There are simply no words to express the despair of the Vanderbilt community upon the untimely death of 21-year-old Kwane Doster Sunday. The junior tailback was murdered in the back seat of a car in Tampa, by assailants who fled in an orange Infiniti, police said.
There is simply nothing that can be said today to help any of us comprehend why this happened, or to help us feel better about it. There is nothing but a bitter emptiness, an anger, in coming to grips with the fact that someone so young, so gifted, has had his life tragically snuffed out.
Nothing in life ever prepares you for that phone call that comes from the police in the wee hours. Our hearts simply break for Mrs. Doster and Kwane's two siblings.
Let me begin this by saying that I didn't know Kwane well. Few probably did. He was quiet, soft-spoken and somewhat reserved-- although he would on occasion start talking if you prompted him properly.
Some running backs-- particularly the kinds that like to wear the No. 1 jersey-- are big yappers, prone to call attention to themselves. Not Kwane. He was never one for trash-talk, or for big celebrations when he carried the ball into the end zone. He always acted as though he'd been there before, and expected to be there again.
As a fan, I always admired his fearlessness on kickoff returns; his darting, slashing running style; and his seeming refusal to acknowledge that he was smaller than almost every other player on the field.
But given the chance to interview him after games, I came to admire him nearly as much for his humility, his self-deprecating wit, and his obvious, sincere willingness to be a "team player". For one so gifted, such qualities are rare.
Through his athletic abilities, Kwane was able to attend Vanderbilt and rise above his modest circumstances. Like most, he found the Vanderbilt academics challenging; but unlike many, he simply adjusted and rose to meet that challenge too. By his junior year, his grades were exemplary.
In the 2002 season, Bobby Johnson's first at Vandy, the Robinson High School graduate was handed the starting tailback job on a silver platter, when two upperclassmen ahead of him suffered broken legs. And Doster, most fans will recall, made the most of it.
He proceeded to make a bigger splash than any Commodore freshman of the past 30 years. He earned SEC Back of the Week honors after setting a conference record for total offense in a game. By season's end he was named SEC Freshman of the Year, the only Vanderbilt player ever so honored.
Predictably, he suffered a bit of a sophomore slump the following season. After it, last August, he told me candidly he had probably gotten a little too comfortable after his stellar freshman season. Things had probably come too easily for him that year, and he had failed to carry over his intensity. He had rested on his considerable laurels.
"I think my sophomore year I got a little comfortable with myself," he said. "My freshman year was OK... nobody knew me or expected me to come out and do the kinds of things I was able to do.
"But I want to be better than last year. So this year I've come out and watched a lot of film and observed myself. I can see that I need to improve on a lot of areas, where as I freshman I was just mostly reacting.
"Now I know the game much better... I know better now than to just sit in that comfort zone," he continued. "You just have to work harder and harder every week at practice."
Though he would again share the carries with Norval McKenzie in 2004, Doster's third and final season at Vandy, fans in 2004 would see some more flashes of the old, explosive Doster. He would finish the season with a respectable 427 rushing yards.
With Doster, it was always about working just a little harder, doing it a little better the next time out. Perhaps few players on the squad better bought into the Bobby Johnson approach to football-- which mandates that good results come only as the result of hard work, discipline and focus.
In Vandy's 19-7 win over Eastern Kentucky Oct. 23, Doster had his first 100-yard game in quite a while (and as it turns out, the last of his career). In the press room afterwards, he was his typical soft-spoken, unassuming self.
"I have to give a lot of credit to the offensive line and the whole team," he said. "It all starts with them and the receivers. But basically I just got my deal today. I've just got to take it and run with it."
Then he spoke about the mindset that he had used to re-focus himself for this, his junior season.
And the words he used will now forever haunt me.
"What I told myself at the beginning of this season was just not to get comfortable. I just have to work hard every play, like it's my last play."
Little did any of us know at the time that the 2004 season would be his last. Surely, we all thought, he would return in 2005 as one of Vandy's key senior leaders, an All-SEC candidate and maybe even a team captain. The Tampa product would graduate proudly with that HOD degree. Now none of it will happen.
Eventually, for us Vandy loyalists, the numbness will wear off. His teammates will eventually gather themselves, and rally for a 2005 season that will likely be dedicated to him. Eventually, hopefully, the cowardly perpetrators of this heinous act will be caught and punished.
In the meantime, however... there are simply no words.
Kwane Doster, 1983-2004