Ohio State’s Robert Landers arrives at Ohio Stadium before a game against Cincinnati on Saturday, Sept. 7, 2019, in Columbus. David Jablonski/Staff
Photo: columnist
Photo: columnist

Archdeacon: Robert Landers’ refrain “I’m here for you”

“It was one of those nights where she was being fussy and I was trying to get her to sleep,” Robert Landers, Ohio State’s 285-pound defensive tackle out of Wayne High School was recalling the other afternoon as he sat on a bench outside the Buckeyes’ dressing room in the Woody Hayes Athletic Center.

“I’d put my phone on silent so it wouldn’t be dinging all night and then me and her fell asleep on the couch. When I woke up in the morning I had a bunch of missed calls and text messages.

“I talked to my cousin and he said, ‘Did you hear what happened in the Oregon District?’ Then he said, “Bro, Trey was down there!’”

Trey is Robert’s younger brother and a senior leader of the Dayton Flyers basketball team. He had visited the downtown entertainment area that night with three cousins.

And just over an hour past midnight a gunman wearing body armor and firing a modified AR-15 style rifle killed nine people and injured 27 along Fifth Street between Blind Bob’s and Ned Peppers, two popular bars on opposite sides of the street.

The gunman ran toward Ned Peppers – which was crowded that night – and was shot and killed by police just a step and a half from bursting through the front door.

As he tried to reach Trey, Robert had a deja vu moment of dread.

He knows the ravages of gun violence all too well.

Nearly 13 years ago, his 30-year-old father – Robert Landers Sr. – was gunned down in front of a Salem Avenue muffler shop. He was shot multiple times by, what one witness said, a guy with an AK-47. Trotwood police said it appeared he had been targeted.

To stay safe, the family was advised not to go to the funeral. Today, the case remains unsolved.

Robert was just 10 when his dad was killed. Trey was 8 and their younger brother, Tallice, was a few days shy of 5.

Since that day Robert said he has struggled to come to grips with the shooting and the aftermath.

And as he dialed Trey’s number, his mind raced with troubling thoughts.

“When I got him, he told me how close he had been to it and I had to kind of talk to him a little bit,” Robert said. “He was a little shaken up.

“He actually saw the guy coming toward Ned’s. He’d walked out just before the guy started trying to come in. I tried to say what I could, but I’ve never been in that situation. I’ve never watched a person get shot at point blank range and drop. I’ve never had to walk in the kind of shoes he had to that night.”

“The biggest thing I could do was be a big brother and be in his corner. I told him if he needed to talk, I was here for him. If he needed to come over, I said, ‘I got a bed for you to sleep in.’

“Mostly, I just said, ‘I love you…I’m here for you.’”

More than anything, that has become the time-tested refrain of Robert Landers:

“I’m here for you.”

He was there for Trey and Tallice growing up. He wasn’t just their older brother, he was their father figure and role model.

And this weekend Robert Landers again will live up to that refrain.

He’ll be here in Dayton for the kids of his hometown.

He and his brother Trey are headlining a group of sports figures with local ties who are taking part in the Dayton Peace Festival held Saturday through Monday at the Dayton International Peace Museum at the corner of Monument Ave. and N. Wilkinson Street.

Robert Landers earlier this week at Ohio State University. Tom Archdeacon/CONTRIBUTED
Photo: columnist

The event is the brainchild of Chris Borland, the former Alter, Wisconsin and San Francisco 49ers football standout, who quit the pro game after one season because of growing concerns over the head trauma in the sport.

Now working with the Santa Monica-based (Co) Laboratory that links athletes and sports teams with a variety of storytelling platforms, he has become a social activist on a few fronts.

As soon as he learned of the shooting here, Borland began to search for ways to make a positive impact in his hometown. He came up with the Peace Festival idea and soon partnered with the downtown Peace Museum and its executive director, Kevin Kelly.

The result is an impressive, three-day, free festival at the museum that will feature several sports figures on Saturday and Monday. Their 1-5 p.m. sessions will feature games, music and food and be geared toward kids and families.

Saturday evening there will be presentation by author Margaret Wrinkle, a Dayton Literary Peace Prize finalist. Sunday there are panel discussions featuring various experts on the subjects of gun violence, mental health and racism.

There will be yoga and mindfulness sessions each of the three mornings and on Sunday there will be a noon prayer service.

Borland wanted kids involved because they bring life to the event and some fresh ideas. The festival has been running a pair of online contests seeking poems and peace plans submitted by area students. There have been hundreds of entries and the winners will each get $2,000.

To find out more go to daytonpeacefestival.com.

Among the sports figures scheduled to join the Landers brothers and Borland are Ryan Mikesell (UD basketball), Derrick Malone (OSU football) Chris Rolfe (UD soccer and MLS) Keith Byars (OSU and NFL) , Donnie Evege (OSU football) and legendary UD basketball coach Don Donoher.

Robert Landers is an especially good fit for the festival. He’s well-known as an athlete – he led Wayne to the state title game in football, won the state shot put crown and has become a defensive force at OSU – but he’s also a colorful personality who’s gregarious, big-hearted and outspoken.

And he has first-hand experience with gun violence and mental health issues.

‘I had to step up’

Robert said his mom Tracy Matthews, a travelling nurse, often worked two and three jobs to support her boys.

“We call her a thoroughbred thug,” he laughed. “She cracked the whip and gave us love. She was our mother, our best friend and sometimes just one of the boys. You couldn’t ask for a better woman to teach boys to become men.

“But there were still times we needed a man in our life and with our dad gone, I felt I had to step up even though I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.

“I tried to be solid for my brothers, but really I was a kid, too, and stuff worried me.

“For a long time I didn’t act out on my emotions because I had two boys watching me and I thought it’d mean I was weak. I didn’t think you could you could cry or even let on anything was bothering you.

“So I bottled it up and just felt (PO’d) a lot of times.

“I’d see other kids and their dads were at their games. We didn’t have that.”

He and Trey did get their dad’s name inked on their arms and then added other tattoos to remember him. And Trey wears a medallion bearing his dad’s picture.

But that was never enough.

Once he got to Ohio State, Robert said he finally began to understand his issues a little better.

Prompted by the mass shooting in the Oregon District, he decided to speak publicly about his own mental health struggles and he was supported by new head coach Ryan Day who, with his wife Christina, created a fund for pediatric and adolescent mental wellness at Nationwide Children’s Hospital.

The issue resonates with Day, who was just 9 when his father committed suicide.

Day praised Landers at a press conference and a month later Borland sought out the Buckeyes lineman.

Giving back

Landers was just as impressed with Borland:

“I remember watching him play against Ohio State back in the day and he was a real dog on the field. He really got after it. Then you meet him and it’s crazy. The image is different. He’s a humble, genuine guy. He’s kind-hearted and caring and when he told me what he was doing, I jumped on it immediately.”

“Dayton is where I was born and raised. I love the city. It built me into the man I am today.”

Once he agreed to take part, he convinced Trey to get on board, too.

Dayton’s Trey Landers with medallion he wears around his neck. It holds a photo of his late father. Tom Archdeacon/STAFF
Photo: columnist

“We didn’t have the best of summers in Dayton,” said Trey, who didn’t want to elaborate on that night in the Oregon District. “There’s been a lot of heartbreak. I know it’s been hard for kids.

“When I was a kid I used to look up to certain athletes and now maybe some kids do the same with us. If I can return that favor other guys once did for me, I want to. I figure it’s my responsibility.”

Robert agreed:

“I’m a spiritual person and I feel God has put me here for a reason. I went through what I did and now I can share my story and help somebody else.

“And maybe I can put a smile on someone else’s face and bring them some peace.”

And that’s what the weekend is about.

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