, tall and well-built, on the lip of becoming a college heartthrob. He had hoped to attend Western New Mexico University, because his parents, who own a family printing business, planned to move to New Mexico to open a new shop once he graduated.
“Everybody we asked about the kid had nothing but praise for him,” said Mike Martinez, an assistant coach at Western New Mexico who recruited O’Day.
“His work habits, his attitude — you couldn’t find anything wrong with him.”
O’Day’s coaches had sent reels of film out to Martinez, along with a letter from the student himself stating how much he would like to “contribute to the program” should they offer him a scholarship. Martinez was looking over the film about the time the bell rang at Romulus on the afternoon of Friday, Jan. 31. The last school bell Bobby O’Day would ever hear.
What actually happened that afternoon is sketchy. It will be for some time, because these are children involved here, and in this society we still protect children, even when they take a life.
What is known is enough. It is too much. There was a scuffle the day before between a wrestler and a freshman student in the hallway. Scuffle? Maybe just a bump. One of those mindless, “Who are you bumping?” kind of things that led the non-wrestler to say “I’m gonna get you.” And the next day, around 2:30 in the afternoon, he came back with friends, all bloated with that violent sensation that makes teenagers think they’re important when they act tough. And one of the friends had a knife.
They were looking for the wrestler. An assistant coach, Norman Butler, tried to get rid of them. Just then the wrestler they were looking for came out of the locker room. A fight broke out. A fight? Maybe just poking and jabbing. Butler tried to break it up. It was then that O’Day arrived, saw what was going on, and jumped in to help his teammate.
It wasn’t his fight. He didn’t have get involved. That should matter, shouldn’t it? But it didn’t. O’Day picked the wrong guy, and while the two kids who had started the whole stupid affair were exchanging harmless blows, the wrong guy, according to witnesses, pulled out a six-inch pocketknife and stabbed O’Day, stabbed him once, but once in the chest is enough. The outsiders fled. And O’Day, bleeding and stunned, staggered back into the locker room where his teammates were dressing. And he collapsed. There was screaming. Shock. Within seconds O’Day was stretched out on the concrete floor and someone had a shirt stuffed over the wound and it was soaking up blood fast.
Wrestling coach Wayne Schimming was in the school office when someone screamed “Bob’s been stabbed!” and he sprinted down the corridor and pushed through the doors and saw a crowd around the handsome athlete whom he had often thought of as his own son. Every coach has one kid who has gets a passkey to his heart, and Bobby O’Day was it for Schimming. The two had spent countless hours together. “I hope my own kids turn out like him,” the coach had said. He was sure Bobby would place in the state tournament this year, that he would get a scholarship, and now here he was covered with a bloody shirt and his eyes were closed.
“My first thought was just to get to him,” Schimming said, “to comfort him.” He pauses on the memory and his voice drys up. “I don’t know about, you know, medically, stages of consciousness but . . . he . . . when I got to him, he wasn’t responding to me.”
No goodbys or final words. That is the way it happens in real life.
A caravan of cars followed the ambulance to Westland Medical Center. Schimming stayed with Bobby’s parents and told them over and over “how much I loved him. How much we all loved him.” A doctor called the parents into a room. They asked Schimming in also. He came out after a few minutes and approached a group of his wrestlers in the hospital waiting area. He told them the only way he knew how, which was the simplest way. “He died,” Schimming said.
There is no justice that follows. No satisfaction in a suspect being apprehended. There is only irony, layer after layer, peeled back like the skin of an onion. It began when O’Day was stabbed in a fight that he knew nothing about. And it continued when the family returned home from the hospital that night, still stunned by the news, and not 10 minutes later the phone rang and it was Mike Martinez, the recruiter from Western New Mexico.
“Hello, is Bob there?” Martinez asked.
“This is Bob,” said Mr. O’Day, who shared his son’s name.
“The one who plays football?”
“No,” the father answered softly, “My son is dead. He was killed today.”
Martinez apologized and hung up quickly. He never mentioned that he was calling to offer Bobby a scholarship.
It is one week after it all happened, and Wayne Schimming still wears the look of a shell-shocked man, as if someone had just clubbed him from behind and he is about to buckle at the knees and crumble. His thick neck and torso are stiff, his tie seems to choke him, and his blond hair frames a face that is taut with the fight against tears.
“Right now,” he said Friday morning, when asked how he was feeling, “I’m wondering how I’m going to get through the day.”
School was canceled for two days following the incident. The first was for the teachers to decide how best to handle the grief. The second was for the funeral.
Like most funerals, the service held for Bobby O’Day was a curious blend of sweetness and horror. The question of “Why did this have to happen?” could not be answered. And yet high school athletes from around the state, wrestlers whom O’Day had pinned to the mat, football players he had tackled, fellow teenagers who had envied his abilities, people who knew him and people who had never heard of him until he was a victim, came together to pray and weep for him. Many of the teenagers — children, really, despite the eye shadow and the leather jackets and the grown-up armor they wear — had never faced a life loss before.
Their pain came in every direction and every form. One student carried carnations from the casket with him for several days until a guidance counselor finally told him to “let go.” One wrestler asked to quit the team, despite his excellent record. He had been in the locker room when it happened and has not returned since. The student who provoked the incident is transferring. The wrestler whom he bumped is off the team for now. Butler, the assistant coach who was in the middle when it all happened — and who now must forever fight the demons of “Why didn’t I? . . . Why couldn’t I? . . . ”
— is still too upset to say anything.
There is no sharing the grief of the parents.
O’Day was a slice of all of them, all they had given him and all they wanted to be — one part athlete, one part student, one part leader, one part charmer, one part loving son.
He lived for everything. He died for nothing.
“It was terribly senseless,” said Romulus superintendent of schools Dr. William Bedell, “It was just two young men being macho; unfortunately, Robert O’Day is dead.”
The wrestlers begin to stretch on the purple mats. Though there are 35 to 40 kids on the team, there are only eight here today. It is snowing outside and Schimming says he hopes that’s the reason, but he knows better. These kids are hurting. They are confused. Schimming brought a radio into practice because he felt the music might keep the room from being ghostly silent. But except for the music, it’s pretty quiet anyhow.
Schimming goes downstairs to make a phone call, and walks back through the locker room where it all happened, and it all happens again inside his head.
“It’s in my mind all the time,” he says. He mentions how difficult it was to get the kids to even dress for a practice in that room. How empty the first practice was without Bobby leading the exercises.
“He’s just . . . not there,” said the coach.
In wrestling there are moves called “escapes,” designed to free the wrestler of the grasp of his opponent. Roll your hips out, spin your shoulders, get free. But you can roll Bobby O’Day’s death around into a hundred positions and you can’t escape its senselessness and horror. And you can’t escape the sad fact that in days to come, when these Romulus High School students find themselves face to face with another person’s danger, a voice inside is going to say “Don’t get involved. Remember what happened to Bobby.”
The locker room is quiet and clean now. A water fountain is locked on and there is a small splashing sound that won’t stop. Taped on the window to the coach’s office are several notices about college scholarships, and a plainly typed copy of a poem called “Don’t Quit” a verse common to locker rooms around the country. Part of it reads:
“Life is queer with its twists and turns
As everyone of us sometimes learns . . .
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you mustn’t quit”
Schimming shakes his head. He’s worried about the other wrestlers who aren’t here. It has never happened before, and there’s a big tournament coming up and he’s not sure what to do about it.
“I feel like crying right now, I really do,” he says, and then he turns before the tears can start and heads back to the muscled children who are waiting for him upstairs, no longer as young as they used to be.