In February 2012 a beloved football assistant faced down a killer in the midst of a school shooting. His courage that day saved lives and earned him the undying gratitude of his community. But while he and the town were changed forever, the culture of gun violence was not. Do you remember Chardon, Ohio?
STOP ME, PLEASE, if you’ve heard this one before.
It’s the story about the kid who pulls out a semiautomatic weapon in school and starts blowing away the students sitting near him, only this kid has a 6’1″, 350-pound football coach—a former all-state tackle and the sixth-best heavyweight wrestler in Ohio in 1992—standing 25 yards away.
Stop me, please, for it was all over the news for, well, at least 24 hours, one of those stories that sticks to the walls of everyone’s heart, unless….
Stop me, for it was only last year that it occurred, in a little town named Chardon, about 30 miles east of Cleveland….
Stop me, now, because otherwise that means you too have already forgotten, and God knows how many more coaches and teachers and principals will have to make the terrible decision that Frank Hall made that winter day at 7:37 a.m…. and God knows how few will make it.
HE PULLED INTO the school parking lot at 6:15 that Monday morning—Feb. 27, 2012—and hoisted himself out of the little red Chevy Aveo that left all the players and coaches at Chardon High racked by a riddle of physics: So … does someone pour you into it through a sunroof, Coach?
He lowered himself into his seat at the front of the cafeteria, where he spent each day monitoring study halls and lunch until football practice or weight workouts began.
“Something wrong?” wondered the head football coach, Mitch Hewitt, puzzled to see his 38-year-old offensive coordinator’s big baby face and crew cut that early.
“Nope,” said Frank, “just …”
… living the dream, Mitch and the entire football team could’ve chorused, they’d heard Frank say it so many times. Just showing up 45 minutes early to develop another play for Chardon’s spread wing-T offense, diagramming a deep play-action pass that would make an opposing safety regret following Chardon’s slot receiver in motion.
The cafeteria began filling at 7:05—70 students filing in for first-period study hall, 30 from Mr. Armelli’s health class who came for the morning announcements because their classroom trailer outside had no TV monitor, and two dozen more awaiting a bus that would shuttle them to alternative schools nearby.
Odd, visitors would remark, how calm that cafeteria always was in spite of all the bodies and bustling. Odd only if you’d never heard your name explode from the bottom of Coach Hall’s barrel chest and resound through the entire school … or never spent even a few seconds in his presence—all it took to sense that the heart inside that barrel deserved only your best. Teachers who wanted a moment with Frank always had to thread through a knot of kids who would pull their chairs around his desk to laugh or chat or open their hearts to him, or to eat the food he’d stash away for those who missed breakfast or lunch. His code, in two sentences, was this: Every kid there is someone’s pride and joy, or wants to be someone’s pride and joy, and it’s my responsibility to be that someone for him. I keep thinking, How would I want my kid to be treated?—and then I treat ’em that way.
His eyes swept the room, his pen checking off the study-hall attendance list as morning announcements ended. The three football players always at his elbow at 7:37—fullback John Connick, who used Frank’s file drawers as his personal locker, and the Izar twins, defensive end Tom and linebacker Quinn—were all missing that day, John off taking a test and the Izars, thank God, late for school. Besides the cafeteria staff, Frank was now the only adult in the room.
Two loud pops jerked his head to the right. His hearing had always been bad. Firecrackers, he thought. Then came another pop and another as he rose and took in the whirl of one boy slumped over a table, two others crumpled on the floor, two staggering away with bullet wounds, and a mad scramble of screaming children everywhere in the room.
Here it was, the question lodged in the recesses of all the educators’ brains in America, the one that their minds race to and away from without ever resolving, the one to which the rest of us seem to have unconsciously agreed to condemn them all: What will I do if a kid in my school pulls out a gun and starts shooting?
Here’s what Frank never could’ve guessed, all the years his mind had darted to and from that question: His anger trumped everything; it trampled thought and even fear. It sent his legs barging right through his brown table and straight at the gunman, sent his hand flying up, sent his voice booming, “Stop! Stop!”
Halfway there, the distance between them down to a dozen yards, Frank halted. Kids were diving under tables, bolting toward the kitchen and the faculty lounge, reeling into the hallway. The gunman had a knife in his free hand.
He turned and trained his Ruger .22-caliber semiautomatic pistol on the charging coach, and it finally dawned on Frank: One finger twitch and he was dead.
Their eyes met. The gunman’s eyes, it struck Frank, were already dead.
Gripping that .22 was a frail 17-year-old named T.J. Lane, whom Frank recognized immediately but didn’t know as well as the children who were fleeing, cringing, shrieking. T.J. was a dark-haired sophomore to whom Frank had said, “Hey, how’s it going?” a number of times but from whom he had never gotten much back, a quiet boy who’d attended Chardon High as a freshman but came there now only to wait for a bus that took him to Lake Academy, a school for kids who struggled in traditional learning settings. A boy from a troubled home who didn’t get into arguments or fights but who’d grown isolated from his middle-school friends over the past few years, sitting alone more and more in the cafeteria, and who’d posted a torrent of rambling, rhyming prose on Facebook just two months earlier:
In a quaint lonely town, sits a man with a frown. No job. No family. No crown. His luck had run out. Lost and alone. The streets were his home. His thoughts would solely consist of “Why do we exist?” His only company to confide in was the vermin in the street. He longed for only one thing, the world to bow at his feet. They too should feel his secret fear…. So, to the castle he proceeds, like an ominous breeze through the trees. “Stay back!” The Guards screamed as they were thrown to their knees. “Oh God, have mercy, please!”
Frank ducked behind a soda machine and heard a shot. The bullet, meant for him, whistled by and struck Joy Rickers, a senior, in the buttocks. Frank peered around the edge of the soda machine to see where the gunman was heading. The big coach’s charge seemed to have unnerved him: T.J. had turned and headed into the wide hallway outside the cafeteria, Character Court, according to one of the green overhead signs that named Chardon’s hallways as if they were streets.
Jen Sprinzl, the principal’s 51-year-old secretary, rushing out of the office to see what the bangs were, froze beside the sports trophy case. She was staring point-blank at the .22 and the knife.
Frank’s heart raced, his neck throbbed. Now he faced a second choice: Do as he’d been trained to do in a lockdown drill that the school had conducted two years earlier, with a policeman pretending to be a live shooter—herd the kids into the kitchen and the faculty lounge and shove the largest thing he could find against the door—or….
At home he had four adopted sons: two African-American, two biracial. Another step toward the gunman could make all of them fatherless … again.
“Get out!” cried Jen, collapsing to the floor beneath the gun.
Maybe it’s not a decision. Maybe, in the end, it rests on the floorboards and beams already laid in a man’s life.
“No!” bellowed Frank from 25 feet away. The kid turned the .22 on him again. Frank charged at him a second time.
HE SHOULDN’T have been there that day. His principal, Andy Fetchik, had been urging him to do those 3½ months of student teaching, all he needed to be promoted out of cafeteria duty and into the classroom … but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. If he became a teacher, he might have to fail a kid one day, a kid just like himself. If he became a teacher, he might get to know only 150 teenagers a year instead of the whole student body, 1,100 kids.
He shouldn’t have been there that day. Edgewood, the high school a half hour’s drive away where he’d been an assistant coach for five years, had indicated four years earlier that the head coaching job was his, only to hand it to a man in his 70s, sending Frank on the job search that landed him at Chardon.
He shouldn’t have been there that day. His dream, ever since he was a kid, had been to coach at his alma mater, Harbor High, in his hometown, Ashtabula, 35 miles away. His dream had been to buy one of the modest wood houses that lined Harbor’s ancient Wenner Field, just a few blocks from the shore of Lake Erie, where the 50-year-old shift workers who’d sipped beer and watched him play from their front porches in the early 1990s could watch him now in their white-hair years as he led his Mariners charging out of their locker room and the band blared “Anchors Aweigh” and boys tapped that massive purple-and-gold anchor for luck and the 10-deep crowd ringing the end zone parted for the team’s entry and the cinder-track dust and the brat smoke plumed beneath the lights on a fall Friday night. His dream had been to coach there for four decades and have his ashes spread over the 50-yard stripe, perhaps coaxing up some grass so that midfield bald spot wouldn’t keep turning into the quagmire that once sucked a shoe right off his brother, John. But then heavy industry disintegrated, the Steel Belt rusted, Ashtabula went to hell, Harbor High closed, and Frank, eyes welling up, lifted his four-year-old son over the mesh fence to get him a brick from its ruins.
Still wearing his high school flattop, he went looking for something that tasted and smelled at least a little like his dream, someplace where God and family and high school football were bedrock … and ended up as the crackerjack offensive coordinator and the widest, cuddliest creature at this small-town high school, Chardon, where a secretary and some of the kids called him Mr. Tickle. The rarest kind of football coach, an unshielded one. The kind who bawled his way through the movie Rudy, who made fun of his helplessness in front of a second heaping of chicken and dumplings and a second six-pack of soda, who self-reported when two motion-sensitive urinals flushed as he stepped away, laughing at himself louder than anybody else. No one who ever called him that nickname dreamed that everyone would end up trembling and hiding with everything riding on a diabetic named Mr. Tickle.
THE CHARGE on the terrorists in the cockpit of United flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001 was thought to have been led by four athletes: a rugby player, a judo champ, a quarterback, a shortstop. Men, like Frank, who’d spent years training to respond physically under pressure. “Sports,” said Tim Armelli—the Chardon phys-ed and health teacher who, at this very moment 11 years later, was shouting, Lockdown! Lockdown! into the P.A. microphone—”is all about attacking and defending.”
In a flash, Frank had determined that attack was the best defense, the only way to be who Frank Ray Hall always had been: the protector. The one who’d taken the steering wheel, collected the car keys and even the bail money when his friends back in high school got carried away, the only one who could cool the boiling blood of Ray Enricco, his buddy since kindergarten and his linemate in middle school, high school and college. The offensive tackle who vowed that he’d step in front of a bus to protect his quarterback, the one who’d grunted “Run it behind me” when the game hung in the balance. He honeymooned in New Orleans because … well, someone had to clean up after Katrina.
It’s true, he was caught off-guard just two months after his wedding when his bride, a social worker named Ashley, proposed adopting a biracial three-year-old named Christian, who’d already bounced in and out of a half-dozen homes, but in the end Frank couldn’t bear the thought of a child going through life without a protector, so he said yes … and yes again three years later to the biracial 13-year-old named Quincy on six medications for attention and learning problems, and yes again two years later to the four-year-old African-American twins, Mark and Shawn, the latter afflicted with tubular sclerosis: nonmalignant tumors on the heart.
None of which surprised Frank’s mom, Mary, who’d grown up as Jerry West’s next-door neighbor in Cabin Creek, W.Va. After all, her father—Frank Ray Farmer, the givingest man on earth—had died of black lung disease exactly nine months and four days before his namesake was born, and that little boy had grown up hearing his mom say that if she believed in such a thing, she’d know that the first Frank Ray had just body-swapped his way into the next one. Same huge heart, same fast-twitch compassion: Frank, who considered it his lifelong task to do what Grandpa would’ve done, dreamed of buying a house one day and giving it away to someone who really needed it.
For years young Frank’s dad and uncles had tried to place a hunting gun in his beefy hands—surely, with bloodlines that flowed from the Appalachians of West Virginia and Kentucky, shooting would come to him as naturally as crawling and walking had. But no, he’d bounce bullets two feet short on a target range, talk twice too loud on the trail and always end up volunteering to cook and play penny-ante poker all day while most of his male kin bundled off at dawn to bag dinner. “Just not a hunter,” his father, Feryl, would grouse. A protector.
Frank loathed confrontation, begged for truce in every squabble. He recoiled from roller coasters, hated heights, feared fright movies—he’d slip out of his easy chair when they came on, nestle up against Ashley on the couch, and jump through the ceiling when his eldest son, Quincy, sneaked up and yelped in the midst of one.
T.J. LANE wheeled and began running down Respect Road, a long hallway where a half-dozen teenagers fled in front of him. Here was Frank’s third choice, if choice it were: Quit playing Russian roulette, stop running straight at a twitching .22 and go back to those three kids lying in pools of blood in the cafeteria, all so easily justifiable….
No. There were classrooms full of kids all along that hallway, and if that semiautomatic got into one….
Frank took off in pursuit and bellowed, “Stop!” Then everything fell silent, the 350-pound coach and the gunman in a tunnel, in a footrace down a 60-yard hallway lined with brown lockers and the most renowned athletes and alumni in the school’s history staring down at them from framed photos. The teenager with a 25-foot head start, the coach with no ligaments left in his right ankle from years of football injuries.
The kid, it would come out later, suffered from depression and migraines and sometimes heard voices that came out of nowhere, a quiet psychosis that had not set off alarms. The kind of kid to whom Frank’s heart naturally went out, its own wounds still fresh from the stutter that strangled him in school, the learning disability that made him tear a page of fourth-grade spelling words out of his textbook in despair, that compelled his high school guidance counselor to reply—when Frank asked about taking a foreign language—”Let’s concentrate on the foreign language you’re taking now, Frank.” Which one? “English!” The learning disability that, after Frank led Harbor High to its first berth in Ohio’s playoffs and made first-team all-state, capsized the Division I ride that should’ve been his.
He gave it one last shot after making honorable mention All-America at Iowa Central Community College and slipping into South Carolina State in 1994, the only white guy on the roster besides the kicker. He’d gained admission as a Prop 48, meaning that if he could just squeak out a 2.0 GPA in 24 credit hours, he could suit up and demonstrate the talent that had convinced his offensive coordinator there, former Redskins tight end Anthony Jones, that he might have a crack at the NFL. But he couldn’t, calling his mother in tears when he failed, only to hear his father—who’d dropped out of middle school, worked in the Kentucky coal mines and then hitchhiked to Ashtabula at 16 to work in its factories rather than die of the black lung disease that had killed his dad and his wife’s dad—grab the phone and say, “It’s O.K., son, the world needs ditch diggers too.”
It took Frank 15 years to become the first in his family to get a college degree, clawing it out a course or two per semester at the end as he worked in a group home for the mentally disabled. That included a three-year break during which he became a cop in Richmond, a career that ended after a drug-addled prisoner punched Frank’s lieutenant and Frank hit the man so hard that it moved his nose to a new place, underneath his eye. He resigned because he knew then that he couldn’t live with himself if he ever had to kill a man.
And here he was, closing on the school gunman—12 feet away … 10 … 8 … 7—as they neared the doorway at the end of the hall: God, what would he do if he caught him? When he was 12 Frank had broken his older brother’s nose with one blood-spurting punch, and several years later he shattered a windowpane in his family’s front door with a head butt in his fury at something his father said, each explosion terrifying him into becoming a gentler and gentler giant. Now a plan flashed in his head: He’d seize T.J.’s neck with one hand and the gun with the other, slam him against the wall and pray that would suffice.
But, no, T.J. was lifting his gun again and aiming it at Nick Walczak, a 17-year-old who was trying to stagger to safety with two bullets already in his neck and one in his arm from the shooting in the cafeteria. Frank loved Nick, the kid who’d been elected Captain Crazy, the leader of the juniors’ cheering section at games; the two of them joked all the time. “Don’t!” screamed Frank.
T.J. dropped Nick with a bullet to the spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
Frank stopped and bent over Nick—”Don’t move, you’ll be all right,” he murmured—then looked up as T.J. burst through the doorway and vanished outside. Frank rose and slammed through the door after him, found himself blinking in the sunlight, turning left and right in a school parking lot.
He heard police sirens. He saw kids fleeing in every direction through snow that had fallen a few days before. He saw no trace of the gunman.
Now came the most terrible decision of all, the first one that gave him pause. He’d grown up in the Ashtabula Pentecostal Church of God, an hour and a half every Wednesday night and two-a-days every Sunday, and no matter how much his legs recoiled now, he felt the hand of God pushing him back through those doors, back down that hallway, back to the three boys shot in the head.
SPOOKY, WALKING back into that building. The hallways empty, the classrooms dark, the teachers having shut off the lights just as they’d been trained. The students, out of sight, huddled in the backs of classrooms, breathless. Not a sound.
Frank braced himself, reentered the cafeteria and saw it was all true, just what he’d dreaded. It was only he and the three boys in the big room, silent but for the gurgling of blood. Three juniors whom Frank used to fist-bump and high-five all the time: Russell King Jr., slumped over the table, a kid with a part-time landscaping job and a love for hunting whom Frank would ask what he’d added of late to the family freezer. Demetrius Hewlin, lying on the floor, a strong, sweet kid who volunteered at a Habitat for Humanity resale shop and had been on the football roster briefly but was academically ineligible, Frank always urging him to hit the books and rejoin the fun. Danny Parmertor, on the floor as well, a little computer wizard, a class clown who’d swap zingers with Frank in seventh-period study hall about how massive one was and how slight the other: “Hey, Coach Hall,” Danny would crack if Frank’s shirt was snug, “your little brother wants his shirt back!”
Frank tried to move Russell’s head out of the blood, to disentangle Demetrius and Danny from the table and chair legs. He cradled the boys, wiped their tears and begged them, “Hang on! Hang on!” He knew in the pit of his gut that none of them had a prayer, and so … he prayed. “God, please, be here with each one of them. God, please, take care of them!”
God, please, where was some help? It went on forever, this horror, until at last Frank rose and ran to the hallway, his shoes and pant legs covered with blood, and yelled into the office, where athletic director Doug Snyder was doing all he could, locked in a 13½-minute phone call with the 911 dispatcher. Frank returned to the boys, then ran out a few minutes later to howl again: “Doug, we need help now!”
Outside, all hell was breaking loose. Medical and police helicopters swooping in, cop cars shrieking into the parking lot, children running and crying and hugging and speed-dialing home, desperate parents arriving on the fly. Handguns drawn, three Chardon police burst through the door and into the cafeteria nine minutes after the shooting. A moment later came the paramedics and gurneys.
Finally, when he was left alone, the question dawned on Frank: Where were all the other kids, the ones who hadn’t been able to flee from the cafeteria at first? He hurried toward the faculty lounge and peered through the small window in the door, just above the piano the students had shoved against it, and saw a girl sobbing. All 30 of them lit up at the sight of Coach Hall’s face and ran out, hugging him and crying. The kids who had hidden in the kitchen did likewise.
Now cops and FBI agents were swarming in, gathering information, sectioning off the crime scene. “You’re Frank Hall?” a police officer said. “Frank, I’m your guy the rest of the day—you don’t go anywhere without me.”
And with that, he finally came out of combat mode, the gush of adrenaline beginning to drain from his body. In its place came a vast sadness for the dying and the wounded, and for the innocence and the trust forever destroyed in all those fleeing and frozen kids. He texted two mystifying words to his wife—I’m O.K.—and later, when the police were done interviewing him, called her from the principal’s office and broke down, sobbing his apology for having made a choice that, by all odds, was likely to have turned her into a widow.
“Baby, it’s O.K.,” Ashley said, dissolving into tears with him.
T.J. Lane—having replaced his spent clip with a new one while running away through the woods, an exchange that Frank hadn’t given him time to accomplish inside the school—was found by police on a wooded road a mile away about 45 minutes after the shooting, shivering and wearing a long-sleeved T-shirt with the word KILLER on it. Some students claimed that he’d targeted Russell King Jr. because Russell was dating T.J.’s former girlfriend, but when the police asked why T.J. had chosen those victims, he said, “I don’t know.” Asked why he’d run away, he said, “Because Coach Hall was chasing me.”
THE HUMAN mind is the coldest-blooded stalker of all. The day after a man does the most selfless thing a human being can do, and then doubles down on it by rejecting a flood of national media requests—Oprah Winfrey and Anderson Cooper and every major network begging him to let them shine their tungsten lamps upon his courage, TV vans parked day and night outside his home—his mind begins to devour him for what he couldn’t do. You should’ve spotted that kid beforehand…. You should’ve done more….
“Keep an eye on him,” Ashley warned athletic director Doug Snyder. “He’s not talking about what happened.”
Everyone else in northeastern Ohio was. When the early news flashes reported that a nameless teacher had chased the killer out of the school, Frank’s relatives, friends and coaching fraternity knew at once: Had to be Frank. Then the details began to trickle out, and the entire student body siphoned strength from what its assistant football coach had done. For two days Chardon High was closed; then students sent out the electronic drumbeat for all to gather at the town square on Thursday morning. From there they marched arm in arm down blocks lined with cheering residents and red-ribboned trees, back to school.
For an entire hour, with 70 teachers and administrators embracing them and applauding till their hands were on fire and their arms numb, the students and their parents filed in … and went straight to the place all the adults feared they wouldn’t dare go near, the cafeteria. They had to go straight there: That’s where Coach Hall was. A line formed, nearly 700 people long, and snaked deep into the hallway where Frank had chased the shooter, Chardon waiting half the morning for the chance to wrap Frank in a bear hug.
That night, when the Hilltoppers played in a first-round state playoff basketball game at Euclid High, 30 miles away, their student fans, known as the Chardon Crazies, showed up 600 strong, all clad in their school-color red T-shirts. The Crazies have a tradition. When their senior leader appears before them dressed as Moses—white hair, beard and robe—and pounds his walking staff on the floor, they fall away, creating a gap down the center of the bleachers through which he strides: Moses parting the Red Sea. But that night, when Frank began to make his way down the bleachers for a halftime hot dog, the inverse occurred, the Red Sea collapsing upon its new leader, swarming him and shouting, “We love you, Coach Hall!”
That week was a blur of memorial services, funerals and vigils. Just before entering one for which half the town of 5,100 seemed to have shown up, the place crawling with media, Frank turned to Doug Snyder with the look of a frightened little boy and pleaded, “Don’t leave me, Coach.” Finally realizing how fragile Frank was, Snyder had his coaches form a tight shield around Chardon’s protector.
The flowers, the food baskets, the cakes and cookies and quilts and letters for the hero kept coming. A Fans of Coach Frank Hall page sprang up on Facebook. An homage to Frank began playing on local radio—a song by Alabama called “Angels Among Us” with Frank’s words from a brief press conference spliced into it—misting up eyes at red lights across northeastern Ohio: I believe there are angels among us/Sent down to us from somewhere up above/They come to you and me in our darkest hours/To show us how to live, to show us how to give/To guide us with the light of love.
He wasn’t allowed to pay for his family’s meals at local restaurants. He tried to give away the 10 $100 bills that showed up in an anonymous card addressed to him, until Snyder convinced him that would violate the intentions of the giver.
But the contradictions kept searing him deeper. He came from Appalachian stock for whom praise felt mistaken, from a father who’d wonder aloud, after Frank or his brother had pinned an opponent in a minute, if the job shouldn’t have taken just half that. Every day for weeks, as people kept thronging the cafeteria to embrace him for all the kids he’d saved, he’d look over their shoulders at the spot where the three boys he hadn’t saved had lain. You failed those kids…. They died on your watch….
The cafeteria walls were painted a new color and a few tables realigned, but every workday he had to sit right there, where it all happened. On his 26-mile ride to work he began to cry and pray, God, let me get through this day…. God, what if something happens there today? I’m too weak now, I couldn’t help anyone…. Dodge balls banging against the wall between the gym and the cafeteria made him jump out of his skin. Thunderclaps triggered him, violence on TV made him sick. When he stopped on the way home from school one day to hit some golf balls and clear his head, the pop-pop-pop from a nearby shooting range sent him home, straight to bed.
He finally had to say something to the men in his extended family, a comment that he knew might not go down well. “Why does anyone need a semiautomatic weapon?” he asked one day at a gathering. “You can’t convince me that a civilian needs a weapon like that with all those bullets in a clip.” A family member started to say something about the possibility of a dictator taking over the country but then fell silent along with everyone else.
Frank’s worried principal, Andy Fetchik, kept sending substitutes to the cafeteria to give him a break, kept urging him to speak to one of the therapists at school, but Frank kept waving him off. “If I get one more hug,” he finally confided to Andy, “I think I’ll lose my mind.”
“Remember, they’re hugging you because they need the hug too,” said the principal, and so Frank waded right back into the hugathon.
He hung on for five weeks, then spring break came. At home, isolated from all those kids and hugs, it somehow grew worse. Images of the three dying boys kept flashing in his head. He couldn’t play ball or video games with his own boys anymore. He lay in his recliner and tried to swallow the grief and remorse rising up his throat. You should’ve been faster…. You should’ve caught him…. His mind, which used to rewind and run the three trap plays that he’d bit on as a defensive tackle in Harbor High’s only defeat during his senior year—two of them resulting in long touchdown runs—now could only click and reclick the reel of 7:37 a.m., Feb. 27. Why wasn’t I looking over there? … Maybe if I’d thrown a book at him when he started shooting…. Why didn’t I dive at his feet? Nightmares? He longed for nightmares—that would’ve meant he’d fallen asleep.
Spring break ended. He froze. Try as he might, he couldn’t get himself to walk to his car at dawn and return to work. The phone calls and texts blinked in from Chardon High, but he couldn’t answer them—he could barely draw a breath. He began to shake with fear at night. A presence was standing at the edge of his bed, a dark figure radiating fury at him, hissing No, no, no. The devil, he thought. It had to be the devil. He’d bolt out of bed to turn on the videotape of Chardon’s 34–28 win over Riverside in 2011, keep rewinding that fake iso left and counter iso right that had sprung Alex Muir on the 47-yard game-winning TD run.
When he didn’t show up at work for a third straight day, head coach Mitch Hewitt and assistant Don Navatsyk jumped into a car along with Al Stevenson, a pastor from New Covenant Fellowship Church. They showed up at Frank’s house, clasped the haggard man, then began to pray and talk with him. “I don’t know if I can go back,” he confessed, tears streaming down his face.
“You can’t bury yourself here,” they pleaded. “You can’t isolate yourself.”
“I should’ve done more. I should’ve recognized what was happening.”
“Frank, you did everything anyone possibly could have. God brought you to Chardon for a reason. You were the guy he wanted there for that moment. You were there at the end talking with those kids about eternity. You have to accept that you were put there for a reason.”
He hadn’t thought of it that way before. The men departed, and a little light crept into the darkness.
Everyone felt safer when Frank returned to school the next day; Chardon’s dad was back. But the toxic drip in his mind didn’t dry up until one day last summer in the museum aboard the USS Intrepid, of all places, during a family trip to New York City. There he saw a movie accompanied by a jarring simulation of the kamikaze attack on the aircraft carrier during World War II that killed 69 men, and when the voice of a crew member declared that it was the worst day in the Intrepid’s history, but also the best day—because the survivors saved the ship, got back in the fight and helped turn the tide—something shifted in Frank. That’s just what happened at Chardon, it struck him. We got attacked, but we didn’t let that kid pull us apart or break us down. It was our worst day, and our best day.
His mind, at last, fell quiet, allowing his big heart to breathe. That’s how heroes finally get to sleep.
ANY LINGERING doubts about where Frank Hall belonged, on that fatal day or any day for the rest of his coaching life, vanished once football rolled around last fall. Everyone—the student body, the entire town, the three boys gone and the one in a chair with two wheels—seemed to be in the Hilltoppers’ huddle all season, so every player knew for what and for whom every step of the way.
Hewitt, the former Chardon star in his second year as a head coach, was a master at persuading a flock of boys to lay their bodies on the line for one another, but it sure didn’t hurt to have an offensive coordinator who’d just done that for all of them in front of a semiautomatic. A team that hadn’t finished over .500 since 2007 stormed to a 10-3 season and the third round of the state playoffs.
It wasn’t all one long pep rally. Six Chardon High students attempted suicide in the half year after the shootings. It took Jen Sprinzl, the principal’s secretary, four months of painful trauma therapy and repeated practice with a nurse standing in the hallway, assuring her that the coast was clear, just to be able to walk around that corner where she’d bumped into the gunman. But Frank was already laying plans, once his son Quincy finished his last year and a half of high school, to move his family to Chardon. The town and the school had become even more the close-knit and caring community that he remembered his old neighborhood and high school to have been. The school raised $9,000 to fight cancer on the first anniversary of the shooting, and the students made and sent more than 300 blankets to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., after the slaughter that took 27 lives there last December.
The day the news broke from Newtown nearly broke Frank again. He couldn’t remain in the cafeteria. He asked his wife to pick up their four children from school—that was too dangerous a place—and take them home; then he retreated to the TV in the principal’s office and spent half the day staring at the horror unfolding all over again. When he heard that his cousin Joey’s six-year-old daughter, Abigail, had asked, “Why didn’t Uncle Frank save those kids?” it crushed him, because as crazy as it sounded, he felt as if he should have.
Two weeks later an undercurrent he hadn’t even noticed building suddenly swept his life somewhere else. At his mother’s house on New Year’s Eve he read an article in The Star Beacon, Ashtabula’s local paper. The football coach at Lakeside High—the school that Frank’s alma mater, Harbor High, had morphed into after it closed in 2001—was quitting, declaring that the team had no business being in the Premier Athletic Conference, which it shared with Chardon, because it was “just too hard on the kids.”
“Listen to this—can you believe it?” Frank kept repeating to his wife and parents. The kids from his hometown reading in the newspaper that their own coach didn’t think they could compete? Kids just like him, from families with no college grads? Kids just like his own, from busted homes? A feeling overwhelmed him. Ashtabula had been so gutted by the collapse of manufacturing jobs, its stores closing, its crime rate and meth addictions soaring, that some residents had rechristened it Trashtabula. Someone had to stand up for these kids. Someone had to protect them. Done dawdling, Frank was, done regretting that his alma mater had been merged with its mortal archrival, Ashtabula High, and transformed into this hulking edifice rising out of swampland a half-dozen miles away from his old neighborhood. Time, the .22 had taught him, was too fleeting, too precious, and the stakes for children too high.
The day after New Year’s, the day Lakeside reopened from winter break, Frank strode through its front door. “Frank Hall’s here to see you,” the school secretary informed the principal, Don Rapose. Frank Hall? The one in the news and the song? The man whose offense had devastated Lakeside 63–0 two months earlier? The man who’d sat blinking in Rapose’s freshman math class at Harbor High a quarter-century ago?
Rapose rocketed out of his seat and ran into the lobby. “Are you here for what I hope you’re here for?” he cried, shaking Frank’s hand and his arm.
Don’t do it, Frank’s relatives and friends in the coaching fraternity begged him. School board won’t have your back. Lucky to get a hundred fannies in the seats. Tax base in tatters there, no money for athletics; hell, half the families might not be able to afford the $250 they have to pony up for one of their kids to play a sport. Two and 28, Frank. That’s Lakeside’s record over the last three seasons, Big Guy. You’d take a 15% pay cut to go there? C’mon. Even Ray Enricco, Frank’s lifelong pal and fellow assistant coach at Chardon, told him, “You go there, Frank, you’re doing it alone.”
Chardon was shocked. He was all but offered a lifetime job if he’d stay, and the chance to be the next head coach if Hewitt left. Lord, how could the school ever fill that vacancy—school superhero?
He could barely choke out a sentence when the football team gathered to hear his decision. “There are … a lot of good people here … that love you and are looking after you, but … but I’m not sure the kids at Lakeside have that.” Then he blurted, “Thank you—I love you,” and bolted in tears.
Everyone was shook-up on his final day at Chardon, in March. Everyone was handing him gifts and cakes and cards, but the hug that meant most came from the boy in the wheelchair. “You’re the reason I’m alive,” Nick Walczak told him. Frank paused at the exit, a total eclipse of a doorway, quaking with emotion. He’d barely left when Coach Hewitt began drilling it into his players: They could run across the field to hug Coach Hall when they played Lakeside this autumn … but it better be after the game, not before.
Ashtabula rejoiced. Thirty people showed up for the first booster club meeting, six times the attendance in the past. Patton Sidbeck, an eighth-grade center at Lakeside Junior High who prayed to God every night for six weeks when he heard the rumors that Frank might be coming home, started showing YouTube newsclips to the handful of athletes who hadn’t heard or didn’t believe what their new coach had done last year at Chardon. Fifty players reported to the weight room for off-season workouts, four times as many as often showed up last year. “This town has never been this excited,” said Sidbeck. “What he did was crazy—a guy with a wife and four kids? We’re back. Lakeside is back.” Even Ray Enricco couldn’t resist, leaving Chardon’s staff to join Frank’s long uphill climb at Lakeside.
The effect was immediate. At Lakeside, where Frank served as a counselor for kids with academic and personal problems, he spent every spare moment walking around the building, dispensing fist bumps and neck squeezes, building bonds. How’re your folks doing? How ’bout your brother? How’re you getting along with your teachers? What’d you get in math? What about the girls—you staying away from the girls? Breezy, you having a good day? The moment school ended, he was making over the weight room, raising funds, creating plans for every player and cheerleader to mentor a child in the nearby elementary school, breathing and bellowing life into off-season workouts and into kids with no clue what commitment looked like.
“C’mon, c’mon, get after it!” he thundered one day in April, charging from one weight station to the next. “Changing your life, Jamie! Changing your life! Go, Tyreek! Nothing’s given! Gotta wake up and be great every day! Attack it! Building man hands! Great job!”
Then he divvied up the team for three savage rounds of tug-of-war on a giant rope, and called everyone together at the end. “Guys, remember our first tug-of-war eight weeks ago? It was pathetic! I had to pull on both sides of the rope just to keep it going! Now look at us! Great effort, everyone! On another note, a teacher told me today that Chad Brown and John McCormack sat down in the cafeteria with a kid who was sitting alone. That’s great! Change the school! That’s what I love! We can’t all be football players or do tug-of-wars, but we can all do things like that and include everyone. O.K., everyone, hands together, on three: Always defend! Never give up! Never give up!”
TWO MONTHS after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, Rob Cox—the cofounder of a nonprofit formed in Newtown to help it heal—was leafing through a dozen boxes containing thousands of cards and letters that had poured in from around the world. He came upon one from Chardon, offering encouragement and details of what had happened there, and he was mortified.
He went around Newtown, asking neighbors and friends, but their responses were all exactly what his had been. Chardon? No trace in their memories of that town or school. No trace of a shooting there just 9½ months before their own. No memory of a football coach saving his school from a slaughter far worse than it might have been.
Which meant the clock was already ticking in the land of amnesia. How long before Newtown, too, was gone?
By Gary Smith