Maybe it’s odd, but when Brenda Tracy needs strength, she looks at her feet.
It always helps. She can see that her sneakers are safely on a stage, or a floor, or the cool, green grass, and that means she’s no longer in the place where her life was irreparably changed on the night of June 24, 1998, when she was gang-raped by four football players in a campus apartment in Corvallis, Oregon.
And, as she looks at her perfectly grounded shoes, she silently repeats the words needed to get through her difficult message, no matter what brand she wears.
A word for each of the three stripes on her kicks: “Strength, courage, faith.”
A phrase to go with the swoosh: “With God, just do it.”
And other words of comfort that get her through a presentation that always brings tears, always relives the pain, always makes everyone in the room circumspect and, in some cases, ashamed.
She warns them before she starts: “The things I am about to say are uncomfortable.”
In the last three years, Tracy has traveled the country for her nonprofit #SetTheExpectation campaign, telling students and, especially, student-athletes about the most horrific experience of her life and what they can do to prevent it from happening to others. Earlier this year, she accepted an invitation to speak at NC State, and every male student-athlete was required to attend.
Her speech so inspired football player James Smith-Williams and soccer player Vinnie Durand, they organized a drive for a Wolfpack baseball game to collect needed supplies for a Raleigh women’s shelter.
They wanted to do even more.
The players pushed athletics administration and student leadership for Tracy to return this fall to visit others on campus, to continue the dialog she began in April, through engagement with the Women’s Center, the Division of Academic and Student Affairs and student-focused groups. So Saturday’s game against Ball State, head football coach Dave Doeren announced earlier this week, has been designated as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s first #SetTheExpectation game, to shine a light on the effects of sexual assault and interpersonal violence.
“I’m excited and proud of our guys for wanting to be part of a solution to such a big thing nationally,” Doeren says. “This is a way for them to use their platform to help something bigger than themselves. I appreciate her allowing us to do that.”
Tracy will spend the next five days on campus, culminating with delivering the game ball to midfield at Carter-Finley Stadium for the Wolfpack’s 7 p.m. game against Ball State. Today, she and Doeren will be in the lobby of Talley Student Union from noon until 2 p.m., handing out teal and purple wristbands and encouraging students to sign her pledge to combat sexual and physical violence. Friday, she will be on the Stafford Commons from 2-5 p.m. for the kickoff of Parents and Families Weekend. Saturday, she will attend the parents and family tailgate before delivering the game ball.
Tracy will be on campus through Monday, speaking separately to men’s and women’s student-athletes, campus leaders and others interested in her message. She will also be raising money for NC State’s Molly Hays Glander Program Advocates Endowment Fund, also known as the Survivor’s Fund. A full schedule of her events is available online.
A Message for Men
The journey from the dirty apartment floor where Tracy was abused for hours to the national stage where she has addressed groups of 100 or 100,000 has been emotionally difficult and draining.
For more than 16 years, Tracy kept her pain to herself. She struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, all while raising two sons as a single mother. She admits their family life was not good back then, as she tried to contain the inherent resentment she had for the abusive men in her life.
She mustered the courage to share her story five years ago with a newspaper columnist in The Oregonian, and life hasn’t been quite the same since.
Three years ago, she faced a room full of football players at Nebraska to tell them what happened to her. She was invited by the Cornhuskers coach, Mike Riley, who had been the head coach at the school where the rape occurred nearly two decades earlier. As he went from various college jobs and to the National Football League, Riley understood that he had underreacted and underpunished the four players on his team responsible for Tracy’s trauma.
If women could solve the problem of sexual abuse and violence by ourselves, we would’ve already done it.
Since then, she has shared her story more than 80 times at large and small colleges across the nation. The emotions flood back every time.
She can tell, however, that she’s making a difference, particularly as she returns to NC State.
“Most of the activity here has been driven by James and Vinnie and other male athletes,” she says. “That level of engagement has been unique to NC State. I’ve been impressed with how well they have responded to the event we had in the spring.
“I think everything planned for this weekend started because I spoke only to the male athletes, which is unique in my experiences.”
And men are Tracy’s target audience.
“My goal has always been to engage men, to help them understand that if women could solve the problem of sexual abuse and violence by ourselves, we would’ve already done it,” Tracy says. “We really need men to be involved with it.
“That message hasn’t changed.”
It’s a message that instantly hit home with Smith-Williams, a fifth-year defensive end from Raleigh’s Millbrook High School.
“It just stuck,” he says. “My mom, who is a social worker, raised me to be proactive. We’ve ¬always had these conversations about respecting people and avoiding violence because of the nature of her job and what she sees on a daily basis.
“What was a little different for me from hearing Brenda speak is the bystander effect. If you see something, say something and do something. Don’t just let things that are wrong happen around you.”
In other words, Tracy’s message has landed squarely at the feet of those who are capable of making the necessary changes to prevent anything similar happening to others.