Words by Mariam Makatsaria
Video and Photos by Jacob Byk
Son, brother, friend, teammate, Christian, Hercules. Jason Bitsko’s memory lives on in the hearts of those he touched.
About 80 people make it through the relentless rain and into the University Parish Newman Center. They pour in and sign their names in the guestbook standing in front of a photo of a young man. Jason Bitsko’s electric blue jersey is framed and placed in front of the door. A collage of photographs is displayed on a wooden easel—Jason as a baby, with one long wisp of hair standing on his head; Jason as a child, flexing his muscles with a grin on his face; Jason as an athlete posing in a red jersey; Jason in his prom suit; Jason proudly holding a certificate—memories his friends see before taking a seat.
Father Steve Agostino leads the service and introduces Jason as a son, brother, friend, student and, above all, the great thumping heartbeat of his football team. His death stirred Kent State students and community members in many ways. You can see it in their faces—remote and watchful as they listen to the sombre notes of Amazing Grace.
Shortly after, his roommate Drew Severino stands behind the pulpit and talks about Jason. His smile is painful in its uncertainty. To Drew and his brother Christian Severino, who also lived with Jason at one point, Jason was a remarkable friend. Randall Bitsko, Jason’s father, watches from the pew. To him, Jason was an obedient son. In fact, the last time he had to discipline Jason, he was 7 (Jason had gone out to play and had forgotten to make his bed). Since then, Jason made his bed and conveniently slept on top of the covers. His father had never fought with him since.
On the morning of Aug. 20, David Oliver, Brimfield Township police chief, responded to a 911 call to assist the fire department paramedics for an “unresponsive 21 year-old male.” Drug overdose, he thought. But there was nothing in Jason’s room to indicate that—no beer cans, no drug bongs, nothing.
“Now, I am not saying anything negative,” he shared on the Brimfield Police Department Facebook page. “However, in 20 years of police work, with the death of such a young person, I expect to see remnants of the party life.”
But Jason died peacefully in his sleep, on top of the covers with his bed perfectly made.
After summoning the coroner, Oliver talked to Jason’s devastated roommates before driving one of the coaches back to the stadium to notify the team of the sad news.
“I was in the large meeting room with the whole team and then a smaller room with Jason’s fellow offensive linemen…I felt grief,” he wrote. “I have never been in a room with such large men…who were all crying.”
It was early in the morning when Pamela Bitsko’s students walked in the classroom and settled down. Pamela, Jason’s mother, is a fifth-grade elementary school teacher. She was taking attendance when her phone vibrated.
“I wouldn’t have answered it, but it was Christian, which I thought was really strange,” Pamela says. “I can barely hear him, but what I think I heard him say was ‘Jason’s gone.’ ”
At that point, she ran out to the hallway in a frenzy, asking Christian to repeat what he said. Ten minutes later, she received a call from Offensive Line Coach Shawn Clark.
“All I kept saying was, ‘Tell me this isn’t true…tell me this isn’t true,’ ” Pamela says.
At 9:30 a.m., Randall’s phone rang at work. It was Pamela telling him his son passed away. He describes the shock as a “tidal wave” that hit him, and it’s been a blur ever since.
“But there was no one to be mad at,” Randall says with a tone that might be sadness or loss or something else altogether.
“No drunk driving, no guy with a gun, no suicide attempt,” Randall says. “There’s no aneurysm, no blood clot, no seizure, no heart attack. There’s no evidence of anything happening to him except his heart just slowly stopping. He was relaxed and peaceful and he went to sleep.”
Jason’s parents and siblings quickly drove to Kent, met his roommates and went to the morgue where they saw Jason for the last time.
“I think what impressed me the most is the strength of his brother and especially his little sister to grasp everything the way that she has,” Randall says.
It was just last summer when Jason’s sister Kaitlin approached her father and told him, “I hope you’re not mad, but I really would like Jason to walk me down the aisle.”
Randall pauses. The thought of this seems to bring pain to his face.
“I said, ‘That’s fine, but I’ll walk you to Jason,’ ” he laughs, his grief leaving him for a moment.
Even after Jason’s death, Randall still sits at the 40-yard line at the top by the press box in Dix Stadium. It’s been raining all morning, an unpleasant gritty rain that slicks the bleachers and colors the sky cement gray. Randall never misses a Flashes game.
Randall Bitsko and Madison Helterbran, Jason’s dad and girlfriend, and about 80 others mourn during a memorial service for Jason at the University Parish Newman Center.
“I have so many great memories,” he says. “I don’t think that a lot of parents in their lifetimes have the memories and the opportunities that Jason gave me within these short years.”
In fact, Randall and his father travelled 62,000 miles last year to watch Jason play all over the country.
“So many moments in his life were like a movie,” Randall says. “Last-second, game-winning shots, kicking field goal to win a game, making an attack.”
Jason played right tackle for the Flashes the past three seasons. Only a season ago, he was named to Phil Steele’s Preseason All-MAC team and received the Gerald and Victoria Read Award.
Straight-A student, phenomenal athlete, incredible young man—that’s how his father is quick to describe him. Jason was always athletic, striving to compete against his older brother Ryan. Randall remembers Jason coming in after a game of basketball in the driveway and saying, “Dad, I don’t know when, but I’ll beat him in basketball one day. I’m going to beat him.”
Ryan and Jason played day and night on their driveway basketball court illuminated by flood lights. Randall says Jason and his brother destroyed three portable hoops, which led him to invest in a Gorilla system, the most heavy duty basketball hoop one can buy.
“A lot of people don’t know this, but Jason’s first love was basketball,” Pamela says.
Jason received some D2 and D3 school offers, but no full basketball scholarships.
When Jason realized basketball was not his ticket to college, he pursued football. He wanted more than anything to get a scholarship.
“Jason wanted to take care of paying for his school on his own, did not want to burden the family with added expenses even though he knew we would make sure finances would be taken care of,” Randall says.
Soon enough, the thrill he got from a tackle brought football close to his heart, and when he toured Kent State after graduating from high school, he fell in love.
“This was his sanctuary,” Randall says. “This was his home away from home. His coaches were his surrogate fathers.”
It was also where Jason met Madison Helterbran. Their first date was quite typical—they went to the movies.
“I thought he was really cute and I liked how tall he was,” Helterbran says.
“Butterflies in the stomach, ha?” Christian jokes.
“I’m surprised he didn’t take you to see Disney,” Randall says, at which both Christian and Drew shake their heads, followed by an “Oh my God” and a sigh.
Everyone who knew Jason understood his obsession with Disney movies. His all-time favorite was the 1997 animated film Hercules about a lovable hunk who trains excessively to become a hero with superhuman strength. Despite his great height and bulging muscles, Hercules is kind, compassionate and above all, forgiving. Everyone who knew Jason could see the striking similarities.
“I always said that when Jason meets his girl, he’s going to treat her like a Disney princess,” Randall says as he looks at Helterbran.
“He met me,” Helterbran croons softly.
Randall chuckles, then pats her on the shoulder. There is an intimate, comfortable quality about his voice when he talks to Helterbran. It’s as if they have known each other for years.
One of Randall’s favorite memories of his sons is probably the silliest one, he admits.
“When Jason was five, he wanted an Easy Bake Oven for Christmas,” Randall says. “I asked him why he wanted an Easy Bake Oven, and he said, ‘Because I want to make my own snacks whenever I want to.’ ”
Despite being caught in grief too complex to articulate, Randall seems hopeful as he reminisces about his son, smiling frequently and making occasional jokes.
“He was a cuddler,” Drew says musingly. “I’d be sleeping on the couch and he’d come lay down next to me and cuddle.”
Drew lived with Jason a year ago.
“That’s my favorite thing about him—that he liked to cuddle,” Drew says, the stabbing sweetness of his thought taking him off guard as his eyes well up with tears. “He was my brother.”
After his football practice, Jason came home to relax. That was his time to get away from football, which was so tightly woven into the fabric of his everyday life. Over the summer, Drew had bought a collection of about 130 Disney DVDs, and they both watched a movie everyday while munching on some post-practice food.
“We watched at least half of those movies by the time he passed away,” Drew says.
But the football players never got to see that side of him, Drew says. Tacklers are typically a hardy lot, a rare breed of size, weight, strength, technique and quickness. They are heavy-legged and strong-handed to deliver a knocking blow to a defender. Jason was a leader on his team, and leaders are seldom expected to be soft.
Jason’s roommates, Christian and Drew Severino, stand in the student section at Dix Stadium during the first football game of the season wearing T-shirts made in honor of Jason.
“When he came home, the kid inside of him came out,” Drew says.
During his occasional visits to his hometown of Dayton, Jason trained with his father.
“When he came home, he was mine,” Randall says. “It was our time at the gym. It came to the point that instead of encouraging him to try more, he’d come home to show off.”
Randall remembers his favorite training session with his son. Jason and his father were playing basketball for conditioning. Jason grabbed the basketball, took three dribbles at the top of the key, jumped high and dunked it over his dad.
“I looked at him and I said, ‘If you do that in two years at the NFL scouting combine, you won’t have to worry about doing any other test,’ ” Randall says with a smile.
Besides being a cherished athlete at Kent State, Jason was also a devout Christian.
Jason met Ted Schumacher, his mentor at the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, weekly in Schumacher’s home after Jason accepted Christ in October 2012. Schumacher says he even asked Jason to be the head of the men’s Bible study group for the upcoming year.
“He was really involved with Christianity,” Drew says, whose own faith was cultivated and fostered by Jason’s direction. “He knew the Bible; he knew what he needed to do.”
Randall truly believes Jason saw life differently than others.
“He knew that you could be tough and be happy; he knew that you could smile and help other people through their day,” Randall says. “He just got life that well.”
In his last tweet, which his mother retweeted on Aug. 14, Jason said, “There are 86,400 seconds in a day. Make sure you use one of those to thank god for everything you have #stayfocused.”
Jason’s tweet has been retweeted 1,500 times. Jason’s death was a great loss to those closest to him, but it was also an exceptional loss for the greater community. The outpouring of tributes following his death testified to that. Messages, posts and statuses about Jason flooded multiple social media platforms. National media, including well-known sports news organizations such as Fox Sports, ESPN, CBS Sports and NFL, covered Jason’s death almost instantaneously.
A day after he heard the news, Head Coach Paul Haynes said during a press conference, “The unexpected and tragic loss of Jason Bitsko was profound. Jason Bitsko was not just a golden flash, he was a son; he was a brother; he was a mentor; he was a friend. He was not just known for the things he did on the field; he was known by a lot of people in this university.”
Kent State Athletics Director Joel Nielsen also received hundreds of emails from fans, alumni, colleagues and community members.
“A lot of people in the community and on campus just looked at it as a football issue, but it wasn’t a football issue,” Nielsen says. “This mushroomed from a football issue, to an athletic department issue, to a university issue.”
Nielsen witnessed people’s love for Jason when he saw a large number of students climb on buses to attend his funeral.
“I remember Jason the most from watching him during those early-morning workouts,” Nielsen says. “That smile, you know, how he could light them up and change the mood of a six o’clock workout. I could tell how the other players respected him. You could see all that.”
As the sun sets over the home opener game Saturday, August 30, 2014, number 54 is on the minds of the team, fans, family, and supporters of Jason Bitsko.