On a Saturday night in December 2003, I was waiting for a phone call. I was watching football at my home in Los Angeles, CA, but my thoughts were on a different football game taking place in Georgia, where I had grown up.
The team on which my dad, Billy Venable, coached and my brother Bill played was competing in the state playoffs. If their team won, they would advance to play in the Georgia Dome the next weekend. “Going to the Dome” had been a goal of the team for a number of years, but it seemed like they always fell just short. This season was different though—it was a magical season. It was my brother’s senior year and he was playing center on the offensive line, which was the position group my dad coached. They did everything together that fall, riding to school in the morning, checking in on each other during the school day, going to practice in the afternoon and playing the games on the weekend. I followed from afar, getting phone calls from my dad each Friday night, often from the team bus, with a report on how the team had done and how Bill had played.
When the phone rang, I knew it was good news. I could hear the shouting in the background, and I heard my dad’s booming voice, “Stephen! We’re going to the Dome!”
The next weekend I flew home and went to the dome too. I walked the sidelines with my dad and brother and we soaked the whole thing in. The score didn’t come out the way we wanted that night, but as we sat at the Waffle House—a Georgia High School football post-game staple—eating later that night we all three marveled at what an amazing experience it had been. It was an unforgettable experience, and unfortunately it was the last night we would spend together.
Exactly one month later, on January 13, 2004, I received another late-night phone call. I had just fallen asleep and the phone jarred me awake. My step-mother was on the other end of the line, and on hearing her voice, I knew immediately it wasn’t good news.
A young man had come to my family’s door with a gun. There had been a struggle with my dad. While my dad initially had the upper hand, the young man was able to fire two shots. My dad was hit.
The noise had woken my brother up and on seeing the struggle, he raced down the stairs to my dad’s aid. He was shot as well.
My brother died at the scene. My dad passed away shortly thereafter on the way to the hospital.
My family and the community lost so much that night. My dad was a caring coach who spent endless hours working with his students and athletes. I continue to be touched even today when I run into his former students and hear how he still has an impact on their lives. He was also an amazing father. My siblings and I soaked in his love from daily notes, e-mails or phone calls. We knew from hearing from his friends and colleagues just how proud he was of his family.
My brother had so much to look forward to. He had just been accepted to Auburn University and was truly enjoying his senior year. He was the baby of our family, a role he relished in such a good way. One of his favorite things was to give out “free hugs…for a dollar.” Yet, he was coming into his own and ready to take on the world, as the magical fall season had shown us. In his last act, he became my hero.
The twist in our story involves the young man who came to my family’s door. Police tracked him down later that night and he was killed in a shootout. He was 19 years old without connection to our family. We would learn, as police investigated, that he too had been a victim of gun violence. Just three months prior to the night at my family’s house, this young man’s mother had walked into her church and shot her pastor and her own mother before turning the gun on herself. Since then, he had been living alone. We believe he was stealing to get by and had randomly picked my family’s house that evening.
While his own incident clearly does not excuse his actions, it does strongly influence my views on gun violence. Quite simply, I believe that at some point in that chain, we could have done more to prevent a grieving 19 year old and his mother, apparently suffering from mental illness, from having a gun.
For a number of years, I passively supported gun violence prevention efforts through donations and support for candidates who vote for common-sense gun safety measures. It wasn’t until I relocated to Minneapolis in 2015 that I discovered Everytown for Gun Safety and Minnesota’s Moms Demand Action chapter. I have been so impressed with Everytown because it is data- and results-driven, and because the organization places great importance on sharing stories of the human toll gun violence has on our lives and communities.
Today, I serve as an Everytown Survivor Fellow and share my story as often as I can. I know the ending of my story will never change, but I believe wholeheartedly that with our combined voices we can change the outcome for others.