By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 9, 2006
CORAL GABLES, Fla. Nov. 8 -- Less than 24 hours after a University of Miami starting defensive lineman was shot dead in front of his apartment complex, the Hurricanes took the field in preparation for Saturday's game at No. 23 Maryland, which will go on as scheduled.
As Miami-Dade police continued interviewing witnesses in the case involving senior Bryan Pata, whose death was ruled a homicide, the football team assembled as scheduled on the campus practice fields at 3 p.m. Wednesday and went through a customary two-hour practice in pads.
The only differences to the routine: Miami Coach Larry Coker canceled the day's 6:30 a.m. film session, and extra security manned the players' parking lot and entrance to the Hurricanes' training facility. Media members, meantime, were barred from watching the workout (the first 20 minutes are usually open) and interviewing players, who filed solemnly off the field after the workout.
"I asked players to make today as normal as possible," Coker said at the edge of the field after the training session. "Was it a normal day? No. . . . Not out of disrespect, but out of respect for Bryan and his family, the players wanted to play."
No one has been charged in the shooting, and the investigation is continuing, Miami-Dade police spokeswoman Joanne Duncan said. Pata, 22, died outside of his south Miami apartment at about 7 p.m. Tuesday, less than two hours after the conclusion of that day's practice, according to university officials and the police.
Coker, whose team already had endured turmoil of a different sort because of the team's disappointing 5-4 record, said players and coaches were summoned to a late-night meeting after the shooting. Police detectives arrived during the meeting and interviewed some players, Coker said.
"Last night was a shock," Coker said. "It was almost a surreal moment. . . . There was not a lot of conversation. There were some tears."
There was little consideration given to canceling Saturday's game, Coker said, though Coker said Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee discussed the issue with Atlantic Coast Conference officials.
No player was excused from Wednesday's practice -- or asked to be excused, Coker said.
Grief counselors and chaplains were on hand Tuesday night to assist players. Coker said players will wear Pata's No. 95 on their helmets Saturday. His locker, Coker said, remains untouched.
Pata's high school coach, Anthony Saunders, said in a phone interview that he was told Pata suffered a gunshot wound to his head. Saunders said the shooting was especially troubling because Pata, who attended Miami's Central High, was a solid kid who stayed out of trouble.
"He had no real enemies that I know of," Saunders said. "Everybody liked him, and everybody's sad at what happened. . . . He was a great kid, just a big, fun-loving kid."
Pata showed off several guns he kept in a closet in his apartment during a recent interview, the Miami Herald reported, saying he liked to take them to local shooting ranges and hoped one day to join the FBI and become a sharpshooter. He majored in criminology.
Pata was the second Hurricanes player shot this season. After safety Willie Cooper was shot in his buttocks in the front yard of his house, teammate Brandon Meriweather fired several shots at the alleged assailant, apparently missing.
Cooper was not seriously injured, but after that incident Coker said he did not want his players to possess firearms, even if they owned them legally.
Asked Wednesday if he had safety concerns regarding his team, Coker said: "You're always concerned about that, but I don't know if this is a player issue. This is a murder."
The working-class rental community in which Pata lived is filled with sprawling clusters of four-story, dilapidated, lime and cream-colored buildings. A security gate at the entrance sits rusted and unused, and the security station next to it appears abandoned. No evidence of a crime scene remained this morning.
The complex sits amid a stretch of similar residences located about a half-mile from a major, upscale suburban shopping mall.
Pata, who stood 6 feet 4 and weighed 280 pounds, switched this season to defensive tackle after playing three years at end. In nine games, Pata made 29 tackles, and was expected to be selected in next year's draft.
Pata's mother arrived to the scene Tuesday night wearing her son's No. 95 jersey with "No. 1 Mom" on the back, the Herald reported. Pata was the youngest of eight children. Coker said he spoke with her by phone Wednesday.
A campus memorial service for Pata is planned for next Wednesday, a university official said.
"It was good to get back on the practice field," Coker said. "We did what we felt like Bryan Pata wanted us to do."
Maryland Athletic Department Debbie Yow said the school plans on honoring Pata with a moment of silence before Saturday's game at Byrd Stadium.
During a team meeting, Terrapins Coach Ralph Friedgen said he spoke with his players about Pata's death.
"I told them what a tragedy this is to happen, how fragile life is," he said. "We send our thoughts, our prayers."
But Friedgen and other Terps players echoed Coker's sentiments, saying they also wanted to remain focused on the game, which has postseason ramifications for both schools. Miami needs one more victory to clinch bowl eligibility during what has been a tumultuous season. Maryland is 7-2 and 4-1 in conference play, good enough to tie Wake Forest for the lead in the ACC Atlantic Division.
"It's a really sad thing," said Terps offensive lineman Donnie Woods, who watched television coverage of the tragedy earlier in the day, "but we're going to have to be ready to play."
Said Friedgen: "We're going to have to take care of business. We can't do anything about it here. This is a very important game."
Staff writer Marc Carig contributed to this report from College Park.