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When Tragedy Strikes

by: Richard Scott
Birmingham Post-Herald
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When the home telephone of a college football coach rings late at night, it's often the kind of news he'd rather not hear. Usually, it means a player has been arrested, violated a rule or done something to anger someone.

Such thoughts ran through the head of Mississippi State Coach Jackie Sherrill when he picked up the telephone at his home on the evening of August 5. The news was, indeed, bad. But this time, it was so bad it made an arrest or a rule violation seem small and insignificant. It was a player calling to tell Sherrill that senior running back Keffer McGee had drowned in a swimming pool.

"When Greg Favors called me and said 'Keffer's in the hospital and he might not make it', my first thought was that Greg might be kidding. There's no way that his happened," Sherrill said. "Then I realized he wasn't kidding."

When Sherrill immediately called the hospital, and ran up against a brick wall of people who wouldn't, or couldn't, answer his questions. "I knew something was really wrong." When he finally reached the team physician, Dr. Robert Collins, Sherrill got the answer he didn't really want to hear.

"When Dr. Collins told me 'it doesn't look like he'll make it,' I was in shock," Sherrill said. "Even when I got up to go to the hospital, I didn't believe it. Quite a few of our players were already there, and parts of his family were there, too. That's when it really hit me."

An hour of emergency efforts failed to bring McGee back to life, leaving Mississippi State players and coaches without their star running back, and more importantly, their popular team leader.

"There are a lot of 'whys' you could ask at this time, but there are very few answers," Sherrill said the day following McGee's death. "Keffer was admired by everyone around him, both on and off the field."

A coach can attend hundreds of clinics and watch thousands of hours of game film, but none of it will prepare him for what Sherrill went through with McGee's death. As coaches, you have a good idea of how to protect against a blitz, defend a four-receiver passing attack and prepare a football team for the big game. But there's no coaching manual that tells you how to deal with the death of a player or a loved one close to the program.

That's one of the reasons why coaches need to read this story, and why they need to help each other through such tragedies. When Mississippi State took its first uncertain steps following McGee's death, one of the first and most important telephone calls Sherrill received the next day came from Vanderbilt coach Woody Widenhofer, who understood all too well the pain, suffering and anger of the Mississippi State players and coaches. McGee's death came less than five months after the death of Vanderbilt offensive lineman Kyle Gullahorn, a redshirt freshman from Hueytown, Ala.

"I just wanted to let Jackie know how we felt and that we knew what they we were going through," said Widenhofer, who also sent flowers and condolences to the McGee family. "When a person knows you've gone through the same thing, they listen a little bit. I don't know if it helped or not. It's such a devastating thing.

The deaths of McGee and Gullahorn aren't the only tragedies to hit college football in the last year:

In Provo, Utah, teammates and coaches are still mourning the loss of Brigham Young cornerback Terrance Harper, a newcomer to the program who was just starting to make an impact as a player and a person when he died in a car accident on Sept. 29.

"The sad thing about all this is that we were just starting to get to know him," said BYU coach LaVell Edwards. "We found out a lot of things about him after he died that we didn't know before, like his religious faith. He had just done a paper for a religion class that talked about his faith and how happy he was playing football at BYU and making the most of his talents. The more we found out about him, the more we realized what a fantastic young man he was. It's a real tragedy that we didn't get to know him better and spend more time with him."

In Honolulu, teammates and coaches are still grieving over the death of Hawaii kicker Shannon Smith, who drowned March 29t hafter heroically saving the life of 6-year-old Cody vonAppen, the son of Hawaii Coach Fred vonAppen.

"Every time I look at Cody, I'm going to be reminded of Shannon for as long as I live," vonAppen said. "It helps you put things in context and perspective. You always think your agenda is so damned important-and suddenly you realize that within seconds no agenda means anything.

"He was a great kid who saved a child's life. I still can't believe what happened. It's something my family will never forget."

In Hattiesburg, Miss., players and coaches are still feeling the pain of Southern Miss Coach Jeff Bower, who lost his daughter, 17-year-old Kristen, to a car accident on Sept. 13. The day after her death, senior running back Tyrone Boulware told the Hattiesburg (Miss.) American, "I know he loved her dearly, and I can't imagine what he and his wife feeling. We're all like, 'what can we do to help him get through this?' And you want to do something, but it's like, 'what?' You just feel real helpless."

Bower has done his best to turn a tragedy into a valuable lesson. Since the death of his daughter, Bower has found himself going home a little earlier at night to make sure he has plenty of time for his family, and he makes an extra effort to talk to his players about everything from spiritual matters to making sure they buckle their seatbelts when they drive.

Bower also returned to work as soon as he could, immersing himself in a season that eventually led to a Conference USA championship and Liberty Bowl berth for the Southern Miss program.

"I really didn't have any second thoughts about that," Bower said. "I needed to get back to work as soon as I could. I wanted to get back, and I felt like it was my responsibility to the football program and the players to do that."

Such tragedies aren't new to college football. Despite the perception that young athletes are so strong, so healthy and immortal, they remain as mortal as the rest of us.

"I've been in coaching here for 26 years," BYU's Edwards said, "and I've never experienced this kind of thing before. It was all new and very devastating. There's no way to prepare for it."

Vandy coaches and players certainly weren't prepared to lose a teammate on the night Gullahorn died. In fact, he was on his way to a party on Saturday, March 22nd, when he fell to his death from a window in a stairwell between the sixth and seventh stories of his dormitory.

"I was having dinner at a restaurant and got a phone call telling me that there was an accident," Widenhofer said. "You just hope it's nothing serious at that point, but I really didn't know much about it, other than it was a dorm accident and a young man fell.

"But when I got to the hospital, they had already pronounced him dead, and we walked right into that."

Widenhofer has been part of four Super Bowl victories with the Pittsburgh Steelers, he's been a head coach at the college level (Vandy and Missouri) and the USFL (the Oklahoma Outlaws), and he's even been fired a couple of times in his career, but none of his prior experience as a football coach prepared him for what he had to do next.

"We got the players together and took them to the locker room and stood up and held hands and just started talking about Kyle," Widenhofer said. "A lot of guys had a lot of things to say about what Kyle meant to them and to the football team. That's when you find out what kind of people you really have in your program."

Widenhofer and school officials then turned to experts, such as the Vanderbilt director of student health, university psychologists and grief counselors, to help the players talk about their feelings. It wasn't intentional, but Widenhofer did his part by refusing to hide his feelings and setting an example for his players.

"You try to stay strong, but I broke down numerous times, both privately with our players and publicly," Widenhofer said. "Sometimes it's better to just let it go. It doesn't make you look any weaker to your football team. You're part of the grief that's going on and it's best to let it out and go on with the task at hand." For the Vandy football players and coaches, the task at hand included traveling together on buses to Hueytown for Gullahorn's funeral service at Pleasant Ridge Baptist Church. But first, the team returned to spring practice just three days after Gullahorn's death.

"There's just not much left that you can do at this point," center Jim Anguiano said after that Tuesday practice. "So instead of just sitting around and thinking about it, I think it was best for us to get back out there and practice. You're going to grieve no matter what."

Gullahorn has not been forgotten. Vanderbilt placed No. 68 jersey in the weight room where he worked so hard to rehabilitate an injured knee and encased his locker in glass for four years, until the year Gullahorn was supposed to graduate. During the 1997 season, the Commodores wore No. 68 on their helmets, and honored him with a moment of silence before two home games: the season opener, and the next home game against Alabama, with Gullahorn's family in attendance.

Sometimes tragedy within a program can inspire or motivate a team to new heights, such as what Colorado did to honor quarterback Sal Aunese, but the timing of Gullahorn's death made it difficult for the Commodores to carry that emotion for the five months between his death and the start of the football season. That was not the case for McGee, who died the day Mississippi State players reported for two-a-day practices.

After bringing in a series of ministers to help the players with their grieving process and attending McGee's funeral in Lowndes County, Miss., the Bulldogs had to return to practice immediately and start preparing for the season opener on Aug. 30.

Even though I've gone through this before, I don't know what to do. I don't know what's appropriate," Sherrill said, referring to MSU defensive lineman Rodney Stowers, who died in 1991 of an embolism caused by a broken leg in a football game. "And I don't know if I'd be a football coach if I knew what to do."

All Sherrill knew to do was pull his players together, reach out to McGee's family and go back to football practice. Sherrill and his wife, Peggy, continue to visit the McGee family on a regular basis, and the players honored McGee's memory by wearing his initials on their helmets and jerseys. The South end zone at Scott Field was painted with McGee's name and jersey number (21). His locker remains intact and untouched, and Sherrill has said no one will wear McGee's No. 21 jersey "for a long time."

Sherrill also promised McGee's mother, Matilda, "We will not let Keffer down," and the Bulldogs made good on that vow last fall by going exceeding preseason media expectations with a 7-4 record and a second-place finish in the Southeastern Conference Western Division. In the process of learning how to win without McGee, the players had to move past their grief and refocus on football, but it wasn't easy.

"It's funny. We were coming back from the Georgia game on the bus and I was sitting with (fullback) Nakia (Greer), and we just started talking about Keefer," quarterback Matt Wyatt said. "Nakia was his roommate. We were just talking about him like..."

Wyatt never finished the sentence, but after his voice trailed off, he added, "We never forget. It's been our motivation all year."

That motivation has sustained them through difficult times. After the funeral, Sherrill said it was obvious the emotions of the entire week had "completely physically and mentally drained them. We weren't very good for about three days, and we didn't really turn it around until the second game. After the Kentucky game (a 35-27 victory) they finally started to move on."

As a football team, the Bulldogs did everything they could to look forward and keep their sights set on their goals. As people with hearts and souls, they could not help but look back and think about the friend and brother they lost. Life goes on, but so does the healing process.

"The thing it teaches you more than anything else is that everybody has to make peace with something like this in their own way," Sherrill said. "Some people took a long time and some people did it very quickly. People expected me to be strong because I was the coach, but I told our players over and over that I'm just thankful that I had them, because I wouldn't have made it without them.

"I still think about Keffer a lot. I don't know if I've still gotten over it."

The Toughest Loss Al Jones
The Biloxi (Miss.) Sun-Herald

Jeff Bower spends every morning at the foot of a freshly cut grave on the east side of Hattiesburg. The University of Southern Mississippi football coach goes there to pay respects to daughter Kristen Bower who died in a one-car accident last September 13 on Mississippi 42 in Petal.

"I think more about her now than I did," he said. "It just seems like the longer time goes by, the more you miss her. That is the hardest thing. I don't know if the pain will ever stop. I don't know that you ever get over it. You just learn to deal with it a little better. People say that time heals, but I don't know. I don't foresee it getting any better."

Kristen, a free-spirited 17-year-old, was less than 5 miles from home, returning from a gathering with friends after a Petal High football game, when the accident occurred.

Only hours before, she had posed for her senior portrait and spoke with her family by phone. Kristen was thrown from the car, which flipped three times before coming to rest on top of her. She was not wearing her seat belt.

A near-perfect child

Kristen Louise Bower seemed to be a near-perfect child who enjoyed life to its fullest.

She was an honor-roll student who made a 21 on her ACT test, a student council member, a cheerleader and a photographer. She was active in her church's Catholic Youth Organ-ization and enjoyed gymnastics and tennis.

To show their love for Kristen, the Petal High School football team wore her initials, KB, on their helmets for the rest of the season. The school will dedicate a full page to Kristen's memory in the 1997-98 yearbook as well as on a bench outside the school.

A memorial scholarship fund also has been established in her name. The money will help pay tuition for walk-on athletes at USM.

"Her goal was to cheer for her dad," her mother, Debbie Bower, said.

"Kristen was her own person and she never tried to be like others. She was a free-spirited teen-ager who loved life and friends.

"The day she died, she was having a great day," Debbie said.

The day's events soon turned to tragedy. At 1:20 a.m. Saturday, USM assistant coach Steve Buckley and a Forrest County sheriff's deputy rang the Bower doorbell with news of Kristen's death.

Jeff Bower answered the door while Debbie slept.

"He came back in the room and woke me up," Debbie said. "Then it all started. I was in disbelief.

"The next morning, Jeff was outside trying to understand what happened when he walked in with the newspaper in his hand. It was on the front page. It was right then that we knew she was gone."

Family Matters

Off the field, Jeff Bower cherishes every possible moment with his wife and 11-year old Stephanie. He said the tragedy has reinforced the importance of his role as a husband and father.

"I have really put a premium on that, and I have to do a better job of that," Jeff said. "Family is the most important thing, and you can't get so consumed with football that you don't spend time with your family. That is more important to me than it has ever been."

Jeff continues to place a heavy emphasis on family, for himself and his assistant coaches. Instead of scheduling meetings for the afternoon, the USM staff meets in the morning.

"In this business, you can work as many hours as there are in the day," he said, "but you have to set aside time with your family. Not only me, but all of our coaches. We come in early in the morning and then go home pretty much after practice so that we can spend time with the family."

Every day, Jeff and Debbie travel past the accident site, and the drive is harder each day. Simple things, like the wind blowing against the trees or an afternoon shower, remind them of Kristen.

"We have so many memories," Debbie said. "Everywhere I go, everything I see and whatever I do, I'm reminded of her. I can be in complete control when all of a sudden something happens that makes me take a look back.

Debbie and Jeff Bower have stopped questioning God's decision to call their daughter home at such a tender age, but dealing with the loss hasn't become any easier.

"When you lose a child, part of your soul is gone," she said. "We have to deal with what the good Lord has dealt us and make sure Stephanie is all right. We know Kris-ten's all right and that she's watching over her family."

Two Moments in Time
October 2, 1970
November 14, 1970

by Matt Besch

Two otherwise non-descript days for the rest of the world, perhaps, but days forever linked in lore for the athletic programs at Marshall and Wichita State.

In the span of six weeks, two tragic airplane accidents shocked and changed the sporting world dramatically and the cities and athletic communities of Huntington, West Va., and Wichita, Kan., were left to mourn the lost.

Wichita State was the first to suffer calamity, when the "gold" plane, one of two aircraft carrying its football team, crashed into a Colorado mountainside enroute toward a Saturday football game versus Utah State.

The crash claimed the lives of 31 people while leaving behind a heap of scorched debris, charred black and gold helmets and a path of broken trees where the plane made it final descent. Fourteen players, the head football coach, the athletic director and a host of athletic officials and boosters perished in the accident. Nine survived. The crash was immediately dubbed "the worst sports related disaster America had ever experienced."

Sadly enough, the moniker was short lived as Marshall University suffered a similar fate six weeks later as a plane carrying 75 people, including 37 players, crashed as it returned from a tough road loss against East Carolina. Marshall's 1970 football season came to an abrupt end.

Both tragedies put the importance of sports into immediate perspective; changing the way people locally and nationally perceived sports. As an aftermath of the accidents, university administrators in both Huntington and Wichita not only had to deal with the grief of lost friends and family, but they also had to answer and field immediate, tough questions regarding the future and fate of their football programs.

WSU chose to complete its football season, but not without controversy. A few people criticized the WSU decision to continue a football season in the face of such tragedy. "How," they asked, "could the players be asked to carry on?" The players were never asked, but rather, decided on their own.

Ten days after the crash, the remaining members of the school's football team and its coaches, did decide, by team ballot, whether or not to continue the season. The decision was unanimous, less one dissenting vote. Thus, the "Second Season" began.

Once the decision was made to continue the season, the coaching staff was forced to deal with problems concerning the athletes that could never have been foreseen.

Bob Tucker, former linebacker coach at WSU and current defensive coordinator at Youngstown State, admits that the unique experience was a difficult and traumatic time for everyone. "We had to counsel the players through a tough period of time. I remember coming off the plane and having the media attack the players. In fact, I had to hold a couple of coaches back from swinging at some of the reporters.

"We tried to be very protective of the kids. As coaches, we went to spend time with the parents, and it was absolutely the toughest thing I've ever done in my life. It helped me grow up, put life in perspective, and once we got through it, we gathered everyone up, didn't dwell on it, and tried to rekindle spirits."

The Shockers started their "Second Season" with a trip to Fayetteville, Ark., and a game against Frank Broyles and his ninth-ranked Razorbacks. WSU lost 62-0, but somehow the score was unimportant. At the end of the game, a standing ovation from 40,000 Arkansas fans brought tears to many, as the Razorback players ran to midfield to hug the predominately freshman-sophomore team from Wichita.

Marshall had to ponder many of the same questions Wichita State dealt with, but on a larger scale-the Thundering Herd was no longer. MU was left without a coaching staff, an athletic director and had only three upperclassmen left from the football team. The season was over, but the question remained if Marshall would make the commitment to rebuild its football program.

"The administration said there was no way that they would drop football," said Dave Walsh, a member of the 1970 freshman squad that didn't make the trip to Greenville.

So, in 1971, the school had the daunting task of finding a coach who could rise to the challenge of taking over a decimated Marshall team. Their third choice for the job-Jack Lengyel, currently athletic director at the U.S. Naval Academy-said yes. Lengyel, who had led Wooster to an 8-1 record the previous season, knew his work was cut out for him. But some help came in the form of a special disaster ruling from the NCAA that allowed Marshall to use freshman in 1971.

"When we got there, all of the football equipment was gone," said Lengyel noted. "We put out a call to order equipment and for people to come out and play. In that first year we had fifth-year basketball players, walk-ons and a soccer-style kicker who had never played football before. It was difficult even finding players to practice against."

Despite the challenges, Marshall prevailed by beating Xavier in its second game and Bowling Green later on that season. The name "Young Thundering Herd" was born and wouldn't be retired until the first class graduated.

Lengyel did have problems guiding the "Young Thundering Herd" as there were emotional hurdles that had to be navigated throughout that season. The first year following the crash the team had to get back on a plane and fly for an away game.

The starting quarterback refused to step foot on the plane, and Lengyel was forced to play a second-stringer. The problems didn't end there. "The players were fidgety," Lengyel said. "They were buying insurance at the airport and it was just difficult. On that first ride, we even flew over the spot where the plane crashed."

"It was difficult," Walsh said. "You can wallow in self pity, but it's very important to move forward."


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