Keanon Lowe arrived at Powell’s Books on Wednesday night, crossed Burnside St., looked up at the back-lit marquee, and saw the most surreal thing in huge, block-style letters.
“KEANON LOWE," it read.
The former University of Oregon football player was there for a book signing. A robust crowd filled four extended rows of folding chairs on the third floor. They came to hear Lowe speak and buy a copy of his new book, “Hometown Victory.”
They got so much more.
It was just three years ago this month that Lowe found himself working as the campus security guard and head football coach at Parkrose High School. Lowe explained on Wednesday night, that during his training he was told the protocol for an “active shooter” scenario was to instruct students to flee the area or hide in place.
In fact, Lowe said, “I was supposed to run and hide myself.”
Lowe instead intercepted the student and wrestled the weapon away from him.
“It happened in slow motion,” Lowe said. “I grabbed the gun and there was no way I was giving it up. I felt strong. Adrenaline kicked in. And I could tell from the kid’s eyes that he didn’t want to be there. He really didn’t want to hurt anyone.”
Lowe spoke for 45 minutes on Wednesday, covering a variety of topics. His book is worth your attention and his story is important. I asked Lowe what was said as he disarmed the student, then inexplicably, hugged the kid.
That image — the sobbing assailant in the arms of the football coach — is seared into the mind of anyone who has seen it.
“He told me that he was scared and that nobody cared about him,” Lowe said. “I told him that I cared about him.
“Sometimes, that’s all someone needs to hear.”
Lowe played football at Jesuit High, then became a Duck. He shared stories about teammates such as De’Anthony Thomas and peeled back the mystery on a few Chip Kelly tricks. But what struck me on Wednesday is that Lowe was a hero long before he put his arms around that would-be assailant.
He signed on for the job at Parkrose High. The Broncos have a somber football history and hadn’t won a game in the four years before Lowe took over the program. He walked the halls, re-energized the students, made playing football fun again, and won a pile of games.
Brent Abney, a parent and long-time booster in the Parkrose community, told me after Lowe was hired, “I don’t think people understand what it means for these kids to have someone like Keanon Lowe pick them and be there for them.”
After his college playing days, Lowe joined Kelly with the Philadelphia Eagles, then 49ers. Lowe could have stayed in major college football or the NFL, but said he got more satisfaction out of working with high school kids.
It’s where his heart still is.
I won’t spoil the book. But it’s a terrific read. It made me think about all the wonderful middle school and high school coaches who are working across the country. Most work long hours for a measly stipend. The job they’re doing is vital.
In fact, I’d argue the bulk of the training for Lowe’s moment of truth came on high school and college sports fields. Lowe told me, “I was just an unarmed security guard,” but really, was he?
He was in great physical shape, armed with discipline. Lowe possessed a keen understanding of the importance of action and opportunity. He’d spent years making snap-judgement plays at high speed on the football field. The saying goes, “He who hesitates is lost.” I think athletes understand that concept better than most.
The kid Lowe disarmed that day ended up in a mental-health facility and is now home. Lowe said, “It was a mental-health crisis. He didn’t belong in jail. I’m told he’s doing well.”
I don’t know if you played a sport. I don’t know if you coach one. But I do know I’m thankful for all the coaches I had. I’m relieved Keanon Lowe was in that hallway that day. It was the kind of win people never stop talking about.
SIGN LANGUGE: Chip Kelly really is different, isn’t he? His former players at Oregon have shared some interesting and quirky stories over the years about the now-UCLA head coach.
For example, one season during the week in which the Ducks were set to play at USC, Kelly instructed his football operations staff to play the Trojans’ fight song on repeat during practice. Players walked into the indoor facility to find “Fight On” blaring from speakers. The tune played over… and over… and over… for two full hours.
In 2010, in the run-up to Oregon’s visit to Tennessee, Kelly ordered the heat inside the practice facility set to more than 100 degrees. The players thought they were practicing in an oven, but it was designed to simulate potential game-time temperature in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Ducks won 48-13.
Keanon Lowe shared a fun one, though, on Wednesday night. Someone at his book signing asked him about those giant poster-like photo placards that the Ducks held up on the sideline while on offense during the Kelly era.
The Ducks offense didn’t huddle. The players instead looked to the sideline, seemingly at those giant poster-board cards and a variety of players using hand motions. Then, the No. 1 offense in America reeled off offensive plays at rapid-fire pace.
“The truth is, the cards meant nothing,” Lowe revealed. “It was all hand signals and verbal. The cards were just a diversion. You gotta give it to Chip. He thought of that. Who thinks of that? Everyone was looking at the different photos on the cards that were held up, trying to figure out what it meant. It was just a distraction, like a magician.”
The posters featured a variety of photographs, ranging from symbols to animals to words. They included people, too. ESPN broadcasters Lee Corso and Neil Everett made appearances. I even looked down from the press box one day at Autzen Stadium and saw my column mugshot printed on one of the cards.
They meant nothing, folks.
Now you know.
Kelly was giving opponents one more thing to think about and waste time on. Lowe said Kelly even had one rapid and simple hand signal that simply meant, “‘Line up and run the same play we just ran, as fast as you can.’ We destroyed defenses with that. The code was not easy to learn. It was sort of like learning sign language but once you learned it, you knew it.”
DIVIDED NO MORE: The Pac-12 Conference currently has two divisions in football — North and South. They’re comprised of six teams each and the winner of the division gets a berth to the conference title game in Las Vegas.
The NCAA Football Oversight Committee recently recommended removing the requirements for a conference to have a championship game. It’s expected to pass later this month and would allow conferences to decide for themselves how to set up their title game and crown their champion.
Also, there’s the potential for the College Football Playoff itself to expand to 12 teams.
The prevailing sentiment is that the divisions will eventually be eliminated by the Pac-12. That could come as soon as the 2023 season, per Jon Wilner. The conference desperately needs a playoff team. There’s a clear “invest in football” directive coming from conference headquarters. Beyond that, the conference is wise to think about the ways in which it might help itself with scheduling and strategy.
Removing the divisions could potentially avoid a mediocre team upsetting the conference favorite in the title game. More likely, though, what it would create is an opportunity for the team with the best record in the conference to have a shot to get one more quality win against a ranked opponent in front of the selection committee.
DEPTH: Jim Thornby, the Pac-12’s senior sports communication manger, had a nice tweet today. He’s tracking the Pac-12 baseball teams and pointed out how deep and strong the field is at this point.
It’s great that Oregon State started the week ranked No. 1 in three of the six national polls. But this tweet underscores how vital it is to have great depth. The quote, “A rising tide lifts all boats” comes to mind. The Pac-12’s new postseason baseball tournament is slated for May 25-29 in Scottsdale, Ariz. The top eight teams qualify.
BIRTHDAY: Sojourner, our youngest daughter, turned 6 years old today. We call her “Soji.” She woke to balloons, Pokemon-theme decorations, and carried a box of iced cookies to school with her to share with classmates.
It felt like a big deal.
It also dawned on my wife and me that we will never have a 5-year-old daughter again. She’s the youngest of three girls. Her birthday party is scheduled for this weekend and she’s stoked about that. I hope she’ll forgive me for the extended hug I gave her as she went off to school. I held her a little longer and tighter than usual.
I read somewhere once, “Those little feet, won’t be little forever.”
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