Jets' Eric Decker and wife Jessie tackle bullying in schools
DENNIS WASZAK Jr., AP Sports Writer
FLORHAM PARK, N.J. (AP) — Eric Decker never actually heard the gunshots.
The New York Jets wide receiver remembers being in the school lunchroom when the "Code Red" ominously blared over the intercom. As teachers frantically tried to move students to safety, Decker headed to the library with 10 other kids who piled into a closet and locked the door behind them.
Then, they waited.
Some cried while others tried to console them. For 45 minutes, Decker and his classmates feared they could be next.
"It's all still very vivid to me," Decker told The Associated Press, shaking his head. "Every year, especially on the date, it always kind of brings me back. It's crazy."
On Sept. 24, 2003, freshman John Jason McLaughlin brought a gun into Rocori High School in Cold Spring, Minnesota, and shot 14-year-old Seth Bartell and 17-year-old Aaron Rollins. McLaughlin was found guilty of first- and second-degree murder. During his trial, the issue of whether McLaughlin had been teased — or bullied — by Bartell about his severe acne was often mentioned as a possible motive.
"In a small town like that, you just never think that's going to happen," said Decker, a junior at the time.
Decker was friends with Bartell's brother, Jesse, and recalled running from the lunchroom when his buddy spotted a body on the gymnasium floor across the hall.
"He screamed, 'That's my brother! That's my brother!'" said Decker, staring at the ground. "That's the only and last thing I heard or saw. I still get a little scared in certain situations. For about two years after that, I was just on edge always, just with people around me and in certain settings. It was definitely tough."
That experience has driven Decker to partner with STOMP Out Bullying, along with his wife Jessie, to educate students, teachers and parents.
The Jets launched an anti-bullying campaign by donating 1,000 prevention toolkits to area schools, and the Deckers wanted to be ambassadors to the program through their foundation. On Tuesday, the couple was scheduled to appear at Albert Leonard Middle School in New Rochelle, New York, to help announce their program.
"Having kids, there's just that realization even more to put a stop to all of these issues," said Decker, the father of two young children. "I think it starts, obviously, at home with proper communication and just not holding things in. That sort of escalates some situations."
While Decker said he never was personally bullied while growing up, the issue hits home for his wife.
The country music star experienced her share of uncomfortable moments as a self-described "military kid," moving 12 times and always trying to fit in. Things were worst in Newnan, Georgia, from seventh through 11th grades.
"I was tortured, pretty much, by these kids," she said during a phone interview with the AP. "I think it messed with me so much that I still to this day can't drive by a school without some anxiety or just feeling sick to my stomach."
Jessie Decker still has nightmares every now and then about that time in her life.
At one sleepover, a girl she had never met poured what she called "a huge bucket of slop" over her head.
"It was like something out of the movie 'Carrie,'" she said.
Decker was also voted to the homecoming court by her choir peers, then was booed by many students when her name was announced. She remembers being chased between classes by girls with scissors wanting to cut her waist-length hair. There was also the "I Hate Jessie James Club" website that someone started.
"I would hide underneath my hoodies just to get to classes," she recalled. "And then when class was over, I'd just run so I could escape anyone trying to find me in the parking lot. It was so horrible."
She never really understood the reason for the despicable acts. Decker said she developed at an early age, which might have caused jealousy, and was always involved in singing and performing.
A few months ago, she received an email from "one of the mean girls," who wrote a massive apology for how she and her friends acted toward her. The woman said the girls were "full of envy and jealousy."
Decker wrote back to the woman — and accepted her apology.
"I think it made me feel validated because for so long after that stuff happened, I wondered if I had just made it all up because it was so horrible," Decker said. "After she wrote to me, it was like, 'OK, they did do this to me and this is real.'"
Decker said her husband helped her break out of her shell after often sitting in the corner at parties or events.
"It was just because I was scared," she said, adding she has also overcome stage fright, thanks in large part to her fans.
The NFL experienced a bullying scandal in 2013, when then-Miami Dolphins offensive lineman Jonathan Martin accused teammates Richie Incognito, John Jerry and Mike Pouncey of harassing him. That incident sparked debate about the culture of sports, whether athletes go too far with hazing young players.
Eric Decker acknowledged there's a "macho man" mentality to sports, but thinks the line is crossed when things get too personal — no matter how old people are.
"I always just want to ask the question, 'Why? What makes you want to tease someone else?'" he said. "I understand, obviously, there's always little jabs and even at our age, we'll tease our good friends. But it's about when it becomes very personal and whether it's their appearance or learning ability — things that might be really sensitive. Unless you really know the person, why would you ever do that?"
Kids who are bullied need to know they're not alone: Parents, teachers and coaches can be resources to help them through difficult times.
"I think the message needs to be put across that it feels a lot better to be nice to people than it does to be mean," Jessie Decker said. "Hurting people maybe lasts a few seconds for you, but to do something really great for somebody, that lasts forever."
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