'A Relief For This to Be Over'

Duke Lacrosse
A crowd of 6,485 people filled the stands for Duke's opening game against Dartmouth on Saturday, the first for the Blue Devils since cancelling last season amid allegations that some players sexually assaulted a stripper. (Sara D. Davis - AP)
By Adam Kilgore
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 25, 2007

DURHAM, N.C., Feb. 24 -- John Danowski barreled into the conference room at noon Saturday, using the same long, aggressive gait with which he patrols the practice field as Duke's lacrosse coach. He took his place standing at the front of the room, and the 50 empty chairs began filling with a middle-aged crowd, most of whom wore Duke lacrosse windbreakers.

At this time last year, Danowski was coach of the Hofstra lacrosse team. But he also was a part of the audience he faced: parents of Duke lacrosse players. His son, Matt, is a Blue Devils co-captain.

"Because of the uniqueness and special qualities of this season, I thought this [meeting] would probably be a good idea," Danowski told the parents, two hours before Duke took the field against Dartmouth.

Since Duke last played a lacrosse game, everything had changed.

After a woman who was hired to strip at a team party last March accused players of raping her and calling her racial epithets, the Duke lacrosse program became national news for reasons that had nothing to do with athletics. Criminal charges were filed against three players, the rest of the team was vilified, the remainder of the season was canceled, the coach resigned and relations between the university and city went from tenuous to incendiary.

The situation has since cooled, but tension and hard feelings remain. On Saturday, Duke played Dartmouth in its first lacrosse game since the allegations became public. Duke won, 17-11, the pep band played, 6,485 people watched at Koskinen Stadium -- and Duke lacrosse enjoyed one of its happiest days in a long, long time.

Campus and Durham County police patrolled the stadium with extra officers in case of protests, but there were none. A jovial buzz permeated. T-shirts were flung into the crowd and fans chanted in support.

"It is a relief for this to be over," John Danowski said afterward. "I can feel it in my body."

"Lacrosse is probably the only normal thing we got," his son said. "Playing out here, practicing every day, that's normal for us. That's what we hold on to as the most normal things in our lives."

But changes, both on and off the lacrosse field, have made normalcy a distant hope for the Duke team.

Durham County District Attorney Michael B. Nifong, who was leading the prosecution, recused himself from the case, and the rape charges were dropped after inconsistencies arose in the accuser's account of the events. The three players, Reade Seligmann, David Evans and Collin Finnerty, still face sexual assault and kidnapping charges. Evans, from Bethesda, graduated last year. Seligmann and Finnerty have not returned to Duke.

Public opinion, at least in some corners, has swung in favor of the players. The Duke faculty has been fractured, economics professor E. Roy Weintraub said. The team has adopted a new creed: "Succisa Virescit," which is Latin for "When cut down, it grows back stronger."

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