Livingstone-Catawba: 'It's a football game'

By Steve Hanf, The Salisbury Post In the hard-hitting world of football -- and life -- the laughter provided a refreshing sound. The three men joked and swapped stories over their plates of food just like anyone else meeting for lunch at the Western Steer. But they weren't your average Joes. Not this week, and not after this year.No, seemingly nothing has been the same between Catawba and Livingstone since the night of Jan. 25 -- the night Darris Morris died. The Catawba senior linebacker was shot during an altercation on the Catawba campus, and six Livingstone students were charged in connection with his death. As news of the shooting spread, the reported level of conflict and animosity between the two schools grew. The truth, of course, was that the students from both schools were equally stunned by the event that ended one life and irrevocably changed countless others. First off, I think a mistake a lot of people make is thinking what happened was a Catawba vs. Livingstone or Livingstone vs. Catawba thing, and it's not, Indians head coach Chip Hester said. It's individuals who made bad choices. The mood now serious, the laughter had lapsed into quiet respectfulness for Tuesday's news conference about Saturday's football game between Catawba and Livingstone. When it was over, the three men shared a few more jokes and stories, then headed their separate ways. But not before the trio -- Indians Cedric Squirewell and Robert Scott and Blue Bear Jason Ocean -- shared their point. It's a football game. This isn't a grudge match or anything, Squirewell said. We're after the same thing they're after -- a win. That other stuff's in the past and we're going to let it stay in the past. *** Saturday's meeting was supposed to be about Livingstone trying to change the past. Catawba, at the top of its game, dished out brutal 49-0 and 55-0 wins over the rebuilding Bears in the past two season-openers. It's not hard to see how hard feelings could come out of scores like that. Especially in jam-packed games between cross-town rivals. But with the backdrop of January's tragedy still fresh in people's minds, this game becomes about more than mere bragging rights. Ocean, who knew Morris well from high school all-star games in South Carolina, hears it on the Livingstone campus. I believe both fans, Livingstone and Catawba: I think they feel a little tension, Ocean said. Some people, added Catawba's Scott, say, 'You really need to beat them.' We want to beat them, but not for that reason. It's one bad situation that could've happened anywhere, the Indians' defensive lineman added. We tell them it's just a game, two teams out there having fun, being competitive. *** It doesn't take long to learn where those words of wisdom from college students start. Both Hester and Blue Bears head coach George Johnson find themselves in their first year leading each program. Both face the daunting challenges on and off the field that go with the job, perhaps more than ever this week. Our guys have gone through a lot with losing a teammate, said Hester, who also faced the as-yet unsolved shooting deaths of two walk-ons to the Tribe program last spring. We've talked about it. We're not making anything that happened a cheap motivational ploy. Yes, we'll remember those guys that passed away, but that's not what this ballgame's about at all. Johnson, who said he went through a similar situation at Tuskegee when one of his players was killed, agreed. Even after the tragedy, our kids still were talking with the players at Catawba, Johnson said. The kids have respect for each other, they know each side has some talent. They're going to fight to the end on the field, but that's where they're going to leave it. That's why officials from the two schools are planning a gathering between the teams after the game. We want to let people know that Catawba and Livingstone College are not against one another, Johnson said. We're for each other, and I've enjoyed being with Chip, he's enjoyed being with me, and we're going to make sure that our teams know the two head coaches mean business when it comes to doing it on the field, and when you're off, that's it. *** Squirewell and Ocean saw plenty of each other over the summer, working not far from one another and hanging out with Catawba receiver O.J. Lennon. They never set out to talk about Morris, and didn't mention him often to each other. But he's someone they'll never forget. We've put it behind us, but a situation always arises where it comes up in conversation, Squirewell said. We'll bring up what D-Morris said one time, or how crazy he was. He's got things that you just can't forget. Morris' death also stunned Squirewell into action. People became closer. You started to get to know everybody, he said. This year I'm getting to know all the freshmen, all the students at school, be nice and help our anybody I can, because you never know ... . That dangling sentiment has been hanging over Saturday's game since January. You never know how athletes, in the heat of the moment, are going to react to one another. You never know how fans and students will perceive the opposition. But Hester and Johnson have a pretty good grasp of how they think things will go. We've always had long-standing friendships there between the two teams. I don't feel any animosity between players at all, Hester said. Coach Johnson and I have talked this summer about how we want it to be a positive thing, something that our two football teams can help this community see the two colleges, that there's nothing negative there. That's already been proven over lunch. Play ball, and pass the mashed potatoes. #####

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