For a parent, guiding a child through the rite of passage from high school to college usually is a challenge even in the best of times.
These decidedly are not those.
So as Stephanie Brown prepares to send the youngest of her three children off to college during a time dominated by a pandemic and widespread protests of racial injustice, she is all too familiar with uneasy days and nights.
“From a mom’s point of view, it’s very anxiety-ridden, very stressful,” said Brown, who is quick to describe herself as the “emotional basket case” of her family. “There’s a lot of emotions going on.”Get the news delivered to your inbox: Sign up for our BuckeyeXtra newsletter
Brown’s son, Gene Brown III of the Atlanta suburb of Conyers, Georgia, is one of two incoming freshmen on the Ohio State men’s basketball team. He and Zed Key Jr. of Bay Shore, New York, will join the Buckeyes this fall but likely will enroll this month.
The university’s board of trustees on Wednesday announced that fall semester would begin Aug. 25, but their plan did not include all of the details that Brown’s parents, Stephanie and Eugene, and Key’s, Zed Sr. and Carol, are seeking.
Stephanie Brown, for instance, already is thinking about drop-off day.
“I’m a planner by nature. It is heart-wrenching, thinking about the fact that we might not get to go in and, as his mom, make his bed, help him put together his bedroom for his dorm,” she said. “We’re just going to keep faith and pray that everything works out.”
Common concerns about setting up dormitory rooms and sharing goodbye hugs are admittedly secondary to the greater ones facing society at large.
The events of the past 10 days, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died in the custody of four white officers during an arrest May 25 in Minneapolis, has led to some far deeper conversations.
“To deal with the situation of sending him so far away and the (Floyd killing) definitely did not help at all,” Eugene Brown said.
Brown added that he and his son have spoken about how Gene must respond if he deals with police.
“It’s just, ‘Yes sir, no sir.’ Whatever they ask you to do,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to have those types of conversations, but apparently you do.”
Both the Browns and the Keys stressed that they required a level of trust to send their sons to a school multiple states away, and all agreed a foundation was built during the recruiting process with coach Chris Holtmann and his staff.
“One thing I know I’m appreciative of is the communication,” Zed Key Sr. said. “Obviously, they don’t have all the answers because everything is evolving day by day. What I do like is when they find out or get some information, they communicate with us pretty soon after.”
Eugene Brown said he and Stephanie “feel very strongly” about the OSU coaching staff and believe they are guided with Gene Brown’s best interests in mind.
“They’re going to do everything in their power to make this work and keep their guys safe and help them deal with these situations in a similar fashion to what we would,” Eugene Brown said, adding that he has appreciated the leadership shown by Ohio State president Michael V. Drake and athletic director Gene Smith.
As the coronavirus began to spread in this country, Brown had wrapped up his senior season. But Key was still playing for a championship when the season was canceled.
Since then, both have kept busy training, and Key landed a job delivering groceries. Neither was able to attend senior prom or graduation, and Carol Key joked that the grocery bill has seen a significant spike since her son began spending so much time at home.
“He’s been taking precautions, as we all have, and as long as the school takes them, I’m good with it,” Carol Key said. “I’m just going to wait and see what happens, but I’m excited for him to go. I’ll miss him, but I’m excited for him.”
All of the parents expressed concerns about personal safety regarding the virus. Stephanie Brown said she hopes the support staff working with and near her son will use what she termed her “mom voice” to make sure he’s washing his hands and taking the proper precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19.
Zed Key Sr. allowed that his concerns about his son’s health are somewhat tempered by the opportunity he has achieved.
“I’m excited that he’s going,” Zed Sr. said. “It’s something that we’ve been hoping for and praying for since he was young and playing ball. It is a little worrisome with all the COVID-19 that’s going on, but you still have to go about your day-by-day. Cautiously, of course, and smart, but that’s the new normal, I guess.”
That new normal has included frequent Zoom calls with the Ohio State coaching staff, and Brown’s parents said they’ve specifically gotten to know the parents of sophomore E.J. Liddell throughout the process. It’s one of many newly forged relationships that the freshmen’s parents hope will ease the strain of their sons leaving home amid so much unrest.
“It’s kind of bittersweet because he’s worked extremely hard to get to this point, and it should be a celebration,” Eugene Brown said. “Some of that is being taken away. There are 100 other things that are going on right now, so this is not the worst situation to be in. But ideally it would’ve been a whole other set of emotions.”