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Essay

Repentance and Forgiveness

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There’s so much to this story that’s old news, so much that’s so awful yet so obscenely ordinary, that what happened is almost predictable. To a point.

At some D-1 university, some football players get drunk along with some young women who’ve come for a party they really wouldn’t wish on their worst enemy. Too much booze goes down, waaaay too much, and things go on that are beyond reprehensible, plain criminal. Rape goes on. Again and again.

Some would say Brenda Tracy, 24, a single mom, should not have been in the company of footballers from the local university, Oregon State, that night. She had her own life and the lives of her children to attend to. But she was.

When she woke up, she was naked beneath a sheet. Something beyond imagination, worse than a nightmare had gone on.

The attack lasted more than six hours and as I went in and out of consciousness the things that they did to me are now burned into my memory, Like a piece of cattle I was branded, never to forget eight hands on me, inside me, their laughs as they high-fived each other in a congratulatory manner as they each took turns raping me. … Never to forget the next morning when I awoke to the smell of dried vomit in my hair, the stickiness of a condom stuck to my stomach, the food crumbs that left indentations on my skin as I lay face down on the apartment floor like a piece of garbage that someone forgot to pick up.

She decided to call the police.

And then commit suicide, she told a reporter.

The men who’d done it were arrested. Two of them were charged with sodomy, unlawful sexual entry, and sexual abuse. They claimed it was all consensual, of course, and their coach, Mike Riley, slapped a one-game suspension on them.

Then Brenda Tracy dropped charges. The backlash was horrible–hate mail, death threats. “They are really good guys who made a bad choice,” Coach Riley said.

Later, when the story was finally told in its entirety, Riley made clear that he deeply regretted what he’d done and not done, what he’d let the young men get away with, regretted it horribly.

So why tell this story again? Because there’s more. The Washington Post featured it last week, but I can’t believe my neighbors in Nebraska didn’t know it long ago because Mike Riley is now coaching the Nebraska Cornhuskers and almost nothing that happens on that team gets by hundreds of thousands of loyal Husker fans.

Here’s the not-to-be-believed chapter. Eighteen years later, Coach Mike Riley asked Brenda Tracy to come to Lincoln and tell her story to the Huskers herself.

“I hated that man worse than my rapists,” Brenda Tracy told an Oregon newspaper reporter. In the years that had passed since that awful night, she’d become a nurse, an advocate for rape victims, and even an employee of Oregon State, where she helped the institution prevent sexual assault. But her hatred for Mike Riley hadn’t really subsided. He was, after all, the enabler.

When the two of them met, he reached out, let her cry on his shoulder. Then they talked for an hour, the two of them. “I feel like I put everything on the table and left it all there,” she told a reporter from Omaha. “He answered everything.”

Then, as requested, Brenda Tracy talked to Riley’s Huskers, told them every detail, then finally turned to the coach, the enabler. She said she felt 150 faces turn simultaneously. “This is what accountability looks like,” she told them pointing at their coach. “It’s okay to say you’re sorry.”

Amazing story. You can’t beat repentance and forgiveness.

Just can’t beat it.

What happened, happened. Nothing will ever take it away, de-record it from memory. But 150 men witnessed something remarkable because repentance and forgiveness always is.

We come near unto God, Abraham Kuyper says, when we do or at least try to do what we know God does.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.

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