Miami-Dade County

Florida State University united in the face of tragedy

Florida State alums Matt Pave, left, of Key West and John McCann, right, toast while having a shot of tequila during their tailgate party before watching the game against Boston College at Florida State University in Tallahassee on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014.
Florida State alums Matt Pave, left, of Key West and John McCann, right, toast while having a shot of tequila during their tailgate party before watching the game against Boston College at Florida State University in Tallahassee on Saturday, Nov. 22, 2014. TAMPA BAY TIMES

Matt Pave showed up at Lot 6 on Saturday like he’s done on every game day since 1995 — five hours before kickoff, as soon as tailgating is allowed outside Doak Campbell Stadium.

He’s never considered canceling his tailgate, not even when he learned that Myron May, a 2005 Florida State alumnus, had opened fire on campus Thursday, wounding two students and a library employee before being killed by police. In fact, Pave considered it even more important that the tailgate go on.

“This will be five hours where everyone will come together,” he said. “Football will be an escape.”

He brushed his long blond hair out of his face, and took a swig from his plastic beer mug. “Some idiot isn’t going to stop the Seminole nation,” he said.

Saturday’s game against Boston College took on special significance for members of the Florida State community. Many remained shaken by the shooting, and concerned about 21-year-old Farhan Ahmed, who was in critical condition at Tallahassee Memorial Hospital.

Florida State President John Thrasher told the Herald/Times he visited Ahmed Friday. (Nathan Scott, one of the two other victims, was released from the hospital, authorities said Friday. Elijah Velez was treated at the scene.) Thrasher said Ahmed asked him why this happened. Thrasher had no answers. He wouldn’t comment about Ahmed’s condition.

“It’s tough,” Thrasher said. “He’s a nice young man. The FSU family is going to do everything it can for him.”

Already ragged emotions took another jolt Saturday morning with the news that a Leon County Sheriff’s deputy had been killed in an apparent ambush in a residential neighborhood about five miles from campus. The gunman shot a second deputy before he was killed.

“I can’t believe this is happening again,” said Micah Brienen, a 36-year-old FSU graduate from Jacksonville. “It doesn’t seem to end.”

But students, alumni and boosters were resolved to come together in the face of tragedy — and return to their treasured Saturday rituals. They craved the comfort of the war chant, the familiar lyrics of the Alma mater.

“The game definitely takes our mind off it,” said John McDaniel, an 18-year-old freshman from Oviedo.

Thrasher, himself an FSU alumnus, made it a point to personally shake hands with attendees before the game.

“We appreciate how you’ve handled this,” one woman said, clasping Thrasher’s hand.

“Life gives you a lot of strange twists,” Thrasher said before heading into the stadium. “But there’s a spirit with FSU. People care, and they’re coming together.”

There were fewer tailgates than usual on Saturday, perhaps because of steady rain. It wasn’t expected to be a particularly good game, either. Florida State, the undefeated defending national champion, was favored heavily over Boston College.

“Some of these guys were on the fence about coming to this game,” Brienen said. “But after Thursday, they all decided to come. This is home. This is family. Everyone feels a little bit more united after something like this.”

Pave, a 1989 graduate, traveled to town from Key West, where he manages a high-end resort. His tailgate is a six-tent affair, with a full bar and spread from Moe’s Southwest Grill. (The owner of a Tallahassee franchise is a core member of the group.) There’s a flat screen TV to watch other games, and seating for the older fans. Sometimes, there’s live music.

Their corner of the parking lot — a shaded plot of land at the foot of the stadium — costs them an annual $12,000 donation to the athletics program. The tailgate dates back to 1997, when Pave and FSU fraternity brother John McCann merged their separate tailgates into one. The core group includes some 40 people, many of whom are Sig Ep brothers and their spouses.

Larry Buck, 76, is another regular. He and his wife Ingrid, a 1965 FSU graduate, first attended at the invitation of their son Chip, one of the fraternity brothers. They kept coming after Chip died of colon cancer at age 28.

“In a lot of ways, it’s been therapeutic,” Buck said.

In some ways, Saturday was a normal game day. The country music was loud, the drink pours generous. When the rain eased up, small children emerged from the tents to throw footballs.

In other ways, it was different.

When the tents and the liquor were set up around 11 a.m. Saturday, the group gathered around the TV to watch a web video produced in response to the shooting. Some of them teared up at footage of a candlelight vigil held on campus Thursday.

“It’s been a difficult semester,” McCann said, noting that recent media reports had questioned whether FSU athletes receive preferential treatment. “We feel we’ve been treated unfairly in the national media. But we rallied around that disrespect, and this tragedy has furthered us coming together.”

The shooting came up in quiet moments.

But all were glad they came.

“It’s like when our son died,” Buck said. “You can pull in your shell and not do anything, or you can do something. Being here today shows that we are united. We are part of this family.”

Later, he and 82,500 other fans stood in the rain to watch the game.

The players wore ribbon decals on their helmets. Actor Burt Reynolds, a former FSU football player, planted a ceremonial spear in the field to start the game.

Thrasher gave a brief video message on the stadium’s two jumbo scoreboards.

“This tragedy has touched all of us in the FSU community, and our hearts especially hurt for the hundreds of students who were at Strozier Library when this senseless incident took place,” he said. “They will need our support as we heal. We should be proud of our Florida State University and Tallahassee police departments and all of our first responders.”

The rain-soaked crowd erupted into applause.

But the game gave the fans plenty of reason for more anxiety when the predicted blow-out didn’t materialize. The game was tied into the final minute when FSU kicked a 26-yard field goal to win.

“This helps morale,” said McDaniel, the freshman. “It doesn’t bury what happened, but it gives everyone something fun to talk about.”