A triumph of truth

A triumph of truth

College football and anti-sexual assault activism are often pitted against each other. At the nexus is Brenda Tracy, harnessing the machine that almost broke her for redemption and change. And it's working.

Brenda Tracy carried the football helmet in her left hand. It had a red S for Stanford, the white outline of a tree and a purple and teal ribbon commemorating Tracy's "Set The Expectation" campaign to end sexual violence. She was given the helmet during halftime of the Stanford-Arizona State game on Sept. 30 -- a game dedicated to Tracy and her efforts.

After the final seconds ticked off, she walked around the field as players celebrated around her. Someone suggested she join the Stanford players as they sang the alma mater after their 34-24 victory. That wasn't among the scheduled events on this busy day for Tracy, so she checked with team officials to make sure it was OK. Told it was, she took her place at the end of a line of players and put her right arm around No. 19, cornerback Noah Williams, and held her helmet high with her left.

It was an unprecedented marbling of college football and anti-sexual assault activism, two industries often pitted against each other. For Tracy -- who was gang-raped in 1998 by four men, including three college football players -- it was "one of the greatest moments of my life."

If 2017 was the year the public shined a bright and long overdue light on sexual abuse, it did so in part because women like Tracy pulled it from the shadows. As the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements rock Hollywood and other high-profile industries, Tracy has become the face of the anti-sexual violence movement at the college sports level.

In the past 18 months, she has spoken to athletes at more than 50 schools, sharing her story of rape, shame and redemption and insisting that the solution to the sexual violence problem is men doing the right thing -- whether that's players knowing what consent means, coaches dismissing violent offenders or men simply speaking out. She has also worked to change laws across the country, given countless survivors an advocate and found peace in her own life that evaded her for 16 years.

"This is the same football machine that created my gang rape," she said on the field, her eyes wet with tears, her adult sons, Devante and Darius, by her side. "And now I'm standing with a football team holding up a helmet. Who would have thought that would happen? It's a full-circle moment. This is where healing happens."

That healing began in 2014, when Tracy decided to stop hiding her gang rape as an untellable secret and instead talk about it, first in a newspaper story and later in speeches before dozens of college athletic teams and other organizations. Part of her success as an activist stems from the fact she has an easy charm, sense of humor and vulnerability that offer an almost inexplicable contrast to the horror she survived. "You don't really understand what redemption is until you've been where I've been," she says. "I've seen evil. So I know what love is."

Brenda Tracy and her sons, Darius (in her lap) and Devante, in 1998, the year she says she was gang-raped by four men. Courtesy Brenda Tracy

SHE SAYS SHE was unconscious for most of it. In 1998, Tracy, then 24, had gone with a friend to that friend's boyfriend's apartment in Corvallis, Oregon, where other men were hanging out. She later told police she felt as if she had been drugged, although a toxicology report came back negative.

Tracy says four men, including three college football players, raped, violated and assaulted her in the early-morning hours of June 24, 1998, as she drifted in and out of consciousness. Later that morning, her mom, Deanna Walters, took her to a women's crisis center, then the hospital. Tracy also told the police, and the four men were arrested. The story generated extensive news coverage, as two of the suspects played for Oregon State.

The stress of the public attention added to Tracy's pain. Authorities told her that the case could take years to work its way through the judicial system and that she would have to testify in four separate trials. She didn't want to put herself and her sons, then ages 4 and 5, through that. She decided to stop cooperating with authorities, and charges were subsequently dropped.

Inspired by a nurse who treated her after the rape, Tracy enrolled in a community college a few months later. She graduated from Oregon Health & Science University with a bachelor of science and nursing degree, later earned an MBA and landed a job overseeing an acute mobile dialysis team. You could have told her life story at that time as one of overcoming incredible wrongs committed against her -- in addition to the gang rape, Tracy says she was sexually abused by a family member as a young girl and raped by a babysitter's boyfriend when she was 9. But inside, she was broken. She carried shame as her constant companion.

She remained angry in particular at Mike Riley, the head coach of Oregon State when the rape happened. He suspended the two Oregon State players for only one game and was quoted as saying they had made "a bad choice." That comment burned her for years: a bad choice. She hated him more than the rapists.

One night in 2014, after reading a story about Riley's handling of a then-current player arrested on violent charges, Tracy wrote an email to the journalist who wrote the piece, Oregonian columnist John Canzano. In it, she described what had happened to her and the 16 years of misery since then.

Canzano responded immediately, the two met for coffee, and Tracy told him her story. In addition to sharing the horrific details, Tracy allowed The Oregonian to use her name and picture -- a courageous decision considering the way the sports world treats rape survivors. But Tracy says her motivation was desperation. She could not go on living the way she was, and she thought telling the truth might help her, no matter how painful sharing it was.

Tracy told Canzano a harrowing story that she has since shared with hundreds of athletes: During the assault, she couldn't move her arms or legs. The suspects treated her like a rag doll, "picking me up and tossing me around the whole apartment," according to the Oregonian. She woke up the next morning on the floor, naked with a blanket over her.

Before the story was published, Tracy and her mom worried about the reaction. What would happen when she put her name and face on the story? What would telling the truth do?

She didn't know. But she was done living a lie. "The minute before it went online, I was living a double life. The minute it went online, I became one person," she says. "I walked out of my prison of shame and silence that day. I am just emboldened that I am never going back to that prison, and I'm going to take as many people with me as possible."

Three years later, that new singular life has taken her places she never could have imagined, from arm in arm with Stanford football players in the corner of Stanford Stadium to meetings with politicians across the country to the inner circles of power in the NCAA.

Telling the truth has allowed her to push for the passage of no fewer than seven pieces of legislation in Oregon and has helped untold numbers of sexual assault survivors. She has routinely been interviewed and has spoken at dozens of colleges across the country. And most important for her, she has forged closer relationships with her sons, Darius, 25, and Devante, 23. She says for years she wanted to kill herself, but their very existence didn't allow her to, and she resented them for it.

Which makes her next statement so unexpected: She says she wouldn't go back and undo the rape, even if she could. "I've thought about this a lot. Do I really mean that? I really do mean that," Tracy says. "Everything that happened to me -- the egregiousness of it, the ugliness of it, the horror of it, the way it was mishandled, every single thing that happened -- has put me where I am today. If all of that had not happened, I would not be where I am, right now, today, this minute, talking to you. I am absolutely living in my purpose. I am so honored, and I feel so privileged, to be in this position. I feel chosen."

Brenda Tracy lines up with Stanford football players in the corner of the end zone after the September 2017 football game dedicated to her anti-sexual violence efforts. It was, Tracy says, "one of the greatest moments of my life."

AFTER CANZANO'S STORY came out, Tracy looked for a lawyer. She felt betrayed by law enforcement and Oregon State University and wanted to sue. Around that same time, Tracy read a blog from Jacqueline Swanson, an attorney and survivors advocate who had written about Tracy's story. Tracy called to schedule a meeting with Swanson. The statute of limitations had passed, so there was no legal remedy. But Swanson made a suggestion that surprised Tracy -- maybe they could change the law, even if it wouldn't help Tracy.

"Can we do that?" Tracy asked.

"Why not?" Swanson replied.

And "Why not?" became the rallying cry for a partnership that has grown into a deep friendship. They appeared together in April 2015, at a hearing in the Oregon state legislature about changing the statute of limitations. The room was crowded, the media were present and Tracy was nervous. "You can handle this," Swanson whispered to her.

In pressurized moments like that, Tracy uses an approach she calls God and Nike. She combines Matthew 19:26 ("With God all things are possible") with Nike's slogan of "Just do it." "With God," she tells herself, "just do it."

So with God, she just did it. "I had vomited at one point while they were raping me," she told the gathered lawmakers. "So when I woke up, I had old vomit in my hair. I had a piece of gum stuck in my hair they had to cut out later. There were bits of chips and food stuck to the front of me, including a used condom. I had never felt more disgusting than in that moment. I truly felt like a piece of garbage."

In part because of Tracy's testimony, the Oregon statute of limitations on first-degree sex crimes, including rape, has been extended to 12 years from six. In 2016, Tracy worked to successfully pass two state laws: one ensuring that rape kits would be tested in a timely matter, and one providing that if, after that 12-year period, new corroborating evidence arose, then district attorneys would be able to prosecute rape and other first-degree sex crimes. "It's pain and suffering," Swanson says. "She uses it, she takes it, she projects it outward and makes it into something new, something beautiful, something that inspires people. It takes such an insane amount of courage to do that, to bare yourself to the world and talk about something that is so incredibly personal."

Tracy and Swanson have testified together at the Oregon capitol so many times that they have a routine down. Shortly before entering the chambers, they strategize in a nearby lactation room normally used by breastfeeding mothers. "We're the dynamic duo," Tracy says. "She hits you with the law and the legalese and all the numbers and this and that. Then I hit you with the story. And it's an undeniable force between the two of us. We get things done together."

Among those accomplishments is passage of a campus sexual assault bill designed to protect survivors. "I ran into some issues with that," says Oregon state Sen. Sara Gelser. "I was like, 'Hey, this is the Brenda Tracy bill. Do you really want to tell Brenda no? Do you really want me to call John Canzano and tell him I couldn't get the votes on this because you opposed the Brenda Tracy bill?' No. Nobody wants that."

The political fights haven't always been easy. Tracy was distraught when Betsy DeVos, the secretary of education, rolled back Obama-era policies that provided guidance for schools on how to handle cases of sexual assault under Title IX federal law. Tracy called Alexis Jones, a friend and fellow activist who, like Tracy, speaks often to college football teams. "She was just sobbing," Jones says. "Not Brenda Tracy, the tough girl. It was Brenda Tracy, the girl. … She has worked so hard with the NCAA, clawing tooth and nail, trying to get them to wrap their heads around the importance of protecting survivors and standing up for survivors and getting justice for survivors. This felt like just a slap in the face."

As she does so often these days during a down moment, Tracy turned to her faith for guidance. Tracy believes God knew she was strong enough to survive the pain of the 16 years between the 1998 rape and the healing that began with Canzano's 2014 story. "In 2010, I asked God to use me and my family as an example to the world that, with God, all things are possible. Now, since 2014, I think that's what's happening," she says. "I don't think you can explain my trajectory without putting God in there."

Tracy is heartened by the publicity surrounding the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements and the heightened awareness about sexual abuse issues. But she says the work to rewire the way athletes think about sexual consent has just begun. "We can continue to elevate the attention," she says. "There's more work to do. I don't want people to think, 'Oh, we cracked Hollywood, we're done.' No. There's a lot more work to do."

What that work will look like, exactly, is difficult to predict, especially considering the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements picked up steam only a few short months ago. But Tracy already has appointments to speak at a handful of schools in 2018, as well as ambitious plans to launch a foundation called Set The Expectation that will further push her message. She wants other schools and maybe even a pro team to host Set The Expectation games like the one at Stanford.

Brenda Tracy says she asked God to use her and her family (from left to right, her father, Joe Walters; her mother, Deanna Walters; Tracy; her son, Darius Walters; and her son, Devante Adams) as an example that all things are possible. Deanne Fitzmaurice for ESPN

TRACY, NOW 44, arrived on Stanford's campus on the Friday afternoon before the "Set The Expectation" game and watched the end of football practice. As players left, she walked to an adjacent field, where she was scheduled to speak to band members.

Tracy told a condensed version of what happened to her. "There's a lot of tragedy in my story," she said. "But I think there's also a lot of hope and a lot of healing and a lot of redemption, too. I hope I'm a walking example for other survivors that there is hope and there is redemption."

A young woman raised her hand. Her voice hitched as she asked whether there would be counselors in the stadium to help if Tracy's appearance triggered anybody. Tracy said there would be. After Tracy finished her presentation, two female band members ran off the field through an opening in the fence that surrounds the field. The first one turned right; the second turned left. The one who turned left walked a few feet, put her hands to her face, squatted down and sobbed. A fellow band member comforted her there.

Tracy followed the woman who turned right -- she was the same woman who had asked the triggering question. They stopped maybe 100 feet from the opening in the fence. Tracy later said she asked the woman whether it was OK if they talked; she didn't want to invade her space while she was grieving. When the woman said it was OK, Tracy says she told her: "It's not your fault. Don't blame yourself. You're not damaged, and you're not weak. If you can survive a rape, you are a badass because it takes a lot to be able to survive that and get up every day and do what you've got to do." After 30 minutes, they walked together across an adjacent field. They both appeared to be smiling.

“I still don't know that Brenda really understands the scope of her impact on every individual and every group she talks to.”

Stanford football coach David Shaw

Tracy says she has acquired something she calls "survivor radar" -- the ability to recognize that women have been triggered. It's a sad but unavoidable consequence of speaking to large groups. Many times, after speeches, women approach her afterward, and she can usually tell by the looks on their faces and their body language which ones are survivors. "You just know from the way they are saying it to me that something has gone on in their life that they're connecting with me," Tracy says.

The next morning, Tracy took her sons and her parents to Stanford's football complex, feeling nervous and excited and scared all at once. This was a big day, for her and for the cause, and she wanted everything to go great. The fact that Stanford dedicated an entire football game to ending sexual violence was no small thing. After 16 dark and lonely years believing she didn't matter, Tracy feels validated when she is asked for her story. In a college football world where winning supersedes all else, she saw the entire weekend as an affirmation of the importance of the work she and others have done.

The plan that morning was for Tracy and her family to walk with the team from the complex to the stadium. As Tracy stood on the sidewalk, the players filed out, all in matching "Set The Expectation" T-shirts. Tracy did not know they were going to do that. She put her hands together, fingers up, like a child making a steeple, and brought them to her face, her eyes glistening. Stanford coach David Shaw saw Tracy's reaction and was pleased by it. He'd played a key role in making the game happen, but team captains had made the decision to wear the shirts.

Just a year earlier, Stanford was embroiled in a high-profile case of sexual assault. In March 2016, Brock Turner, a former Stanford swimmer, was convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a campus dumpster. Stanford acted swiftly. Within two weeks of the January 2015 incident, the school had conducted an investigation and banned Turner from setting foot on campus, which the school called the "harshest sanction that a university can impose on a student."

The case drew national attention when Turner received just six months in prison (prosecutors had asked for six years), a sentence mostly derided as being too lenient. Turner ultimately served only three months, getting released early for good behavior. The judge, former Stanford lacrosse player Aaron Persky, faces a public recall this June, prompted by outrage over his sentencing of Turner.

Shaw has been proactive about educating players on the definition of consent. He organized a conference call with Tracy to gauge her interest in coming to the school and addressing the team. Within a few minutes, he knew what an impact she could make. "She said something I've never forgotten, that will stick with me forever. She said, 'My job is to make this personal. This thing needs to come home and be personal,'" Shaw said. "It's not easy for her to open her wounds in front of people. They are deep, awful wounds that she opens in front of people, for them to see that sexual misconduct and rape is not something that happens miles and miles and miles away. It's now in the room and it's personalized, and she challenges [football players] to just not do it. She challenges them to be an example, be out front."

Shaw said Tracy's speech that spring sent ripples through his team. "I still don't know that Brenda really understands the scope of her impact on every individual and every group she talks to," Shaw said. "She's in the process of changing lives. Not just helping. She's changing lives. To be able to grab a survivor and help her feel better about herself? There's nothing better you can do for a human being."

Stanford coach David Shaw speaks with Brenda Tracy after the game. "It's not easy for her to open her wounds in front of people," Shaw says. "They are deep, awful wounds that she opens in front of people." Deanne Fitzmaurice for ESPN

WHEN IT COMES to family, Tracy doesn't need a husband or boyfriend to be whole or healed. She has accomplished both of those on her own. Still, before coming forward with her story, Tracy spent countless weekends watching and rewatching "Say Yes to the Dress," a reality show about brides searching for wedding dresses. She was trying to condition herself to believe that someday someone would love her enough to marry her. "I couldn't do it, and I couldn't do it, and I couldn't do it," she says. "I was trying so hard, but I couldn't."

If she wants to get married or be in a relationship, she wants to believe someone would want to be with her, too. She's almost there and considers that an important sign of just how far she has come.

Tracy's sons and parents suffered in the wake of her assault, too. "They didn't tell me all the details," says her father, Joe Walters. "When I heard about it, I wanted revenge. I had some acquaintances I knew that would have helped me do this. Brenda asked me not to, because if I did that, I wouldn't have been able to hug her or the boys again. I wanted revenge, so they kind of kept me out."

His anger turned into pride when he saw the good work Tracy was doing. "She started doing this stuff to make a difference. That's my daughter doing that. It took a lot of courage."

For years, Tracy worried that the rape damaged her as a mother. She sometimes used the busy-ness of work as an excuse to hide from her sons. And when she was home, she was impatient and quick to yell at the boys. When the boys hit their teens, she finally told them about the rape. Knowing helped them understand her in a way they never had, they both say.

"Admitting I wasn't the best mother -- it's probably the only thing in my life that I regret, that I'll never get those years back, ever," Tracy says. "There's something about moms and sons. You don't want them to know what happened to you, that they'll be ashamed or disgusted by you. They'll think you're gross. I really thought my sons would think that of me, be ashamed of me, embarrassed by me."

Devante is sitting next to her as she says this. He smiles and shakes his head before he talks: "With all due respect, I think she's insane for thinking that."

IN CANZANO'S 2014 story, Riley had floated the idea of inviting Tracy to meet with his football team. When he officially extended an invitation for her to visit Nebraska, where he was the head coach, in 2016, Tracy was terrified. She had hated him for so long. Did she really want to face him? No, but she didn't want to not face him, either, so she scrounged up the courage to fly to Nebraska in June 2016.

Riley was standing outside his office when she arrived. "Hi, Brenda," he said, as if she were a long-lost friend. She started crying immediately. They hugged, and she cried on his shoulder. In his office, they spoke for more than an hour. His comments in 1998 had made her think she didn't matter. His behavior now, face to face as she unloaded on him, showed he believed she did matter. She planned to forgive him regardless of what he said, and his repentance and regret for the pain he had caused her made it easier. She tweeted a picture of the two of them, smiling arm in arm, with, "This is what accountability looks like."

The college football machine had ruined her life. Now, she says, that same machine is helping to redeem it, even as she works to change that machine from the inside out. She tells players at virtually every school she visits that they are the solution, not the problem.

Brenda Tracy signs a red cape with the words "I am a survivor" draped from the stands at Stanford Stadium. The college football machine had ruined her life. Now, she says, that same machine is helping to redeem it. Deanne Fitzmaurice for ESPN

AFTER THE WALK to Stanford Stadium, Tracy stood on the sideline as players warmed up. Arizona State coach Todd Graham (who has since been fired) stopped on his way to the field and hugged her -- she had spoken at Arizona State that spring. Her nerves about the day were washing away. "This is pure adrenaline," she said. "My cheeks hurt from smiling."

Players from both teams ran onto the field, all of them with ribbons on their helmets designed by Devante for Tracy's "Set The Expectation" campaign. "There's a couple hundred young men on this field," she said. "Think of the lives they alone affect. That's a lot of impact. Maybe a million people are going to see this [on television]. I don't know what that ripple effect is, but it's going to be something. That's beautiful."

As game time approached, the two coaches, Shaw and Graham, met on the field and shook hands, as coaches always do. After that made-for-TV display, Shaw turned his back to the camera so he and Graham could have a private conversation.

They talked about what they both call the great work Tracy has been doing.

After the singing of Stanford's alma mater, Tracy stood on the field with Devante and Darius. She didn't want the day to end. Together they walked across the field, through the end zone and out of the tunnel. She thought about all the people who had watched in the stands and on television at home, the survivors who saw her standing triumphantly on the field at halftime. Maybe they saw her and felt less alone, maybe they felt empowered, maybe they thought if Tracy had found healing, they could, too.

"I hope they saw hope," she said.

Matt Crossman has written more than 40 cover stories at national magazines. His work has been cited six times in the notable section of Best American Sports Writing and once in Best American Essay Writing. He lives in St. Louis with his wife and daughters. Read more of his work at mattcrossman.com.