That’s how a relatively typical recruiting visit turned into something altogether different last month: Brower, Goodman, three teammates and two coaches were trapped in a room, part of a national tragedy unfolding feet away.
For three hours on Valentine’s Day, they sat in the high school’s football office in the back of the boys’ locker room. A coach flipped on a TV, and the group saw ambulances and police cars descend on their school. They heard cracks and bangs in the hallway.
“Is that a firecracker?” someone asked through a walkie-talkie sitting on the coach’s desk.
“That ain’t no firecracker,” an answer rang back.
Then phones started vibrating. There was a shooter in the school, Goodman learned. There were injuries. There were videos of classmates fleeing the campus, or huddled in the corner as shots blasted in the background.
He sent a flurry of texts to friends and family. They were safe.
The walkie-talkie gurgled back on:
“The shooter has exited campus,” and Brower and Goodman peered out the window in the office to see a teenager matching the shooter’s description trying (and failing) to blend in with fleeing students.
Willis Mays, Douglas’s football coach, radioed the office to report the sighting.
Then all went quiet.
Goodman’s phone was dead. The TV was turned off.
Brower picked up the conversation.
“Honestly, I was just worried about them,” he said in a phone interview. “For me, I’m in a situation where I feel safe. I’m in an office, I’m okay. But these guys are hearing about people close to them and siblings and teachers and friends.”
So he told them more about Nichols, about degree programs and clubs around campus and professors and the application process.
“Whenever I talk to a recruiting coach, I always listen to what they say, because that’s the respectful thing to do,” Goodman said. “They came all the way over here to see me. But most coaches just talk about the school because they have to.
“But when Paul talked about it, Paul was getting into it and getting emotional. That got me excited. It didn’t sound like a school. It sounded like it was going to be my job and the rest of my life.”
St. Clair Ryan, Nichols’s running backs coach, told them about the team and the style of play.
The Bison play Western New England, he told Goodman, and Nichols needs a quarterback.
By the second hour, Goodman started to relax. And he started to consider Nichols.
Goodman was a three-year starter for Douglas. He threw for 14 touchdowns as a sophomore, then threw for seven and ran for seven as a junior. He already had a handful of Division III offers by the start of his senior year.
Then he separated his shoulder three games into the season. His backup played well enough that he won the starting job outright when Goodman was healthy again.
It didn’t bother him, he said. Douglas was winning games. College coaches kept their offers on the table.
“We’re all going to be taken care of,” he thought.
But National Signing Day came and went, and Goodman still wasn’t certain he knew where to go. He liked Western New England, but it was so far from home in Parkland, Fla. He didn’t know anyone there.
And, suddenly, he knew folks from Nichols.
“I was sitting with my head coach, someone who I’ve spent more time with than my own father the last four years. He’s like a second father. And I’m with other guys who are telling me they care about me, and they’re telling me that everything is going to be okay. We were like a family,” Goodman said. “We were connecting.”
By the time police cleared the coach’s office, Goodman agreed to visit Nichols during the same trip he would take to Western New England. The schools are about an hour’s drive from each other.
Brower gave him a hug when he arrived on campus.
“Thank God you’re okay,” Brower, the assistant dean for enrollment and the school’s tennis coach, told him. “I’m so glad you’re with us.”
Ryan introduced him to the team, then brought him to meet the university president, who personally handed him his acceptance letter.
As Goodman walked outside the main administration building, it started snowing.
“I think someone is trying to tell me something,” he told his mom.
He committed to Nichols that evening. Brower and Ryan were “acting like our dads” in that room, he said. They looked out for him, and he said knows they will when he gets to college, too.
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