Chicago porch collapse claimed Northern Illinois lineman

Tuesday, August 26, 2003

DEKALB, Ill. -- Brad Cieslak takes a moment for himself each day, just before practice, to pause at the glass-encased locker before he jogs out to the Northern Illinois football field.

Enclosed are the jersey and helmet of Shea Fitzgerald, a towering figure on the Huskies' offensive line. He was the largest player on the team, a 6-foot-7, 300-pound former high school wrestler who was Northern Illinois' starting tackle as a 19-year-old sophomore.

Fitzgerald was one of 13 people killed in a three-story porch collapse on June 29 in Chicago. Cieslak was with Fitzgerald that night.

"I look at it every day before I go out to practice," he said of the locker. "Just to remember he's there with us, because we know he is."

Cieslak, a tight end who lined up alongside Fitzgerald, was with Fitzgerald most of the time they attended the party in Chicago's upscale Lincoln Park neighborhood. The party stretched into early Sunday, and around 12:30 a.m., Cieslak left the third-floor porch they were standing on to grab a drink.

Seconds later, Fitzgerald and the porch were gone.

Brimming with dozens of partygoers, the wooden deck crashed to the ground in a mass of splintered wood and bodies.

For Cieslak and teammate Pat Raleigh, who also was at the party, the football season will be a welcome distraction from their memories of that night. It's also a reminder that Fitzgerald, who dreamed of an NFL career, won't be there with them.

"It was just unreal. The screams were frightening. It was just something that I don't want to see or live through again," said Cieslak, who along with Raleigh frantically pulled survivor after survivor from the wreckage until there weren't any left.

"We never found him. It would have been tough if we did."

It's been hard enough regardless.

Growing close as teammates

Cieslak, Raleigh and Fitzgerald spent much of the summer growing closer. Raleigh and Fitzgerald were roommates their freshman year and all three lived near each other in Dekalb and spent nearly every day together in weeks leading up to the party.

So it wasn't a surprise to see them together that day.

Fitzgerald spent most of the evening introducing Raleigh and Cieslak to everyone he knew. The party was at the apartment of Fitzgerald's older brother, a gathering of high school friends in their early 20s from Chicago's northern suburbs.

The three spent most of the afternoon and evening on the porch, discussing the Cubs' loss to the White Sox earlier in the day and talking excitedly about the upcoming season.

About 20 seconds before the deck fell, Cieslak and Raleigh went into the kitchen. Fitzgerald stayed behind.

"You ask yourself, 'What if this had happened? What if that had happened? What if it was me? What if he had come with us?"' Raleigh said. "We did all we could to help.

"There were probably 15 of us down there pulling boards out. It probably helps to think that maybe we helped some other people get out, because there were a lot of people injured."

Since his death, Fitzgerald's teammates -- particularly Cieslak and Raleigh -- have tried to put the tragedy behind them.

That hasn't been easy.

"The other day in meetings we were watching film from the spring, and there's Shea -- out there doing real good. Then you think about it," Cieslak said. "Certain things will trigger it, but it's not at a point where it's stopping me from doing anything."

This is the second straight year Northern Illinois players have lost a teammate. In 2002, 19-year-old Jawan Jackson collapsed and died during conditioning drills. Jackson's death was attributed to an enlarged heart.

"Some of these kids have been through more death and tragedy than most kids their age normally have been through," coach Joe Novak said. "I hate to say it, but I think it's almost hardened them a little bit. I do know this, it's really drawn them closer."

Welcoming the season

For Raleigh and Cieslak, football has been a blessing.

Neither have spent any time by themselves. Neither want to.

"It helps being with your friends. It's kind of rough when you're just by yourself and you've got time to think," Raleigh said. "It helps take your mind off it. Even when you do start talking about it, they're all good stories. He was such a good kid. He worked hard on the field, he overcame a learning disability and got pretty good grades in school. Everybody loved him."

Reminders of Fitzgerald will be everywhere when Northern Illinois opens its season at home against No. 15 Maryland on Thursday -- exactly two months after the night of the party.

A check, from donations and a pair of fund-raisers, will be presented to the Fitzgerald family before the game. That will be followed by a moment of silence, and every player will have Fitzgerald's No. 76 stitched to his jersey.

Then there's the locker room memorial, an idea of Cieslak and Raleigh. The glass-enclosed locker holds everything Fitzgerald would have worn onto the field. Plans are to keep the locker closed for the next three years, when Fitzgerald would have graduated.

There won't be any motivational speeches, at least not from Novak. He'd rather players emulate Fitzgerald, a tireless worker who overcame dyslexia to earn a full scholarship.

"We're not going to 'Win one for Shea."' Novak said. "What I told the kids is, let's try to be like him."

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