The Bearcats are still dealing with the death of teammate Ben Flick but rallying together as they hope the first game back this weekend against South Florida can help everyone start to move on.
CINCINNATI -- The scene inside a college football locker room - specifically the Cincinnati Bearcats football locker room - teeters more toward Animal House than workplace.
A collection of 100-plus teenagers and 20-somethings turn daily duty into a festival of fun. Jokes and games, shouting and posturing, never a dull moment when the doors on the second floor of the Linder Center fly open.
That is, until a week and a half ago. One day after the news broke freshman offensive lineman Ben Flick lost his life in a car accident, the players returned to the locker room that Sunday.
"I will always remember that," senior lineman Austen Bujnoch said. "It was the most eerie thing."
Walking through the doors and toward his locker, Bujnoch and his teammates went through the normal routine.
Dress, lift, practice, shower.
Only, nobody spoke. Silence. Grief replaced gags. Shock replaced shouts.
"It was the first time we've ever heard that locker room completely silent," Brendon Kay said. "It was a weird feeling."
Unsure how to act or what to say, this group of optimistic young kids were forced to grow up in an instant and, thankfully for them, do so together.
"That was the closest death I've ever had, so it was kind of hard to deal with," Bujnoch said. "We never forget, but we have to move on."
They do so in gameplanning for South Florida. Conference season stands in clear focus on the horizon. Assessing how to slow an athletic defensive line and spark an offense stagnant two weeks ago against Miami fills a portion of the space previously held by sadness for a fallen teammate.
On the field, the game will be changing for the Bearcats. Tommy Tuberville plans alterations to a roster he spent the non-conference season evaluating. Learning season ended in Oxford. The rotations are trimmed and those who haven't produced will spend time watching from the sidelines with every conference victory a valuable commodity and stepping stone toward the BCS goal.
With life and the season moving on, there's no time for the Bearcats to wallow. Tuberville spent much time lately in the Intensive Care Unit and around hospitals. He quickly found out choosing coaching was a blessing for him because handling the daily view around those rooms requires a special type of person. Along the way, he's learned about helping kids deal with death while holding on to another, as Mark Barr is still in critical condition from the accident.
The key, Tuberville gathered, involves returning to typical. Hopping on a plane and strapping on the road jersey again will help tremendously.
"I think getting back playing and competing will help," Tuberville said. "It's a different situation than I've ever been in; I have not known how to handle it. There is no right or wrong way, it's just that you hear the old adage, time heals all. So we'll just have to keep working at it and try to keep them as focused as we can, and remind them that this is a more serious situation than just a football game, what's going on over at that hospital."
Flick's locker will always be there and the No. 77 decal will always grace the Bearcats helmet during a season they've dedicated to him.
Yet, with each play, each plan, each practice, the pendulum swings closer to normalcy, though it may never truly return to the middle.
Each time the locker room door swings open, the decibel level rises a little more.
"That's the best coming in seeing your brothers every day, crack some jokes, get back in the swing of things," Bujnoch said. "Seeing Ben's locker always will affect me but he'd want us to have fun, he'd want us to go out there and win. He wouldn't want us worrying about him - so (winning and having fun) is what we are going to do."
I want to hear from you! Send me your comments, suggestions or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or hit me up on Twitter @pauldehnerjr.