Jason Bitsko will be remembered by those whose lives he touched as a man with a smile on his face.
A man who knew how to crack a joke on a bad day.
A man who stood for what he believed in.
A man who didn’t take life for granted.
Bitsko, 21, died unexpectedly in the bedroom of his off-campus apartment Wednesday morning due to an undisclosed medical condition. He was a football player at Kent State University.
“Jason Bitsko was not just a Golden Flash — he was a son, he was a brother, he was a mentor, he was a friend,” KSU coach Paul Haynes said of the team’s starting center. “He was not just known for the things he did on the field.”
Teammate and close friend Nate Vance will remember him for all those things, but also as the guy on the couch.
Vance and a couple of teammates rented a house during their junior season while Bitsko still lived in the dorms. The group made it a habit of hanging out on the weekends, with Bitsko eventually sleeping on Vance’s couch. Once they started to get on him about it, Bitsko returned the favor by buying them all Taco Bell.
“That was his way of paying rent, I guess,” Vance joked. “I was laughing about that last night with some of the guys. Just everything, the stuff he did. He was just the man, really.”
The community support less than 24 hours after Bitsko’s passing shows the impact he made. Hundreds of tweets with the hashtag #KSUJason54 have flooded social media. The famous rock at the front of Kent State’s campus has already been painted with a yellow outline in the shape of Ohio and a blue “54” (Bitsko’s jersey number) on the inside. “Jason Bitsko 1993-2014” is painted on the ground in front of it.
Kent State’s athletic department has received numerous letters from Bitsko’s old high school teachers back home in Huber Heights on what a great kid he was and how many lives he touched.
KSU players will wear a “54” on one side of their helmets this season to honor Bitsko, with the Golden Flashes logo on the other side.
“The impact he had on our team was truly a great one,” Vance said. “I’ve never seen someone light up a room as quickly and as easily as he did. He really did just want to make everyone’s day as good as he possibly could.”
When Haynes initially heard the news, the first people he called were his wife, his mother and Jim Tressel, under whom Haynes coached for six years at Ohio State. He later got in contact with legendary NFL coach Tony Dungy, who offered Haynes advice and wisdom on how he and his football team can persevere through this tragedy.
Haynes and his wife, Danita, visited Bitsko’s family at the hospital on the day of Bitsko’s passing, sharing both laughs and tears. Jason’s mother apologized for the timing, with Kent State’s season opener against Ohio coming up in less than two weeks. The father was concerned with making sure that Jason’s scholarship went to a deserving walk-on student athlete.
“That’s where there hearts were,” Haynes said, “which is unbelievable to me.”
After canceling practice on Wednesday, the Golden Flashes resumed normal football activities Thursday on the presumption that it’s what Bitsko would have wanted.
“He wouldn’t want us to stop getting back into football,” Vance said. “He would want us to continue on a normal routine and to try to get this team better.”
Haynes will remember Bitsko as a leader both on and off the field. Back in January, the football program set up a leadership committee with 15 members. Bitsko was initially excluded, but not for long.
“It became clear, real fast as we started working out, that he needed to be a part of that,” Haynes said. “I just remember the time that I pulled him aside and I told him, ‘From now, I want you at these leadership committees.’?”
Bitsko’s twitter account, @isthatbitsko, is full of inspirational tweets with the hashtag #stayfocused. His final tweet, posted on Aug. 14, six days before his passing, read: “There are 86,400 seconds in a day. Make sure you use one of those to thank god for everything you have #stayfocused”
Vance and the entire KSU football team said they believe Bitsko meant and lived every word of the inspirational messages he relayed to his more than 700 followers.
“He knew that tomorrow wasn’t promised,” Vance said. “He went through every day with a joy and a kick in his step that was so unlike anybody else that I’ve known. And he did live that. He meant it. I think the team knew he meant it.”
By August Fagerstrom - Akron Beacon Journal (MCT)
©2014 the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio)
Visit the Akron Beacon Journal (Akron, Ohio) at www.ohio.com
Distributed by MCT Information Services