"It's going to be a different atmosphere," Brentwood High School football coach Kevin Kissel told the Observer-Reporter newspaper before last Friday night's Monessen-Brentwood football game.
That's quite a declaration. Especially considering that he was trying to distance the upcoming game from an atmosphere that apparently never existed — except, perhaps, in the minds of those who think they remember.
That would be the atmosphere at the Feb. 3 basketball game between the two schools, the game in which allegations that Brentwood fans used racial slurs made local and national headlines.
Reporters like WPXI's Timyka Artist ran breathlessly to the scene, camping outside Brentwood High School to report the latest:
Well, to be frank, Peggy and David, I could not believe it either when we first got the call about this story. Students dancing around in, of all things monk [Artist cuts herself off] — banana costumes and yelling racial slurs at a basketball game. Well, tonight, we talked with students and parents who say it happened, right here at Brentwood High School. And tonight, they are outraged!
Artist claimed "dozens" of people said racial slurs were thrown around, suggesting she'd interviewed more than 24 attendees. I don't know whether that happened. I do know that much of her audience would have needed less proof than that. Not just because Brentwood is practically all white, while Monessen is predominantly African American. But because of something that happened on a different night — Oct. 12, 1995.
That was the night black motorist Jonny Gammage was followed by white Brentwood Police Lt. Milton Mulholland for "erratic driving." During the ensuing traffic stop, Brentwood officer John Vojtas arrived at the scene, along with three officers from other suburban communities. All the officers were white.
And somehow Jonny Gammage ended up dead.
Vojtas was acquitted of manslaughter and later promoted to sergeant. Mulholland's case ended in a mistrial; he's now deceased. Nearly 17 years later, Brentwood still has Gammage's blood on its hands.
The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Tony Norman, whom I have much respect for, wrote after the basketball game that Brentwood "has been the Mr. Magoo of local municipalities when it comes to race." By promoting Vojtas even after Gammage's death, he added, "Brentwood became synonymous with a uniquely regional form of racial bias." And in the minds of its residents, he scoffed, allegations of racism were merely a "mass hallucination" that unfairly tarred "the long-suffering people of Brentwood."
In Brentwood itself, the Gammage incident remains the very white elephant in the room. Brentwood is the proverbial tight-knit community: about 10,000 residents, packed into 1.5 square miles. People here are proud — proud they grew up in Brentwood, proud they stayed. In this year's 2012 Spartan yearbook, two students were dubbed the most likely to "Never Leave Brentwood" — an honor alongside categories like "Most Popular."
But I want Tony to know that my son, who was at that basketball game, is suffering. He said that the media was reporting things that weren't true. He went on a personal campaign to set the record straight, and in essence, vindicate his generation. I think that's called paying for the sins of the father.
And as the WPIAL investigation found a few weeks after the game:
Monessen's security director, who has over thirty years of police experience, testified credibly ... that he heard no racial slurs coming from the Brentwood crowd or otherwise.
Brentwood clearly and convincingly demonstrated that the actions of the Brentwood students dressed in banana costumes were not racially motivated.
No reports were made to Brentwood administrators or security officials prior to or during the game that racial slurs were being used or that anybody was engaging in racial intimidation.
Still, WPIAL recommended Brentwood and Monessen school officials work together to "promote the spirit of sportsmanship."
Enter Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Charlie Batch, who'd previously spoken about respect and dignity to student assemblies in both districts. And he attended last Friday's football game — the first meeting of the schools since February, and the one in which Kissel promised a "different atmosphere" — as part of "Sportsmanship, Dignity and Respect Day." All to heal an insult that WPIAL administrators found no evidence of.
A different atmosphere. I attended Friday's game, and spent much of it weaving through the crowd. Most of the kids there weren't even born when Jonny Gammage died. I heard the n-word once, spoken by a young, African-American Monessen fan.
Yet, there was the gnawing presence of John Vojtas himself on hand for the game — and in uniform.
There's nothing Brentwood can do now to make the Gammage situation right. Vojtas was acquitted. But as Norman's column pointed out, the borough changed exam standards so he could be promoted. That was wrong, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone my age in Brentwood who thinks there's anything wrong with it.
Still, we need to give the next generation a chance to do the right thing.
"Never Leave Brentwood."
Maybe the trouble is, Brentwood never leaves you.