Quarterback Landry Jones, slot receiver Ryan Broyles and seven other guys on the team were in Haiti on a missions trip when they received the news.
“This was probably one of the saddest times of my life because we’re out there glorifying God and giving back in such a way we’re feeling so vulnerable and emotional and we were on the high of highs and to get news like that, we really dropped to low of lows,” Broyles recalled.
That news: teammate and linebacker Austin Box had passed away.
On May 19, the Sooners lost a teammate, a leader, a motivator, a competitor in a tragic event that stung mightily and still stings more than two months later.
“Well, I mean, personally, I mean, I was crushed,” Lewis said. “You know, I couldn’t expect that. Me and Austin did everything together. We came in together, did every workout together. We graduated together, sat next to each other. I mean, so for me, you know, I was devastated.”
“It’s just a tragedy, we lost a brother through that deal,” Jones said melancholily.
Broyles added this: “If we go in the locker room and we see an empty locker, it’s hard on the guys. And I feel like it’s still hard to really understand until the games and practice really get started.”
Perhaps the hardest part about it: Nothing’s going to bring the Sooners’ beloved leader back, and that cloud of tragedy is going to linger over the team for a while.
“Sure, you know, it doesn’t go away,” said OU head coach Bob Stoops.
What it has done, however, is pull the team closer together.
“It seems like when bad things like that happen, you know, tragedy strikes, players’ moms die, their grandmothers’ die, we seem to gravitate towards one another and really become close as a unit,” Lewis said. “And it just goes to what kind of team we are. We’re a close team. We can talk to each other, I think, sometimes feelings as football players get shunned a little bit, and it’s kind of like a taboo. But, I mean, we’re a close team, feel like we can talk to each other about anything.”
Jones seconded that.
“Yeah, our team’s coming together, but it wasn’t worth losing Box for our team to come together,” Jones said. “But it happened, you know. God says that He works everything out for our good, and some good is coming out of that. So, we’re taking it in stride. [I’ve] been praying a lot, been praying for a lot of guys on the team, going to Haiti, that really helped us out kind of build a nice little corps five.”
It also serves as a motivating factor for what figures to be the No. 1 team in a number of polls heading into the season.
“Yeah, absolutely, for sure [it’s a source of motivation],” Jones said. “You know, losing a brother like that, him not being able to play with us, it’s almost like you’re playing with a chip on your shoulder and playing for Box, not only for yourself. You’ve almost got an unselfish motivating factor that maybe you’re too tired to go on this play, but in the back of your mind you remember your brother out there, and so you go a little bit harder for him.”
Lewis added onto that.
“I think at a time like this where you’re ranked No. 1, you have all the hoopla going on, you know, being close is not the worst thing that can happen,” Lewis said. “So, of course it’s going to affect us on the field and everything like that, but I’m more worried about just remembering him.”
The Sooners will do that mostly with their performance on the field, Lewis said, rather than any other major means.
“But it’s not going to be nothing dramatic,” Lewis said. “We’re not going to put tattoos on our back. We’re not going to do anything like that. We’re just going to do it the right way. Anything we do, everything we do, I make the team [remember him]. I know in my workout group, we say a prayer before every workout, and we incorporate him into the prayer and just little things like that.
“I’m not going to go tattoo his name on my arm, and, you know, all the crazy stuff that people might think. It’s just remembering him every day and what he brought as a person and, you know, to our team, just not on the field but off the field the kind of person that he was. So yeah, I mean, he’s going to be dearly missed but never forgotten.”
The coaching staff and the administration have made sure of that from the beginning with their open support system.
“You know, we have talked about it, and players have themselves and leaned on each other,” Stoops said. “And we’ve had a team meeting or two in regards to how we’re handling it, and we’ll continue to. You know, that’s something that when we reconvene and are back together, you know, we’ll have more opportunities to try and, you know, try and not understand it, but try to come to grips with it.”
And it’s been beneficial.
“It was good to just talk about it as a team, you know, address it,” Lewis said. “And, you know, everybody handles it their different ways but we just--Coach Stoops and the guys on this team wanted to know that there’s all sorts of support for this team, you know, to help you deal with it.”
That will continue into the season, in some ways of which, Stoops said are still uncertain.
“Some of it isn’t set up yet to actually say to you, but it’s something that, you know, even with our team chapel and the first day we’ll have a period that if they have something to say or want to get off their chest or, you know, let him help me with how do we go about this because it’s hard,” Stoops said. “Like I said to you, it’s not like it goes away even after that. You know, the hurt’s still there. You miss him. You know, the players do. You had a young guy that was really a character that everyone gravitated to, who was a friend, and he’s now gone.”
So, the Sooners will definitely be wearing their hearts on their sleeve for No. 12 when they open things up Sept. 3 against Tulsa.
“I don’t know that any words can describe our feelings, you know, losing Austin,” Stoops said. “It’s just it’s there’s no blueprint for it. And everybody’s different, but as a team, he was very close. I mean, our team, he was a great spirit in the locker room, so it really hurts.
“But I also know that players have all, you know, through it I’m sure have pulled together maybe more so than at other times to help each other through it, to help each other understand it and, you know, to move forward. We don’t ever forget, but you got to keep putting another foot in front of the other.”
Kind of like the steps that need to be taken on a national championship run, which the Sooners will now hope to complete in honor of Box.
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