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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho football coach Jason Eck offers space for players to grieve on-campus deaths

Flowers and a stuffed animal rest next to a University of Idaho sign on Monday on Pullman Road in Moscow.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Peter Harriman For The Spokesman-Review

On Monday evenings, the University of Idaho football team typically has a meeting focused on events larger than football as coaches seek to get players to bond as teammates and to gain perspective on what they do as student-athletes relative to the larger world.

“We talk about things nonfootball related,” said Idaho coach Jason Eck Monday afternoon. “This will be an important one.”

The football team is one of the most public faces of the university. But as they prepare for their final regular -season game against Idaho State University on Saturday – a game which could have significant bearing on whether they get into the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs – the Vandals are dealing with a matter as large and dark as anything most 18- to 22-year-old young adults have confronted, the deaths of four UI students Sunday in a house near campus: Ethan Chapin, 20, of Conway, Washington; Madison Mogen, 21, of Coeur d’Alene; Xana Kernodle, 20, of Avondale, Arizona; and Kaylee Goncalves, 21, of Rathdrum. Law enforcement has said they are investigating the deaths as homicides.

“We will be operating with heavy hearts this week,” Eck said.

At the evening meeting, Eck said the team would “spend a lot of time talking about that, dealing with the loss of someone close, someone young …”

“It has been a tough week. Our heartfelt condolences and sympathies to everyone affected by this on campus,” Eck said at his regularly scheduled news conference Monday.

In any other week, he would use the time at the news conference to answer questions about the previous week’s game and to look forward to the next one. As usual, he did that, referencing Idaho’s disappointing loss to the University of California Davis in the Kibbie Dome on senior day last Saturday and looking ahead to the game Saturday in Pocatello.

But looming over all of it were the deaths, as well as the news of the shooting deaths of three University of Virginia football players late Sunday.

“It has been a tough day throughout college football,” Eck said. “Our thoughts go out to the University of Virginia.”

Members of the Idaho team were friends with the dead UI students.

“Others were rattled by this happening in their community,” said Eck, and some team members come from communities where such violence is more frequent and they are more inured to it.

“There are different levels of how guys deal with it,” Eck said. “We have to accommodate individuals, especially those who are distraught by it.

“We have to be sympathetic … have to understand that guys’ focus is not going to be as sharp, because they have a lot of things on their mind.

“Football players are supposed to be tough and not show emotion. That is not the best thing for mental health. It’s OK to have feelings about this, be distraught about it, not block it out because of football.”

Eck has been through this once before at Idaho. In 2004, he was an assistant coach when a freshman cornerback, Eric McMillan, was shot and killed by two Seattle men who erroneously thought McMillan was a participant in a fight involving one of their relatives.

“That was very hard,” Eck said.

As they prepare to represent the UI in a game Saturday that could determine whether their season ends or whether they have a chance to advance to the playoffs, the Vandals will try to balance what should be one of the most consequential weeks of their year against tragedy that calls into question the importance of such football-related goals.

“I think our team is a resilient bunch,” Eck said. “But that is going to be tested this week.”