It was a talk Jim Armstrong never thought he would have to give.
Armstrong is the softball coach at Franklin Regional High School, the person tasked with teaching the sport’s fundamentals and enjoyment of a game few will play competitively once they move on to college.
He has learned to develop a sort of nonchalant attitude toward the highs and lows of a season. Sayings such as “All right, let’s move on” are part of the job.
But when a student at Franklin Regional attacked his peers and others with knives on April 9, the patter of Armstrong’s profession no longer applied. What happened that day was a tragedy, one that left more than 20 people injured and countless others emotionally shaken.
Faced with an unfamiliar and unavoidable situation, Armstrong did the best he could.
“At first, I was not at grips with it either,” he said of talking to his team. “We talked about it, not what happened at the school as far as every little detail, but we talked about how bad things can happen, how there’s not all bad people in the world, how we can get through things and not to be afraid of it.
“I basically said, ‘I don’t know what to do. I’m standing here talking to you, but I’ve never experienced this.’ I’m a softball coach and we were just trying to be honest with where we were.”
Horrific events can often cause people to reassess and prioritize their lives. Sports have been and still are a crucial component of Pittsburgh’s identity. But they are just games that carry an emotional toll, and have little meaning beyond the fields and courts where they’re played.
In the days and weeks since the attack, coaches, athletes and administrators at Franklin Regional have all been faced with a dilemma few could have imagined. How do you get students who experienced such a horrible thing to shift their attention back to the life they had before that day?
“It was tough at first, but I think it helped to get back out there together,” boys tennis senior captain Rohan Hattangady said of returning to the court. “We’re like a family.”
Armstrong estimated that about half his players were in the building at the time of the attack. One of his assistant coaches teaches in the science wing of the senior high and helped administer first aid to injured students.
Armstrong held his first practice the day after the stabbings at an off-campus site. When they returned to their usual field the next day, it was visibly jarring for his players to be so close to where the incident took place. It was then that he realized there was more to what happened and its lingering effects.
As weakening as a traumatic event can be, the school’s athletes have found strength in one another.
“I think the kids have really leaned on each other a little bit more,” said baseball coach Bob Sadler. “They’ve needed to. The coaching staff has been there for them, but more importantly, they’ve been there for each other. They’ve grown a lot closer.”
That togetherness has extended well beyond the school district’s boundaries. Many teams Franklin Regional has faced the past two weeks have shown solidarity in some way, from sporting blue and gold ribbons to hanging a banner near the field. The baseball team has received cards from various schools, and in a recent game against Seneca Valley at PNC Park, opposing players wore wristbands to honor the Panthers.
“The support from the other schools has been tremendous,” Armstrong said.
Though it has been understandably difficult for those at Franklin Regional to take the field again, the sports haven’t become chores. There’s a healing power to them, one that provides an escape for those involved — players, coaches and even fans.
In many ways, the teams have provided a sense of normalcy in a time when normalcy has been in short supply.
“I think they were able to lean on a sport that they love and want to play,” Sadler said. “Something like this sort of puts life into perspective.
“You don’t think about wins and losses more than just playing the game that you love, having some fun and getting out there with your teammates and friends and playing baseball. That’s what it’s about.”
When Armstrong talked about his team and the new realities awaiting after that April morning, he repeatedly mentioned the girls on his team. The players he coaches, he said, are the team’s biggest strength.
The season has been a problematic one thus far, as the Panthers are winless through their first 10 games, a spell which has come two years after finishing 17-3. They might not be winning on the field yet, but like the other Franklin Regional teams, they keep coming back, something that defines them more than anything else.
“I’m very, very proud of the girls,” Armstrong said. “Very proud of the way they act, the way they carry themselves and what they do.”
Craig Meyer: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @CraigMeyerPG. Ryan Riordan of Tri-State Sports & News Service contributed to this report.