Marathon runner, UMass player find link in slain officer

Last modified: Sunday, July 28, 2013
AMHERST — When the annual University of Massachusetts spring football game was over Saturday, Gary Menin and Randall Jette shared a short conversation and then a hug on the McGuirk Stadium field.

The 30-year-old tax attorney from Milton and the University of Massachusetts freshman cornerback had never met before Saturday when they were united by Sean Collier, the police officer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who was killed allegedly by the Marathon bombers late Thursday night.

Like most people who were introduced to Collier posthumously through news reports, Jette saw him as a symbol — a youthful face who represented both the senseless loss of life and the heroism of law enforcement officers that defined last week. News reports described Collier as pleasant, well-liked and dedicated to his profession.

That’s what Jette knew when Minuteman coach Charley Molnar offered the Martha’s Vineyard native a chance to honor the slain officer. As part of several gestures at the spring game aimed at honoring people affected by the tragic events in Boston, UMass replaced Jette’s own name with “Sean Collier” on the back of his jersey Saturday.

“When coach told me I was going to wear his name on my back, I came into the game a totally different way,” Jette said. “I had to play for someone other than myself. I had a lot more momentum going into the game.

“I know a lot of my teammates wished we could all represent the victims,” he added. “Every one of us wanted to wear one. I was very honored. I’ll always remember this.”

But to Menin, Collier was more than just the details given in the obituaries and tributes that have appeared in Boston media. He was a buddy with whom he used to throw a Frisbee, a guy who liked to grill in the backyard and play drums while Menin strummed guitar on the Rock Band video game in their apartment years ago. Like many former roommates, they fell out of touch as busy adulthood pushed their lives in different directions. But Menin held his old friend in high regard.

“He was an all-around great guy,” said Menin, who was wearing the blue-and-yellow Boston Marathon windbreaker he got for running in Monday’s race. “He had great passion for being a cop. It was his dream in life. He also loved playing kickball. He was a great griller and an all-around amazing guy. I hadn’t seen him in a while and you lose a little touch.”

Menin, unaware that Collier had begun working at MIT, did not even consider that it could be his friend when he heard news reports that a campus police officer had been killed.

When Collier’s name was released Friday, Menin said he fell to his knees.

“That was the moment I lost it,” he said. “Seeing how hard it hit me, I can’t imagine the people that were closer to him. It’s been hard enough for me. I can’t imagine what they’re going through.”

Molnar did not know Menin when he announced the Marathon-related events for the spring game, but the program was perfect for the 2004 UMass graduate, who works as an attorney for State Street Bank.

In most years, the spring football game is little more than a glorified intrasquad scrimmage. If the scoreboard is used at all, it’s hard to tell who is really winning in UMass vs. UMass.

But this year’s event was different. The Minutemen wanted to use it to honor the victims of the week’s tragic events as well as the first responders and law enforcement.

And UMass wanted to offer a finish-line experience for people like Menin who did not get to complete the iconic race when the explosions forced runners to be diverted.

Molnar announced Wednesday that he was inviting any runner who was not able to complete the 26.2 miles to attend the game. He promised a crowd of cheering football players to run through en route to the finish line.

Later in the week, he announced that five players, all natives of Massachusetts, would wear special jerseys. Four players replaced their own names above the numbers on their backs with those of the three people killed by the bombs — Krystle Campbell, Lingzi Lu and Martin Richard — as well as Collier. The fifth player, senior captain Rob Blanchflower, wore “#BostonStrong.”

Menin was among the six runners to take Molnar up on his offer. All six ran a three-quarter lap around the football field before crossing a makeshift finish line at midfield as UMass players, coaches and fans congratulated them.

The run symbolically completed a race that Menin had come so close to finishing Monday. According to the GPS feature on his watch, Menin had run 26.1 miles in his first-ever attempt at a marathon, bringing him close enough to see the second explosion before he was stopped and redirected by race officials.

He had been using his phone as an MP3 player for music during the race. Even though the battery was nearly dead and service was poor, Menin eventually was able to reach his family and friends, who were near the finish line.

“Hearing that they were OK was amazing, but at the same time I’m looking around at other people on the phone and they’re bawling their eyes out,” he said. “I don’t know how many were overwhelmed or how many were getting bad news.”

Menin and Jette watched the news reports during the week and both celebrated Friday night’s capture of suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, but their excitement was tempered by thoughts of the victims.

“Last night I went out and danced all night and cheered with the crowds,” Menin said. “It didn’t fix anything, but it was the first step. I’m starting to feel a little better. It was nice hearing the president say Sean’s name.

“But at the same time, people (who died) aren’t back,” he added. “I went to call my friend Derek, who I lived with too. I knew Sean through Derek and Sean’s name popped up in my phone. I just felt awful. I’m looking forward to starting to heal.”

Jette said he hopes in a small way Saturday’s experience might be part of that healing.

“It was good we got the bomber, but at the end of the day there are still victims that died. There are families coping with that and our hearts go out to them,” Jette said. “We just tried to represent them as best as we could with a little gesture.”

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage.