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."
Underlying everything is, as team co-captain Ed Douglas said, "the very real fact that three of our friends are still under indictment."
Should those cases go to trial, players on the current team likely would be forced to testify.
"Obviously, nothing about this season will be normal," said John Walsh, who is the father of Johnny Walsh, a senior midfield from Bethesda.
Reminders of why that is so surrounded Duke's players Saturday. They wore blue wristbands with the word "INNOCENT!" inscribed next to the numbers 6, 13 and 45 -- the uniform numbers of Evans, Finnerty and Seligman. They wore, depending on which position they shared with which indicted player, one of the three numbers on their warmup jerseys before the game. When players walked through a tunnel to warm up, one yelled, "It's a been a while, Duke!"
A bumper sticker on one car parked in the lot outside the stadium read "FREE THE DUKE 3" with "6 13 45" next to the words. The former players stay in touch with the ones currently on the team.
Support also extended from the campus, and beyond. A letter from 19 economics professors, written by Weintraub and expressing remorse that the faculty never had publicly supported the players, ran in the Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper. It was a contrast to the faculty letter that ran in the days after the case blew up, condemning the team as the case began building. A group called the Association of Truth and Fairness has raised nearly $800,000 for players' legal fees.
After practice Friday, John Danowski sneaked into Cameron Indoor Stadium to shoot baskets, and DeMarcus Nelson, a captain on the basketball team, walked into the gym. Danowski felt embarrassed for taking up the court and apologized to Nelson. When they shook hands, he noticed Nelson wearing one of the INNOCENT! bracelets.
A handful of players strolled campus Thursday, handing out free Duke lacrosse T-shirts. Students swarmed them, gobbling up 1,000 shirts in 45 minutes. The campus bookstore sold out of Duke lacrosse merchandise several times over the past 11 months.
Still, a certain uneasiness remains. In an effort to keep things loose, Danowski plays music from a playlist he creates during the first 20 minutes of each practice, and the songs are carefully chosen: Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" during one practice, Bonnie Raitt's "I Will Not Be Broken" during another.
As players finished Thursday's practice with a passing drill, Danowski turned the music back on. Jimmy Buffet's "Love and Luck" blared across the field. Players sprinted around and jumped on each other as the opening lyrics washed over them: "Better days are in the cards, I feel / Feel it in the changin' wind / I feel it when I glide."
It's a sentiment of hope, but scars from the initial national backlash remain.
"Durham is trying to start healing," said one Durham resident, a 50-year-old man who asked to be identified as P.L.U., his initials. "Is a game going to make it heal? I don't think so. It's overkill. It's not a game. This is about people's lives."
The accuser's selection of Seligmann, Finnerty and Evans -- which players viewed as random -- buried a troubling notion in the players' minds: It could just as easily have been them.
"You see the families, and we feel like it could have been us where they were," John Walsh said. "It could have been anybody."
Danowski said before the game that he hoped for nice weather Saturday, so his players could have "a day in the sun." He got his wish, but the day, pristine and void of controversy, will not make the case go away. Once the indictments are settled, further litigation against the school and the state remains possible.
And the Duke players will continue to wrestle with everything that has happened.
"The one thing I have seen this week, I have seen a little survivor's guilt," Danowski told the parents before the game. "I'm starting to hear that from a couple young men. I told them: 'If that's what you're feeling, in the end that's not good or bad, right or wrong. Your feelings are your feelings. Tell someone you know, tell someone you trust. Talk about it.' "