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Tragedy leaves UNI's Rennie without his No. 1 fan
Tirrell Rennie had just finished one of those wildly popular two-a-day summer practice sessions when he checked his phone messages. The no-nonsense voice in his ear told him to call home immediately.
If that weren’t alarming enough, people were crying in the background. A 22-year-old senior from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, Rennie is the star quarterback for the second-ranked University of Northern Iowa football team. On fall Saturdays he spends his time running and passing for big yardage and dodging menacing tacklers.
But there was no running from this. On Aug. 15, less than three weeks from UNI’s opening game at Iowa State University, Rennie’s half brother, Chase Walsh, 28, of Atlanta, died of a gunshot wound to the head.
When Rennie got off the phone with his cousin, there was Mark Farley, the Northern Iowa coach, coming down the UNI-Dome stairs. He’d already heard the news.
Farley likes Rennie — likes his leadership qualities, his positive personality, his emphasis on team as family. He doesn’t mind Rennie’s game-breaking speed and agility, either.
But now UNI’s most important player would be hopping on a plane to Florida for the funeral, leaving his Iowa family for a few days to say goodbye to his No. 1 fan. That’s what Chase Walsh called himself, and he wasn’t shy about reminding the object of his affection.
He even made sure that’s how he was listed on Rennie’s cellphone directory.
Tense moment turns tragic
Walsh had never seen Rennie play a college game in person, but he was coming to Ames to root for the Panthers. The plans were set. The oldest sibling, Desmond Walsh, his wife and their 2-year-old son would be there, too.
Everyone was looking forward to Sept. 3. Then everything changed.
A month later, the family still isn’t sure what happened the night Walsh died. They say the police report produced more questions than answers.
Squad cars responded to “an altercation involving a weapon,” the police department wrote in an email to The Des Moines Register. Walsh was running from a house, holding a handgun. When an officer on the scene left his vehicle and ordered Walsh to halt, Walsh raised the gun, fired a shot into the air and pointed his weapon at the cop.
An officer fired twice at Walsh. According to the officer, Walsh “crouched down, put the pistol to the right side of his own head” and fired.
By all indications, it was a domestic dispute involving Walsh and the mother of his children, ages 7 and 8. After that, the facts get fuzzy. An Atlanta TV station reported that Walsh had three wounds, including one to the buttocks.
Sitting in the UNI-Dome stands this week, waiting for a football meeting, Rennie talked about how losing his half brother broke his heart.
“I’d been with him since I was born,” he said. “He took care of me when my mom and stepdad were working.”
Rennie still leaves messages on Walsh’s cellphone. He says he will as long as the line remains open.
He can’t bring himself to believe it was a suicide. No way, he says, would Walsh leave his two children without a father.
“Those two kids were his world. There’s not a chance he’d ever do something like that. He was selfless, the ideal brother. He never asked for anything, never wanted anything. He did whatever he could to meet his family’s needs.
“He’d never throw that out the door, whether he thought it through or not.”
Mother: ‘This tears my heart out’
Rennie’s mother, Dawn Rennie, 47, is certain Walsh was bringing money for the kids when he and their mother got into an argument at her home in southwest Atlanta.
Walsh had served time on domestic violence charges before, Tirrell Rennie acknowledged, but that doesn’t change the fact that he loved those kids. Lawyers advised the family to hire an outside firm to conduct the autopsy, but Dawn Rennie wanted a prompt, proper burial, and that was that.
“It’s really, really sad,” she said from her home in Florida. “He was a great father. He wasn’t involved in drugs or gangs. He was only there to give money to his kids. I visit him and pray for him every day. We’re a strong family, we believe in God and we’re hoping he’ll carry us through this.”
They’re a family that seems to emphasize education. Natalie Rennie, 21, attends South Carolina State University; Terrence Rennie, 20, is a football player at Virginia Union University; Desmond Walsh, 30, wrestled at Olivet College in Michigan.
Tirrell Rennie majors in criminal justice and hopes to work with troubled kids when his football days are over. He said Chase Walsh was a decent student, too, but never wanted to go to college and was working in an Atlanta warehouse managed by his stepfather.
“My whole life, my mom and stepdad preached academics, academics,” Rennie said. “My mom migrated here from Jamaica. She never graduated from high school, but they both told us kids we could have everything in the world if we had an education.”
His mother agrees with her son. She isn’t handling anything really well at this point.
“This tears my heart out,” she said. “Tirrell is strong. He’s been that way since he was little, but I’m falling apart.”
She tries not to let it show, but Rennie can see it. “It kills me to see her so brittle and weak,” he said. “There she is, giving me encouragement, when I should be giving it to her.”
Rennie ‘grateful’ for support
Heading into Iowa State week, Rennie didn’t know whether he’d be emotionally ready by game time. He kept his emotions inside until the plane landed in Florida. Then he broke down.
The last thing Walsh told him, he remembered, was to fight for his family.
“It still hurts,” Rennie said in the UNI-Dome. “It’ll continue to hurt, but the guys on my team, my new Iowa family, the coaching staff and even a lot of the fans have been very supportive helping me through this. Even when they don’t say anything, I know they’re behind me.
“That support, I need it and I’m grateful for it.”
When it finally came time to play ISU, he was ready. In front of almost 55,000 people, Rennie ran for 127 yards, passed for 181 more. He was the player of the game until his Iowa State counterpart, Steele Jantz, slipped into the end zone with 40 seconds to play to give the Cyclones a 20-19 victory.
“Tirrell Rennie,” Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads said afterward, “… what a remarkable player.”
Farley knows what he has, on and off the field.
“The thing about Tirrell,” he said, “is he’s such a good-natured person. He’s always positive.”
The following week in Nacogdoches, Texas, Rennie kept it positive by helping the Panthers avenge last year’s loss to Stephen F. Austin State University. He ran for 126 yards and passed for another 151 to lead the Panthers to a 34-23 victory over another highly ranked team in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision.
Lots of college quarterbacks pass better than Rennie. Some even run better. But you won’t find many better at both.
In his junior season after transferring from Ellsworth Community College, Rennie was named the Missouri Valley Conference newcomer of the year. He’s one of the main reasons the Panthers are picked to win the MVC title this season.
Every Saturday this time of year, we watch them play football. We listen to what they say before and after the games. We know more about our favorite college football players than we do most of our elected officials.
But what do we really know about their lives off the field? Not nearly as much as we think.
By Marc Hansen, Des Moines Register