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Pluto: How Kent State football should honor its fallen teammate
Pluto says KSU should "play like and act like Jason" this season. Jason Bitsko died last week due to an undetermined medical issue. 

Morning Edition Host
Amanda Rabinowitz
Kent State University is mourning the loss of football center Jason Bitsko, who died unexpectedly Aug. 20.
Courtesy of Kent State University
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It’s been one week since Kent State University’s football team lost Jason Bitsko. The Dayton-area junior center for the Flashes was found dead in his off-campus apartment due to an undetermined medical issue.

The team will remember Bitsko throughout the season by wearing his number “54” on their helmets. WKSU commentator Terry Pluto talks about how losing a player unexpectedly affects a team and how the players should honor his legacy. 

LISTEN: Pluto on KSU lineman Jason Bitsko, who died last week

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Listen: Terry Pluto on Kevin Love and the Cavs

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Jason Bitsko was set to begin his fourth year on Kent State University's football team and would have been the starting center for this coming season. Bitsko was found unresponsive in the bedroom of his off-campus apartment on August 20. Police believe he passed away from an undetermined medical issue.

Bitsko, 21, started all 12 games in 2013 and was recently selected to the Phil Steele's Preseason All-MAC Third Team. Bitsko graduated from Wayne High School in Huber Heights, Ohio, and was studying Marketing. He received the Gerald and Victoria Read Award during the annual Spring Game in April for exemplifying hard work and dedication beyond the call of duty.

An expected death
Terry Pluto says this is something incredibly difficult for the team to deal with, especially because of the mindset of athletes. ”When you talk about athletes, they tend to think of being invulnerable. They don’t even want to think about knee injuries. If you watch, when a player goes down on the field, some guys look at them, and other guys look at birds up in the sky.”

And Pluto says that applies in college and the pros. “And I think it’s particularly scary because there’s no particular explanation of what happened to Jason.”

And Pluto says what makes Bitsko's death even more shocking is that it was unexpected and unexplained. "It’s easier to understand a car crash. It’s easier to understand cancer even. But I think that hanging over the team there with Jason is one of those things that becomes part of a spiritual struggle.”

Offensive linemen: A special group
Pluto notes that offensive linemen are a special group with the family of a football team – and centers are the special leaders of that special group.

And, the offensive line is something fans don't pay much attention to, because they are the big guys who are on the front line protecting the quarterbacks and receivers and running backs. “My guess is other than Jason’s family and friends … nobody knew that.  But on a football team, the quarterback, the running backs, receivers, etc., they know the value of offensive lineman."

“They tend to be some of the most perceptive, intelligent guys because they have to know all the plays. And on top of that, the center has to know the snap counts. He’s really got to be a smart guy. He has to be respected, he’s the leader of the linemen.

“They have a very, very tightknit group. So you take that little group and you lose a guy like Jason, it’s traumatic.”

How should the team respond?
Pluto says a “win-one-for Jason” Hollywood response to his death won’t cut it. “His final tweet about using every second to count. I didn’t think about things like that when I was 21,” Pluto says. So as a coach, “I think what you say is, ‘Look, play like Jason, act like Jason. Not that you put him on a church window and turn him onto a saint. But say, ‘We want to be the type of player he would want us to be. We need someone to kind of be the leader Jason was.”

“And I think those are far more important lessons than, ‘We’ve got to beat Ohio U. by three touchdowns in Jason’s memory.”

Especially, says Pluto, given the rest of the life he led – as exemplified by his winning the character award and his activity with the Fellowship of Christian athletes.

“Jason was looking at something beyond himself and beyond football – which is not a bad idea.” 

The Jason Bitsko Memorial Fund has been set up to support the Kent State University Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA).
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