After the tragedy it suffered last week, the Northwestern State football team will be in a “safe haven” when it returns to action.
NSU will host Southeastern Louisiana at 7 p.m. tonight at Turpin Stadium in Northwestern’s first game since an Oct. 12 early-morning shooting at an off-campus apartment complex claimed the life of NSU junior defensive back Ronnie Caldwell.
Natchitoches authorities are still investigating, but within a day of the slaying arrested a 27-year-old non-NSU student — who was in the same four-plex apartment as Caldwell — on a charge of possessing a gun and drugs. Caldwell and the man reportedly did not know each other prior to being assigned to share accomodations at the Quad Apartment Complex several weeks ago.
NSU cancelled last Saturday’s game at Nicholls in the wake of the slaying. Monday, NSU and SLU agreed to move their game, scheduled for Saturday, up to tonight.
“Having the opportunity after this to play at home will be special,” sixth-year head coach Brad Laird said. “Ronnie had so many opportunities on the practice field, during scrimmages, on the headset. He’s done a little bit of it all. To be able to play it at home, yes, Thursday instead of Saturday, will be special as we honor Ronnie.”
Northwestern (0-5, 0-1) returns to action for the first time since falling to Lamar 27-13 on Oct. 7 in Beaumont, Texas. Southeastern (0-7, 0-3) lost last Saturday 30-24 at home to Lamar.
The Demons are playing at home for the first time since Sept. 30 – marking NSU’s longest stretch between home games this season.
Playing at home this week holds even more importance for the Northwestern players.
“That’s kind of everybody’s safe haven where they can take their mind of outside noises,” said center Brayden Staggs, who has started all five games at the pivot. “It felt good to get back out there (for practice) and get back on that routine schedule. At the same time, everyone’s still kind of empty with everything that’s gone on.”
Southeastern is playing its final game ahead of the Lions’ open week.
The defending Southland Conference champions and preseason favorites have dropped three straight one-score decisions, including last weekend to Lamar after a second-half rally fell short.
“The last thing we’re going to do is look at records,” Laird said. “(Southeastern head coach Frank Scelfo) is probably saying the same thing. You turn on the film and you don’t see (an 0-7 team). It’s a very talented team. Things haven’t fallen their way in games. We know how that goes.
“They were picked to win the conference in the preseason. When you look at what they’ve done since Frank has been there, you know there is a good football team coming in here in Thursday night.”
The decision to move the game up two days came after Caldwell’s wake and funeral services were set for Friday and Saturday of this week in the Austin, Texas, area.
It will produce a unique situation for many of the Demon players who were not around for the program’s most recent Thursday night game, in 2021 against Sam Houston.
“The last time I played on a Thursday was in high school as a sophomore,” Staggs said. “It was a situation where there were too many schools playing on one weekend. It’s crazy to think I’m getting ready for a Thursday night game in college.”
Laird credited the administrations of both schools for allowing the date change to happen on short notice.
He added his appreciation for the response from coaches and administrators, and others across the conference and region who have sent well wishes to the NSU community.
“The people who reach out and supports know the investment we have in student-athletes, and they know the relationships – player to player, player to coach – we have,” he said. “They know we spend so much time with those guys. I appreciate the calls and texts and what they have meant in this grieving process.
“To our administration, starting with (NSU President) Dr. (Marcus) Jones and (Director of Athletics) Kevin Bostian, we appreciate how supportive they’ve been. They’re hurting, too. As we all get through this, we find out a lot about each other’s character through adverse situations. There are a lot of great people at Northwestern State and throughout our conference.”
Players, coaches and other NSU team personnel will travel to Austin for Caldwell’s services.