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The Tragic Death of Nick Haben (athletic hazing) by Hank Nuwer (from High School Hazing)

The death of rookie athlete Nick Haben, aged eighteen, after a Western Illinois University lacrosse club hazing incident teaches terrible lessons: first, alcohol can kill—anyone—swiftly and painfully; second, risky initiations can go wrong at any time, no matter how long they have been carried out without incident; third, left unchecked, the kind of rampant hazing in colleges that killed Nick Haben will trickle down to high school—the frenzied, one-day high school initiation activities in Des Moines, Iowa and Santa Fe, New Mexico, mentioned earlier in this chapter will gradually lead to fatalities for high school students.

At Oswego (Illinois) High School, Nick Haben had been a popular young man with athletic ability, good looks, and an eye-to-eye smile. He was also a good student and member of the National Honor Society. A nondrinker who admitted to tasting two beers once to satisfy his curiosity, Nick was happy to sip soda at parties. A strong catcher and the most valuable player on his high school baseball team, he went to Western Illinois University hoping to play ball, until he learned the team already had six catchers. Instead, he decided to go out for lacrosse, and he made the club.
Nick and his parents had no idea that the lacrosse club was in a kind of free fall, having just come off a suspension after some players had illegally used the team’s gas credit card to fill their own automobile tanks. Supervision was abysmal, with an adviser in name only. Since being recruited to the job in 1982, Lowell G. Oxtoby, a heavyset librarian with a love for antiques and Delta Tau Delta, the fraternity he also advises, had served as the club’s adviser. But one day, when he came to practice, some of the players mocked him crudely, and he left the field, hurt and bewildered, never to return.

Instead of quitting as adviser and alerting the university, Oxtoby continued to sign authorization slips for travel. He was never aware that veterans initiated the rookies and portrays himself as a victim of team deception. “I didn’t know until this incident,” says Oxtoby. “It had been kept from me completely…. Just as any parent would not know about drinking or smoking behind their backs unless they see evidence of it, because my contact was so minimal there was no way I could detect it.”

…He hadn’t even been aware that the lacrosse club’s president had recently resigned over alcohol problems on the team.

Without an adviser, except in name, the team’s only supervision was a twenty-one-year-old student coach, Brian Donchez. He was assisted by student officers Daniel Carey, Anthony Kolovitz, Scott Rakita, and Marc Anderson. Anderson later said his title was little more than honorific.
On the field, the lacrosse players loved the game and played hard. Once the game started, the rookie status of the hustling midfielder Haben and the other players was forgotten. Off the field, however, the players, in white team jackets, drank beer after practices and on road trips, leaving the non-drinker Haben to return to his residence hall alone. Because the club’s good times revolved around alcohol and Nick’s revolved around his friends, classes, family, and church, only a few teammates got to know him, and vice versa.

Soon, Nick and the other rookies began hearing scary stories about the initiation they would have to endure. Although he was frightened by the prospect and intimidated by some of the veterans, Nick began to think seriously about drinking to support his fellow rookies as they tried to pass the inane test of manhood. Nick’s cousin, Jason Altenbern, talked to Nick the evening before the scheduled drinking marathon and later described Nick as “scared.”

The day of the initiation, veterans broke the hazing into afternoon and evening sessions. The annual team hazing was unplanned and chaotic, much like the club’s own relationship with the university and absent faculty adviser. Many of the players were also members of fraternities, where, in spite of a school ban on kegs, young people often passed out from alcohol during parties. For fun, some fraternity members would become instantly intoxicated by “inhaling” liquor through a bong, or water pipe.

On the afternoon of October 18, 1990, the lacrosse initiation began at 3:30 P.M. One of the veterans produced a paddle, delivering a few stinging shots to the behinds of rookies. A couple of veterans laughed uneasily during the paddling for none of them had been paddled as rookies. Three or four veterans proceeded to growl, curse, and taunt the rookies in feigned anger. Nick and the other eight rookies had to strip to their underwear and run onto the women’s soccer field to perform odd-looking calisthenics meant to make them look foolish. The rookies were given vodka, though Nick declined to drink any, as well as sips from a pail of a foul concoction called rookie juice, composed of tuna, condiments, pepper sauce, clam or lime juice, a little beer, and some schnapps. According to veteran Marc Anderson, each rookie took only a mouthful or two.

The team was released for dinner. Nick gathered with his fellow rookies before the initiation and drank some olive oil and ate half of a load of bread. He had heard somewhere that it was important to coat your stomach before drinking. The team’s rookies went back to the practice field for more hazing and to choke down cheap, bad-tasting wine. Veterans inked a different number on each rookie’s face, then ordered him to do more calisthenics.

Of course no one can know exactly what was on Nick’s mind by this time. Perhaps the couple of sips of alcoholic rookie juice made it harder for him to abstain from drinking more. After performing calisthenics, the team went to the house of veterans Jim Boyer and Steve Kadlec in Macomb. They drank some more while the veterans bombarded them with eggs and rubbed food in their hair.
After washing up at one of the residence halls, the rookies went to a wooded area not far from the practice field. The rookies, under the supervision of a handful of veterans, guzzled alcohol while they participated in a scavenger hunt, displayed the head of a dead squirrel, and leaped over a campfire into a nearby river. The veterans, drunk and glassy eyed, were surprised by Nick, the perennial abstainer, who joined the rookies in the swilling of an astonishing amount of tequila, whiskey, gin, vodka, vermouth, beer, and cheap wine. Because the only benchmark available to Nick that night was alcohol consumption, his actions probably reflected his desire to show the veterans his commitment and loyalty to the team, which was so great that he put aside his usual reservations about liquor.

When at last veteran John Bilenko—a young man who says his attitudes about alcohol were formed by images of his father drinking occasionally hard in social situations—finally yanked a bottle of tequila from Nick, it was way too late to keep him from falling into a coma. Some fluid spilled from Nick’s lips and he keeled over. Instead of panicking or calling 911, the veterans, determined to finish the initiation, put the rest of the rookies through silly stunts and delivered pep talks about how the lacrosse team had been one of their most important college experiences. No one was worried about the teammate passed out on the ground. Every one of them had seen people pass our before, and everyone expected at least another one to pass out before the initiation was over. “Before we heard Nick was dead it was one of the best times I ever had,” said Anderson. “The night was fun. I’m glad I had the experience, the brotherhood, the bonding.”

Predictably, newspaper editorials summed up Nick’s death as a failure to resist peer pressure. Few commentators were perceptive enough to analyze how sports, alcohol abuse, and hazing had become so intertwined in high school and collegiate life. The press also tended to be judgmental, portraying the lacrosse veterans as full-blown villains instead of students who had somehow gotten through high school and college with little knowledge about the complexities of group behavior.

A TERRIBLE VISIT
The next morning Alice Haben was at her job as church secretary, finishing some arrangements for the trip that she, her husband Dale, and teenage son Charles were taking to Macomb that very weekend. Two policemen entered the building a little after 10 A.M. to speak with Reverend Philip M. Dripps in his office. He came out, gathered himself, and broke Alice Haben’s heart in a few bleak sentences. Nick had been found dead on the dormitory room floor of a lacrosse team veteran. A coroner would do an autopsy that afternoon.

No one from the university phoned with details, according to Alice Haben. She had to rely on the coroner and a family relation who worked at the college to find out about Nick’s last hours.

At first, after hearing the reverend’s news, Alice had a moment of hope. Knowing that Nick didn’t drink, she conjectured that the victim must have stolen her son’s identification. But the coroner confirmed that Nick had indeed been the young man who had died from drinking at a party or some sort of initiation. In a fog, Alice went home to break the news to her husband and son, and then made arrangements for Nick’s body to be brought back to Oswego for a Sunday funeral.

On Saturday, after hundreds of relatives, friends, and strangers had come to the funeral parlor, Alice and Dale Haben brought Nick’s high school friends home. They sat with Charles, telling him story after story that brought his older brother to life again.
“It’s 1 A.M.,” a relative complained to Alice. “They have to go home.”
“No,” she said. “They don’t.”

 

 

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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