Over the decades, Kay Crist has watched generations of Freeman student athletes grow up from behind the viewfinder of her camera.
Since 1974, back when her oldest daughter attended the small rural school south of Spokane, Crist has photographed Freeman High School athletics.
On Friday, she did again, as the Freeman Scotties faced off against the Medical Lake Cardinals.
And, in many ways, Friday’s game was no different from hundreds before it. Crist sat on a small stool on the side of the field. The crowd cheered. The rolling hills of the Palouse spread out in all directions – the epitome of small town Americana.
Yet signs of tragedy lurked behind every smile. Teary eyes. Long hugs with whispered encouragement. “Freeman Strong” stickers on every breast. News trucks lined up on the road above.
“There is sadness in any community,” Crist said. “You just don’t like it to be deliberate.”
Two days prior, the small school was rocked by violence when a sophomore shot and killed one student and injured three others. Since then, the small, tight-knit rural community has struggled to process the terror and confusion of the week.
On Friday, they came together on the sidelines of a football game.
“Tonight has nothing to do with athletics,” said Freeman Superintendent Randy Russell. “Nothing to do with athletics.”
Instead it was all about community, grieving and rebuilding.
The decision to play the game was a “no-brainer,” Russell said as the teams warmed up.
On Thursday, football coach Jim Wood met with Russell and the high school administration to discuss whether to play the game. That night, Russell took up the issue with student body leaders and received an overwhelming response:
“The students told me two things: It will help the students, and it will help the community,” Russell said as two young girls rushed up to give him a hug.
“I can’t wait to see you Monday,” Russell told them.
That was another reason to play: to get through the weekend with a sense of togetherness. Football is just one thread of the strands of community, but the threads ran thick before kickoff.
And there was reason to celebrate as well. One of the injured teenage girls was released from the hospital Thursday, and the other two were listed in satisfactory condition at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center, according to the hospital.
In a statement released Thursday,the families thanked the community, hospital staff and first responders for their support.
“In this, our darkest hour, we feel blessed and lucky in so many ways. Our daughters are recovering from their wounds, and we know that your thoughts and prayers are with us,” the statement said. “Our hearts are breaking for another family in our community who lost their son. We are keeping Sam (Strahan)’s family in our thoughts and prayers.”
As they were introduced, the Freeman players locked arms and walked to midfield. When the players turned around and greeted the crowd, two cheerleaders teared up.
The most poignant moment came just before kickoff, as players from both teams held hands and formed a circle around the American flag.
On the sidelines, a few Freeman players appeared self-conscious at all the attention. This was no ordinary game: Even the officials wore ribbons of Freeman blue on their caps.
Somehow, the Scotties regained their focus and led 14-0 after one quarter.
“They’re winning,” Brenda Hoyer said while watching from the sidelines. “This is good for our boys.”
Hoyer can see the stadium lights from her home – a home she raised four children in, all of whom graduated from Freeman.
“This is a grieving process for everyone,” she said. “We are going to win this with love.”
It was 28-0 at halftime. That’s when the students – nearly all of them – affirmed the decision to play this game by forming a human tunnel as the players returned from the locker room.
Urged on by the public address announcer, cheerleaders and fans from Medical Lake joined the tunnel, and soon players from both teams ran through.
After the game, hundreds of students rushed the field to greet their Scotties. Most of the fans stayed to the end, despite the chilly weather and the 49-0 final score.
“It’s hard,” Wood said. “Like I told the players, life doesn’t stop as much as we think it might, and they’re going to continue to grow from it and live life to the fullest.
“I was really proud of their heart and their focus,” Wood said.
Questions remain. Questions of motive. Questions of culpability. Questions the community will have to ask. And answer.
But, on Friday night under the Palouse sky, those questions were tabled and a community started to heal.
“It will be nice to get back to routine, normal things,” Crist said from the sidelines of another Friday football game.
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