Kent State University player remembered for his smile (gallery)

By Allen Moff | Staff Writer Published:

Jason Bitsko certainly gave members of his Kent State University football family plenty to remember him by.

His infectious smile, constant glow, quick wit, and 'rent' paid in food from Taco Bell were recalled with both extreme joy and bitter sadness by Golden Flashes head coach Paul Haynes and teammate Nate Vance during a Thursday afternoon press conference at the M.A.C. Center, when Bitsko's death was addressed for the first time publicly.

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Bitsko, a 21-year old Huber Heights native who was set to start at center for KSU this season as a redshirt junior, was found dead in the bedroom of his off-campus apartment by a roommate Wednesday morning shortly before 9 a.m. after he failed to show up for practice.

Brimfield police believe he died in his sleep from an undetermined medical issue.

Vance, a senior defensive lineman from Stow who battled with Bitsko in the trenches for the past four years, described his teammate as a popular young man for reasons that transcended football.

"I've never seen someone light up a room as quickly and as easily as he did," Vance said. "He really did just want to make everyone's day as good as it could possibly be, and make our team as good as it could possibly be. The impact he had on our team was truly a great one. He came into the locker room and you could be having the worst day ever and he'd crack some joke and the whole place would just break out laughing. That's just who he was."

Vance went on to tell a story about a unique way Bitsko went about earning the right to crash repeatedly on his couch.

"When I was a junior, me and a couple football guys had a house and (Bitsko) was still in the dorm. He would just come chill and hang out on weekends, and he would sleep on our couch," Vance said. "He did it like all the time. We eventually got on him, so he started buying us Taco Bell every morning. I guess that was his way of paying rent. I was laughing about that (Wednesday) night with some of the guys. He was just the man, really."

To know Bitsko was to love him, according to Haynes.

"You talk about a guy who had an impact on everyone in this locker room," said Haynes. "We've gotten a lot of letters from teachers from Huber Heights on what a great kid he was and how many lives he touched then. He didn't have football roommates, he had just people that he met here. He always had a smile on his face. You just remember the smile -- good day, bad day, always had a smile on his face.

"He's just a kid that touched so many lives."

Haynes was also touched by Bitsko's parents, Randy and Pam, during a lengthy conversation at the hospital on Wednesday.

"They're incredible people," said Haynes. "(Pam) was apologetic to me just for the timing of when we have to get prepared for a game (Aug. 30) and when the funeral will be, then (Randy wanted us to give Bitsko's) scholarship to a walk-on. That's where their hearts were, which was unbelievable to me."

Haynes, who has coached since 1993, has never had to deal with the death of a player until now. He found himself leaning on others as much as his players were leaning on him.

Haynes is letting his players call the shots for now. They wanted to get back on the field Thursday and did so with a walk-through, and they will practice lightly this morning -- the day preseason camp was supposed to break. Full-scale preparations for the Aug. 30 opener against Ohio University will begin on Monday.

"That would be what Jason would want. He wouldn't want us to stop, he would want us to continue on a normal routine and try to get this team better," Vance said.

One of the ways Bitsko will be remembered will be obvious to everyone who watches KSU play football this season. The Flashes' helmets will have the logo on one side, and Bitsko's No. 54 on the other.

Remembering Bitsko will be the easiest thing members of the KSU football family do this season.

"He stood for what we try to stand for as a football team, building men," Haynes said. "We had the pleasure of being around Jason."

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