They unfurled a banner made of two white sheets and placed it near the 20-yard line. It read FREAKS SAY GO GOLDEN FLASHES. At the moment Kent State was going nowhere in its season opener, trailing Mid-American Conference opponent Ohio University 14-0 at half-time. The group, those self-proclaimed freaks, had intended to spend the afternoon playfully mocking the game. After all, how could the scene—Band Day, a comic-strip-inspired mascot named Grog, cheerleaders and football players—remain relevant on the campus where less than five months ago a student-National Guard confrontation left four dead and nine wounded.
But in spite of themselves the freaks became caught up in the game. A 47-yard punt return, two second-half touchdown drives and suddenly they were involved. One member stood and began imitating the arm movements of a cheerleader, his blond hair falling across his shirt collar as he performed the exaggerated gestures. A coed seated directly behind him watched and became angry. "Stop it!" she told him. "Didn't you know that Abbie Hoffman was once a cheerleader?" The dissident looked back at the sorority girl, and both of them burst into delighted laughter. The Kent State rally fell short, Ohio winning 24-14, but for a moment, down near the 20-yard line, the horrible memory of May 4 was forgotten, and the school had pulled itself together again.
The day before the game the Kent State coach, Dave Puddington, was eating a steak in a restaurant just off campus. His hair was cut military length, a habit retained from four years as a Navy fighter pilot in Korea, where he won two Air Medals. Puddington is a man who describes himself as "what you'd call a square"—a nondrinking, nonsmoking, nonswearing member of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. "He is Mr. Naive Unbelievable," says Sports Information Director Paul Schlemmer. "He honestly believes in God, mother and apple pie. He's refreshing. There's no cynicism in him at all."
The afternoon of May 4 is still very vivid to Puddington. His office is located in Memorial Gymnasium, the building where the Guardsmen were billeted. "I was shocked," he said. "It wasn't until sometime the next month that I snapped out of it."
The campus tragedy forced Puddington and his staff of assistants to work furiously to save the school's football program. Ironically, the national letter of intent had been mailed to prospects the morning of the tragedy. The staff called the homes of all 24 boys, speaking first to the parents and then to the athletes. After two days they managed to convince the entire list to enroll at Kent State despite what had happened.
Puddington was also faced with an eligibility problem. When Kent State was closed by a Portage County injunction just four hours after the shooting, it became a correspondence school. "We had 75 players with incomplete records," Puddington said. "They had to mail in their finals, and a lot of the exams spent the summer unopened on professors' desks. We had a tough time presenting our eligibility list to the MAC by the end of July." As it was, his starting tailback and center became eligible only five days before the game.
The closing of school cost the university $1.5 million, much of it spent in refunding student room-and-board money. Every activity on the campus was affected. Puddington canceled plans for a season-ticket promotion called Flash Fever, aimed at filling the new seats at Memorial Stadium with at least 10,000 new fans. (There were 14,500 at the game Saturday, an average crowd.) Travel expenses were cut—buses, not planes, to away games this year. The football brochure was printed on just 40 pages and contained one photograph—a black-and-white cover picture of the team's star, Fullback Don Nottingham.
As fall practice began the Kent players were issued temporary identification cards to show to security officers guarding the campus. And, as the Ohio U. game approached, Puddington saw patrol cars driving around the field late at night.
"Our football team was the first student group back on campus this fall," Puddington said as he finished his dinner, "and tomorrow's game starts the regular school year. There is terrific division, not only among students but between the city of Kent and the university as well. We feel that football can help bring these people together."
His athletes share their coach's belief. Perhaps Phil Witherspoon, a running back from Altoona, Pa., sums up the team's hopes better than anyone. "We're together," he says. "The people around here will never forget that day. But we feel that we can try to steer them away from it. If we can win maybe some townspeople will watch us and some students also. Maybe we can help get them thinking straight again."