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‘He’s a gunner’

Clyde tailback Golden living up to name given to him by late dad

PHOTO COURTESY OF SANDUSKY REGISTER Gunner and Jeni Golden pose with a photo of Jeni and Keith Golden on Keith's 1997 Harley Davidson Softail. Keith was 37 years old when he died in a motorcycle accident.

By Jimmy Watkins

Special to The Advertiser-Tribune

CLYDE ― If they fought, they fought about the name.

Keith Golden always wanted a son. And when he learned he was getting one, he wanted that son to have a good, masculine name.

He gravitated toward “Gunner,” a nod toward his days as a diesel mechanic in the army. His wife, Jeni, leaned closer to conventional options. She wanted a “middle of the road” name such as “Brentley”.

Gunner stuck out too much. Gunner came with expectations. And if the child didn’t live up to his name, Jeni worried other kids would tease him.

“You don’t know if you’re gonna get a little 90-pound guy,” Jeni said. “If you’re 90 pounds walking around with a ‘Gunner’ name, you’re probably gonna get teased a little bit.”

They fought about the name until June 30, 2001, about three weeks before Jeni gave birth to their son. Keith worked on his 1997 Harley Davidson Softail that day. He installed new pipes and tweaked the engine. He called his dad, Ron, so Ron could hear how the bike sounded.

After father and son hung up, Keith took his bike for a spin on the country roads near his home on County Road 223 near Fremont. While admiring the results of his handiwork, Keith veered off the road and hit a mailbox, which caused him to lose control of the bike.

Keith died in the accident.

He was 37 years old, survived by a wife, three daughters (two with Jeni) and, of course, a son-to-be.

Shortly before their son was born, Jeni visited Keith’s grave at McPherson Cemetery in Clyde. Given the circumstances, she was ready to end the bickering over their son’s name.

“Alright,” she told Keith. “You got your way. He’s gonna be a Gunner.”

Eighteen years later, Gunner Golden has eased his mother’s concerns about meeting the expectations that come with his name. Gunner is the star running back at Clyde High School, where he’s leading his team in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns for the second straight year. He’s a big reason why the Fliers are in the state semifinals for the first time since 2013. The Fliers play Cincinnati Wyoming in the D-IV semis Saturday in Marysville.

He’s a beast in the weight room, where his work inspires quarterback and best friend Ryan Lozier to encourage Gunner to enter bodybuilding competitions. Gunner recently joined Clyde football’s 1,000-pound club, now that his max lifts in bench press (295 pounds), squat (480 pounds) and dead lift (530 pounds) surpass the 1,000-pound mark.

Jeni still found a way to fit Brentley onto her son’s birth certificate ― it’s his middle name. But it’s clear now that he was always supposed to be a Gunner.

“I couldn’t imagine (Brentley) as my first name,” Gunner said. “I like that Gunner mentality. It suits me well.”

‘Hard to comprehend’

On the day Keith died, Jeni was at her sister’s house. She had just taken her daughters shopping.

Mary and Ron Golden, Keith’s parents, were preparing for communion at their church, which was halfway between their house and Keith’s. Ron suggested they visit Keith, but Mary didn’t want to. She couldn’t explain why. She just had a feeling.

Ron didn’t push her so they went home on the back of his motorcycle.

When Jeni returned to her house, the state patrol was out front with her neighbors. She knew something was wrong, but she couldn’t prepare herself for what the patrolmen had to say: Her husband had been found dead on a country road.

When Mary and Ron arrived, they could hear Gunner’s sister, Taylor ― 8-years-old at the time ― screaming from the bathroom.

“Everybody was just totally out of their tree,” Mary said. “It was hard to comprehend.”

Everybody, it seemed, except for Jeni. Mary said Jeni handled herself well that evening, all things considered. But she could’ve just been in shock. And besides, how was Jeni supposed to act? She had to project strength for her daughters. Soon, she’d have to do the same for her son.

“Jeni did good,” Mary said. “But of course, she had to do good.”

Jeni didn’t feel strong that night, though. She worried about the new house she stood inside. She and Keith had just moved from the city to the country to build a new home with the help of Amish contractors. It didn’t have a front yard or a driveway yet.

She was now a single mother to two daughters with a son on the way. She worried about supporting them with only one income.

She was sad about Keith, to be sure. But she also worried about what would come next.

“That day was horrible,” Jeni said. “Looking back now, it’s like I don’t know how we got through it.”

“EVERYBODY TAKE A DEEP BREATH!” yelled a nurse at Bellevue Hospital.

This is what came next for Jeni: Gunner was hours old, and she was fighting for her life.

Mary Golden (Keith’s mother) was holding Gunner while Jeni recovered from her Cesarean delivery. When Mary asked Jeni if she’d like to hold her son, Jeni closed her eyes and said, “I can’t.”

Jeni’s cardiac monitor flatlined. At first, nurses thought the machine was malfunctioning. They tried smacking it like you would an old television into showing a heartbeat.

Soon, it became clear the initial reading was correct.

“Oh my gosh,” Jeni said. “I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

Keith’s sisters cried. Mary put Gunner in a bassinet and ran into the hallway for help.

The doctors had nicked an artery during the C-section. Jeni was bleeding to death.

“I’m thinking, ‘Oh man, we lost Keith now we’re gonna lose his wife,’ “ Mary said. “It’s a lot of prayers right then.”

Mercifully, those prayers were answered. After seven days in the Intensive Care Unit, Jeni recovered. The Goldens had their boy, and that boy would have a mother.

But that mother still bore a significant burden. She was still the single mother of three. Her house was still unfinished, and she almost didn’t live to see it completed herself.

Every time Jeni looked down at baby Gunner’s tiny face, though, her stress faded. In him, she saw a reason to keep pushing.

“I wouldn’t have made it without him,” Jeni said. “You just fall in love with that little baby and I knew that he had to depend on me, of course.”

Keith and Jeni fought about the bike at first. Keith had bought it a few years before the accident that took his life. His daughters were young, and Jeni thought motorcycles were dangerous.

But Keith had always wanted a bike. Growing up, his mom’s dad used his as his only mode of transportation.

Keith started bugging his parents about a moped when he was around 12 or 13. “Too young,” Mary said.

Mary opposed the idea, but the Golden men are a determined group. So Keith got his moped, and years later he got Jeni to ride on the back of his bike.

It wasn’t really built for two people. Keith sat on the only seat while Jeni sat on the fender and held on to the flaps of his leather jacket.

Mary, who had been seriously injured in a 2006 crash that took the life of her husband, Ron, always hated motorcycles. She only rode with her husband because they were going the same places. She hated watching Keith pull up to her house on his bike, or as she called it, “that thing.”

“I actually told him and his dad, and I hate this, ‘Those darn things will be the death of you,'” she said. “Well, by golly, it came true.”

Jeni, on the other hand, grew to love riding. She took a hiatus from riding after Keith died, but she still rides today, even after Ron died.

Still, that hasn’t stopped Jeni from taking long rides through southern Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania with a group of local motorcycle enthusiasts. She’s even had scares where deer jumped in front of her on the road. One time, a deer leaped directly over her and her boyfriend’s bike.

But despite those scares and her family’s sordid history with bikes, Jeni insists there’s no better way to take a road trip.

“When you’re riding in an area, you’re more in-tuned to the surroundings,” she said. “If you’re going by somebody who’s having a campfire, you can smell it. If someone’s cooking out, you’re smelling it. You can smell the fields, the greenery, the flowers – all the scents are so much more intact.”

His mother’s bike trips make Gunner uneasy. As colder weather approaches, his nerves settle because he knows the bikes will soon be in the garage for the season.

Jeni knows Gunner doesn’t like that she rides. She knows all too well what the consequences can be. But she’ll counter by acknowledging that walking across the street can be dangerous. Giving birth, too.

Her close encounters with death have given her a unique perspective on the subject.

“I think I’ve come to the conclusion – and I’ve seen it happen – if it’s your time to go, it’s your time to go,” Jeni said. “Of course, you could always have some control over your destiny, but I just came to that conclusion.”

At 18 months, Gunner said he was drawing pictures of footballs and the Pittsburgh Steelers, his family’s favorite team. But as he grew, he didn’t naturally progress into the bulking, bruising tailback he is today.

Gunner started out as an overweight fullback. He assumed he’d be a guard in high school, and was told as much by his coaches. He was “chunky,” according to his mother, and usually the last player to arrive at his position when he played Little League Baseball.

He ended up in the backfield only because fourth-grade Lozier handpicked him as a backfield mate. Lozier wanted someone “who could protect me.”

Gunner played fullback through his freshman year of high school. When he asked his high school coaches for a chance at running back, they told him he’d need to drop weight and get faster. So during the summer between his freshman and sophomore years, he did exactly that.

He cut back on dining out and started working out at home in addition to his workouts with the football team. An injury to last year’s starter forced Gunner into the lineup, and he’s been a huge part of the Fliers’ offense ever since. He rushed for 1,153 yards and 13 touchdowns last season, helping the Fliers to the No. 1 seed in their region.

As Gunner has accrued success, he’s thought more about his dad. To commemorate Keith, he got a tattoo of his father’s signature under his left pectoral muscle. “Right next to my heart,” he said.

Gunner always knew what happened to Keith, but now he’s getting to know him. He’s asking more in-depth questions. He wants to hear the stories.

“I think (his absence) got more of a role in my life now that I start having varsity nights playing under the lights,” Gunner said. “I just think, ‘Wow, what would it be like if he was here?’ “

Jeni tells Gunner that Keith was a wild boy; he was outgoing, liked to have fun.

She tells him Keith looked the part, too. People used to mistake Keith for Ozzy Osbourne when he and Jeni went out in Detroit or Cleveland.

Gunner hasn’t heard all the stories yet, but he feels closer to his dad the more he learns.

Gunner will think about Keith as he does before every game. He never forgets that Keith wanted a son, and that he wanted that son to be named Gunner.

“That stuck with me,” Gunner said. “Knowing that he wanted to have a boy and he wanted my name (to be what it is) – that sticks with me. I know he’s looking, and that just makes me push harder and harder.”

CUTLINE

Gunner and Jeni Golden pose with a photo of Jeni and Keith Golden on Keith’s 1997 Harley Davidson Softail. Keith was 37 years old when he died in a motorcycle accident.

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