Las Vegas tragedy resonates deeply for San Diego State football

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L.E. Baskow

Canyon Springs head coach Hunkie Cooper shouts orders as QB Bradley Alexander awaits his next play call. Cooper is now on the San Diego State coaching staff.

For Noble Hall, playing in Las Vegas is usually a joyous occasion.

The San Diego State defensive lineman has returned to play in his hometown twice since leaving to begin his collegiate career, and both times the Sam Boyd Stadium stands were stocked with family and friends. Hall, a Valley High product, said his ticket list contains more than 20 names for this Saturday’s game against UNLV.

The mood will be different this time, obviously.

Much like the UNLV football team is struggling to control its emotions in the aftermath of Sunday’s tragic mass shooting, Hall is one of several Las Vegas locals who will be wearing SDSU colors this weekend and trying to find a balance between empathy and competition.

“It’s hard,” Hall said. “It’s a lot to deal with when that’s where you grew up and you know a lot of people still in that community.”

Hall, a junior, chose San Diego State over other offers because it was close to home. Being near his mother and sister was a deciding factor for him; he said he still gets a little homesick from time to time, and the proximity makes it easy for his mother to make the five-hour drive to San Diego.

When news of the shooting broke, Las Vegas wasn’t close enough. Hall raced home to make sure his loved ones were safe.

“When I first heard about it, I instantly called my family and asked if they were OK, if everyone they knew was OK,” Hall said. “Thank god everyone was safe. It was a tragedy I would never imagine happening in the city I was born in.”

Hall’s teammates have reached out and showed concern, but he’s trying to put his somber feelings aside for the week. Like the rest of the Vegas products in the San Diego State locker room, Hall knows he owes it to his team to focus on the game. But it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s kind of hard [to focus],” he said. “I came in to the locker room and everyone was asking if my family was OK. It’s good to know my teammates care. But we have a mission right now, so I’ve got to try to put it to the side. But it’s always going to be in the back of my mind.”

It’s also going to weigh heavy on the mind of wide receivers coach Hunkie Cooper, another Aztec with deep ties to the Las Vegas community. A Texas native, Cooper played his college ball at UNLV before settling in the area. He eventually served as the head coach at Canyon Springs High until moving on to San Diego State three years ago.

Cooper also worked as a security director at Mandalay Bay, and when his daughter informed him of the attack, he spent the night trying to get in touch with former colleagues.

His daughter, a UNLV nursing student, said several of her sorority sisters attended the Route 91 festival that night, and though they escaped safely, Cooper spent much of the night trying to comfort her.

“Las Vegas has been my home,” Cooper said. “For the last 25 years of my life, that’s the city where I raised my kids, my kids graduated from local schools, my kids served in the community there. So that hit close to home. It’s senseless and it’s sad. It’s going to be a heavy burden on the people for a long time, but Las Vegas is a city that’s always reinventing itself. They’ll find a way to make a positive of it somehow. I’m looking forward to playing the game and seeing my old friends after the game.”

Though he’s feeling for his city, Cooper’s job is to keep his players’ minds on the game and not on the circumstances surrounding it, hard as that may be.

“We’re all humans and obviously all our hearts are going to be heavy,” Cooper said. “Who knows how the mood is going to be? UNLV is going to want to play for the city and for the people that lost their lives. They’re going to want to play their hearts out. Once they play the national anthem and the ceremony to honor them, our guys are going to lock in and focus on the task at hand.”

“There’s going to be emotion,” he continued. “The game is going to start out in a somber way. But I think playing the game is going to be rehab for [UNLV]. It’s going to get their minds off the terrible tragedy that just occurred. It’s a terrible thing that happened, but kids see the world differently. I know both teams are going to be focused on trying to win the game.”

Hall will be key to that effort. He has been one of San Diego State’s most productive defenders this season, as he’s racked up 4.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks while forcing two fumbles, and with UNLV struggling to protect the passer at times this season, Hall could play a big role in determining whether the Aztecs leave with their undefeated record intact.

In order to accomplish that, Hall will once again have to overcome his emotions on game day — something he’s been doing for a long time.

Hall’s father was shot and killed in a violent confrontation before he was born. During his senior year of high school, Hall changed his name (he was formerly known as Eric Burrell) to honor his father. Due to his perspective as someone who has lost a family member to gun violence, Hall said he empathizes with the people who lost loved ones in Sunday's tragedy, but he said the hurt doesn’t completely go away.

“It never really gets easier,” Hall said. “I feel like the way I cope with it is I play football. That’s what helps me. But I’m not really sure [how others can cope]. It’s different for everyone.”

Hall hopes that playing a football game six days after the attack will help restore a sense of normalcy to the community he loves.

“I feel like us coming out there and playing at UNLV will maybe bring a sense of excitement,” he said. “I hope people can come to the game, get it packed and get positive vibes through the stadium, win or lose. The people deserve something good.”

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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