Silcox | Remembering Owen Thomas
May 10, 2012, 7:41 pm · Updated May 11, 2012, 11:49 am·
April 26, 2012: “@Andrew_Samson: OT #40”
A few weeks ago, this tweet from Penn football’s standout kicker and 2011 graduate Andrew Samson hit me like a train.
Samson was offering a simple remembrance for his former teammate, classmate and friend Owen Thomas, #40 for the Quakers, who died two years ago after hanging himself in his off-campus apartment.
I never knew Owen. By all accounts, he was an inspiring player and person, someone I wish I had gotten to know during my time in the Penn Athletics community. But in the days, weeks and months that followed his untimely death, OT would grow to become one of the most important parts of my college education.
The Daily Pennsylvanian has covered its share of tragedies in the last four years. In the sports pages, I never expected to be thrown into one.
On that April day, I was on the periphery. When these things happen there’s always these awful closed-door meetings in the newsroom as we discuss how best to proceed. The short answer is that there is no best way. The news department handled the story at first, supported by senior sportswriters who knew the team.
Summer couldn’t come soon enough for a community that lost both Owen and legendary football coach Dan “Lake” Staffieri within three weeks.
There was no chance this team would forget about #40. The day I returned to campus in August was football media day. The captains carried his navy blue jersey from picture to picture. The season was about Owen. Little did I know, my year would soon be about Owen as well.
Three days before the first game of the season, I received a call from Alan Schwarz, a DP Sports alum who I did some work for at The New York Times. Schwarz had become the driving force behind the issue of head trauma in football.
He was publishing a story that researchers had diagnosed Owen with Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, a neurodegenerative disease found in several other professional football players. Owen was the youngest player at the time to have been found with the disease.
We were dropped into one of the biggest issues in sports that year. As editors we realized we would be remiss to let this issue go. As Penn students, it would be even worse to not give a voice to Owen’s story.
I came to The DP freshman year looking to be a science writer. After three semesters, I inexplicably and fortuitously ended up an editor in the sports department. Ironically, it would be on the back page where I would finally do the science writing I had always wanted.
Over the following year the sports department pursued the issue of head trauma in sports. What struck me, as I reported on the topic, was the graciousness with which everyone spoke to me. Whether it was Owen’s mother, medical researchers, his friends and coaches, they all wanted to help. There are countless ways to react to tragedy. In Owen’s case, it was all positive.
On the first anniversary of his death, I wrote about the strides the Penn community had made in the previous year in coping with his passing. Two years later, April 26 came and went with a tweet.
Let’s not forget OT #40, whether we knew him or not.
CALDER SILCOX is a former Senior Sports Editor of The Daily Pennsylvanian and a 2012 College graduate from Washington, D.C. After graduation he plans to move to San Francisco, where he will curate a blog of artsy sandwich pictures at instagramwiches.tumblr.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.