SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Casey LaBrue has no desire to go watch the Sooners play in the Insight Bowl.
Ditto for brothers Colton and Clint Chelf.
They are Cowboys, after all.
But things would be vastly different for the three Oklahoma State football players if their longtime, childhood buddy were suiting up for Oklahoma. They'd have taken up the Fiesta Bowl on its offer to give players tickets to see the warm-up act, the Insight Bowl. They'd have been inside Sun Devil Stadium to watch their instate rivals on Friday night.
They might've even pulled for the Sooners.
If only Austin Box hadn't died.
“If he was still playing,” LaBrue said, “I'd go.”
Like so many things, the OU linebacker's sudden death changed that.
As the Sooners conclude a season full of tributes to Box, there are some Cowboys who've played this year with heavy hearts, too. LaBrue and the Chelfs grew up along with Box in Enid and had been friends since elementary school.
All of the Enid boys still feel the pain of his death.
“It still doesn't even seem like ... ” Colton Chelf said, his words trailing off but his meaning coming through loud and clear.
To the young men who grew up with Box, he was always larger than life.
They started playing sports together in second grade. They played everything — baseball, basketball, football, even soccer — and no matter what the sport, Box excelled.
“The best athlete,” Colton Chelf remembered. “The biggest athlete.”
Younger brother, Clint, said, “He was literally a star.”
Adults were mesmerized by the kid's ability. So were the boys who teamed with him. Even as Box dominated, he would be the one in the dugout or the huddle cracking jokes.
He made everything look easy.
LaBrue, who along with Colton Chelf was in the same graduating class as Box at Enid High, remembers a playoff game their senior season. The Plainsmen faced a pressure-packed fourth and inches, but with a battering ram of a quarterback in Box, all they needed was a quarterback sneak.
Sure enough, the call for the sneak came from the sideline.
But when Box snapped the ball, he faked the sneak instead and sprinted around the end of the line.
“He went 20 yards for a touchdown,” LaBrue marveled.
The Chelf brothers shook their heads at the memory.
“It wasn't like we were playing someone terrible,” Clint chimed it. “This was the playoffs.”
“He was impressive.”
After high school, Box went to OU while LaBrue, an offensive lineman, headed to Missouri State and Colton Chelf, a wide receiver, headed to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M.
But by the fall of 2009, all of the Enid boys had taken up sides in the Bedlam battle. LaBrue and Colton had transferred to OSU while Clint, a quarterback, had signed with the Cowboys.
For the next two years, the barbs flew any time the Enid Cowboys crossed paths with the Enid Sooner. Box always loved to do his tongue-in-cheek impersonation of OSU's pseudo-battle cry, “Here comes Bullet!”
Last spring, though, the Bedlam talk turned serious. They realized this season's game was going to be something big. It would be the last time they'd play against each other — Box, LaBrue and Colton Chelf all being fifth-year seniors — but it would be a battle of great teams, too.
“We both knew we were going to have a good year,” LaBrue said.
Then early on a Thursday morning in mid-May, Clint Chelf got a text message from a friend in Enid.
She'd heard that Austin Box had died.
Within a couple hours, the worst had been confirmed. Box died after ingesting a lethal does of prescription medications.
LaBrue jumped in his car as soon as he heard the news. He just had to be there for Box's parents, so he drove from Stillwater to Mercy Hospital in Oklahoma City.
He remembers little from his time at the hospital. There were hugs. There were tears. Lots of tears.
The same was true when a bunch of Box's friends gathered together later that night.
“I just remember everybody kind of looking at each other,” LaBrue said.
No one knew what to say.
What could you say?
“It was shocking,” Clint Chelf said.
This football season has brought unexpected reminders of Box. Stories in the newspaper or television. Mentions during OU games.
Then there was the game video that the Cowboys watched during Bedlam week. To get ready for the Sooner defense, the Cowboy offense watched clips of last year's Bedlam game.
And there on the screen, their buddy came to life again. Box was running around, making tackles, playing like they always remembered.
“That was really weird,” Clint Chelf said.
LaBrue said, “It was really hard.”
All of the Enid boys found themselves watching Box. They'd struggle to take their eyes off him. A coach would ask them a question about the defense, and they'd have no answer.
Still, the reminders of their friend haven't all been bad. These Cowboys appreciated the Sooners' decision to honor Box by having a different defensive player wear his No. 12 each game.
“I like seeing guys in his jersey,” LaBrue said.
It has helped them heal. Helped them remember. Helped them realize they aren't alone in their grief.
Turns out, there are players on both side of the Bedlam divide playing with heavy hearts over the death of Austin Box.
“It shows that those guys,” Clint Chelf said, “felt the same about him as us.”