West Chester football coach Bill Zwaan realized he didn’t have the keys that turn on the stadium lights with him. So, he started up the hill from the field toward the Rams football office.

“It was before practice,’’ Zwaan said of a scene last week that will stay with him. “The kids were still walking down to practice. I was walking back up.”

The first player Zwaan saw was a redshirt freshman who had texted the day before, said he wasn’t going to be at practice.

“His nephew had been killed,’’ Zwaan said. “The way he worded it, ‘my little nephew was shot, and killed'. You knew it really affected him.”

“Yeah, Coach, he was only 16,’’ the player said.

Zwaan asked if he really felt like practicing, to let him know.

“I’d rather practice then just sit around, but I’ll probably have to miss practice early next week for the funeral.”

The player moved on down the hill. Zwaan continued up the hill.

“The very next person I saw — also a redshirt freshman,’’ Zwaan said. “I asked him how he was doing, because his situation — his younger brother has cancer. They played football together in high school, but his brother has been getting treatment for cancer for a couple of years now. They had gone to the Mayo Clinic a couple of weeks ago and decided at that point to stop the treatments. So he’s in home hospice.”

Zwaan had known all this, how the brother who plays for the Rams has been usually practicing on Tuesday and Wednesday, then when classes are over on Thursday, he goes home and spends the weekend with his brother, then he’s back the following week. Zwaan asked him, you feel OK to practice?

“I’d rather be practicing,’’ the player told him. “I’m definitely practicing.”

Zwaaan continued up the hill. He passed a couple more players, then saw another redshirt freshman who hadn’t been at practice for about a week.

“We had been texting … one of the coaches spoke to him — he tried to call me, I tried to call him. We played phone tag,’’ Zwaan said. “I asked what was going on, why was he missing?"

“I’m really struggling Coach, with everything,’’ this player told his head coach on the hill. “Emotionally. I’m suffering a little bit from depression. My classes are falling apart.”

He explained why.

“Most of that is because I had three family members who died in the past week,’’ he told Zwaan.

Come to the office the next day, Zwaan said. They’d look at getting him some counseling, look at the classes to figure out what he could and couldn’t do.

“Coach, I can’t come tomorrow,’’ the player said. “That’s my brother’s funeral.”

This player ended up withdrawing from school.

“It’s unfortunate,’’ Zwaan said. “It might be what he has to do, just from an emotional standpoint. Now, his phone is turned off. Who knows who was helping him pay his phone bill. One of the family members was an uncle.”

Zwaan was told this player’s brother and cousin were shot and killed. The uncle died a day later, he was told, after a heart attack.

West Chester has a very strong NCAA Division II football program. They’d won the Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference a year ago. Three days after this walk up the hill, the Rams had an all-important game, a must-win against a strong PSAC West team, California (Pa.), if they wanted to get back to the NCAA playoffs.

Head coach Bill Zwaan on the West Chester sideline.
Scott Rowan
Head coach Bill Zwaan on the West Chester sideline.

Zwaan had talked a lot this year about how, to his eye, his younger players, part of a very young team overall, didn’t seem to take all the games as seriously as he was used to seeing. With their heads in their phones, even at halftime, he couldn’t tell if they understood what a big game really was.

That uphill walk helped remind Zwaan that for many of his players, there was often way more going on than even met his eye.

Zwaan has been coaching for a lot of years. He was once dean of students while he coached football at a Florida high school. It’s just a little different at his level, he said, than maybe in big-time college football.

“At the higher levels, there’s a lot of support systems," Zwaan said. “That sort of helps with each kid. When something goes wrong, it may be easier for them to get on top of things a little bit quicker.”

In that week’s time, Zwaan said, maybe he could have gotten this player to counseling right away, and gotten involved on the academic side.

“Maybe save something, and not have him drop out of school,’’ Zwaan said.

Again, this coach hasn’t suddenly popped his head out of the sand. Zwaan is in his 17th season as head coach at West Chester, after six in charge at Widener. He’s lost a player to suicide. He’s experienced loss in his own family.

“With last year’s team that went undefeated and won a championship — two players on that team had been shot during their college careers,’’ Zwaan said. “Actually shot, themselves. Both in drive-by shootings. One was shot in the head, and it just grazed him. He’s lucky. The other one was shot in the butt … and he’s a big defensive tackle so his butt handled it. But he was lucky, too. Both drive-bys, just standing on the corner with friends. All in Philly. A third player, his older brother was shot three weeks before we started camp in the summer, last season.”

For the players he encountered last week on the hill, he left their situations alone, Zwaan said, as practice began, then immediately talked about the specifics with his assistants afterward.

They’re seeing all this “a lot more often,’’ Zwaan said. A lot of his players, they’re hoping college is the place they can find comfort and safety, and the opportunity to get out of tough situations.

“A bunch of our guys over the years just simply stay at West Chester,’’ the coach said. “They stay in the summers, they stay in [on] their off days up there. They may go home for a holiday, but then they come right back. They use West Chester as their home.”

Zwaan said the saddest part is that for too many of his players, they are dealing with such trauma in their regular lives too often. Many have been through it a couple of times.

“So they try to handle it in their own way,’’ he said. “They don’t necessarily tell you.”

You’re always trying, he said, to stay on top of these things. “They don’t always let you in.”

In the meantime, Zwaan’s job is be the football coach.

“We look for certain things in them,’’ Zwaan said. “We try to gauge their moods, how they’re practicing. When I first started coaching, you could tell when a kid maybe had a bad test that day. … Now, there’s a lot more than just bombing a test.”

West Chester University football coach Bill Zwaan
West Chester University
West Chester University football coach Bill Zwaan

There’s no wrapping any of this in a bow. Zwaan doesn’t try. That game Saturday? West Chester won it, 20-19. The other guys scored to get that close with no time left on the clock, but Cal’s two-point conversion try was no good. The next day, West Chester found out it had squeezed into the NCAA playoffs. Saturday, the 9-2 Rams will face Notre Dame of Ohio, playing the game just outside Cleveland.

Zwaan is thrilled with how it all played out, but that walk up the hill takes the trip to the playoffs, too. Sometimes, it feels like the best the coach can do is leave the lights on.

“The one piece about it that was true with all three of those kids that I saw,’’ Zwaan said. “Each one of them said they wanted to practice. It was their escape to a certain extent. For a couple of hours, they thought about football. The safe spot for them, basically, was on the field.”