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Lessons I learned from Adversity

Yesterday is not ours to recover, but tomorrow is ours to win or lose. Coaches come and go in college athletics and a lot of the time they leave not because of the x’s and o’s but because of issues like adversity. The lessons taught through adversity in sports are not just for the athletes to learn from. As a former coach, I learned a lot from adversity. In prosperity our friends know us, in adversity, we get to know our friends. You can tell a lot about people by how they handle adversity and unexpected events.

All coaches and student-athletes will face adversity at some point in their life. Adversity is the first path toward finding the truth about a person’s inner character. It will define their character and has a way of introducing a person to themselves. Adversity in athletics is unique as a teacher in that adversity gives the individual the test first, before providing for an opportunity for the lesson to be learned.

In the summer of 1995, I was coaching a team in Columbus, Ohio that was part of the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League sponsored in part by the NCAA and Major League Baseball. The team was made up of players from around the nation with remaining college eligibility that I had recruited to come play for us. The league was full of major league baseball prospects and our team was one of the best. We had players from across the country and all levels of the NCAA. We took an early pre-season trip to Cape Cod and played several of the Cape Cod league teams with great success. We were a favorite to win the league and our kids were expecting a great summer of baseball.

On the morning of the summer league’s all-star game, I received an early call telling me to come to the fraternity home we rented for the team that was located on the Ohio State University’s campus. There had been an incident. Brad Harker, a towering 6-5 first baseman from Kansas State University had been savagely attacked in his room at the fraternity house overnight. Injuries sustained in that attack would eventually end his promising baseball career. It was a medical miracle it did not end his life. Our team and I were in shock. Brad was one of the nicest guys you would ever meet and no one expected anything like this. Brad would spend months in rehab in a Columbus hospital after the attack. He underwent tremendous amounts of physical therapy, three major surgeries and several minor ones. Blinded in his right eye, Harker was the victim of an attack by an unknown assailant that has never been solved. It tore our close knit team apart.

The morning I arrived at the fraternity house from my home in Powell, the police had sequestered all team members inside the house. Brad was being brought out on a stretcher and loaded into an ambulance headed to the OSU hospital. I followed to find out what information I could and to check on Brad. I learned the seriousness of his injuries and the incredible injury the attacker had inflicted on Brad, Having no experience in dealing with a major issue like this, I was trying to figure out what to do. I quickly made sure his family had been notified, the hospital was doing everything they could and then I returned to the fraternity house to address his teammates and meet with police to try and find some explanation for this horrific event.

The Columbus police were not allowing anyone inside the residence when I arrived until they finished their questioning of everyone who was inside the house that night. I stood outside and spoke to neighbors and heard about issues and concerns in the neighborhood. After what seemed like hours, the owner of the team, Jerry DiCuccio, a prominent Columbus attorney, and I were allowed into the fraternity to meet with our guys. The players told us Brad was alone in a room in the front of the house, separated by some distance from the other bedrooms by a television room where many players had been the night before. The room Brad was in was a new one for him. He recently had switched rooms at the request of a teammate. They last saw him at 2am working out in his room. No one heard or saw anything that night. The thick concrete walls and distance from others in the house provided cover for the attacker. No one could believe that anyone would ever want to attack Brad, let alone do this kind of damage.

Brad was an extremely well-liked young man, from a great Kansas family, He played at Kansas State and was recognized by his teammates and coaches as a great person and a gifted player. He suffered damage to his face and body. His family soon arrived in town and Brad was given the best of care thanks to a connection with a prominent Columbus businessman through one of his family members. A private room at the OSU hospital and the best doctors in Columbus undoubtedly saved his life thanks to this generous benefactor. As a young coach I was in shock but knew I had twenty some other players, coaches and family members relying on me to be a leader at this moment. We set forth a plan to meet with the players, organize their receiving psychological help and worked on making sure Brad and his family needs were met.

We met that first night with the full team shortly after getting updated details on Brad’s injuries and on the investigation from the officers involved. The team was in a state of shock. I had never been in a situation like this and the looks in their eyes was the look of fear. We brought in psychiatrists over the next few days to meet with the players as a group and one on one. These doctors were awesome. I remember the conversation I had with the team on the day after the attack. I told them that Brad was in bad shape and in a coma. We had no idea when he would come out of the coma if ever. But if he did, I would be there waiting for him. I knew that was my job and my responsibility. As individuals the players needed to make up their own minds as to whether they would stay and finish the season or if they wanted to return to their homes around the country. We made sure they knew that no one would blame them if they left, and I encouraged them to speak with their families.

I mentioned that I had faith Brad would come out of his coma and start to heal although at that time there was no reason to believe that. I wanted to be there for him. If they could not, I would explain that to Brad. I told them I understood how hard this was on them and understood if they felt unsafe or just needed to get away from the team and the situation. To the credit of these young men, every single player on the team chose to stay and be there for Brad. Our owner moved the team into a hotel on Olentangy River Road away from the fraternity house for the rest of the summer. We were somehow able to finish the rest of the season. This was not an easy summer of baseball for any of these young men. Between the unanswered questions, not knowing who was involved or why, they managed to pull through and pull together as a group for not just Brad, but for their teammates. The days and weeks were a blur.

Guilt for not hearing the attack was overwhelming to some. Seeing Brad at the hospital fighting for his life was tough. I tried to be there every day so I could let the team know what was happening. Dealing with the local press was a major problem. None of us were prepared to be in this situation. The local television stations would often ambush the guys as they loaded the team bus for departure or were arriving back at our home facility, published stories with the wrong information and generally were convinced the attacker was a team member because the police could not solve the case.

We slipped from first place to second. From second to third. Winning was not important to us, Brad was. The team was. e focused on the individual players getting better both mentally and physically. We went to the hospital every day as allowed. Eventually Brad came out of his coma and his teammates greeted him as he recovered. To their credit and thanks to the team ownership, they had the ability to be there for a teammate and his family in their time of need and to finish what they started. Brad, probably for the better, remembered nothing about the attack or why anyone would want to do this. We were convinced it was a case of mistaken identity. Perhaps someone looking for the person who had moved out the room just before Brad was attacked.

Time eventually came to end the season and our team and players headed home. The players in some cases had just a few days home with family before they returned to their respective colleges for fall semester. I told them I would keep them informed on Brad. They promised to stay in touch. Brad faced months of further rehab and eventually got to a point after some fantastic medical care that he could be released from Doan Hall for a few hours a day to go outside and get fresh air. His teammates were dispersed all over the country and only Brad’s family, me, a couple local players and our team ownership was still in town. We had weathered one of the most adverse situations a coach could ever face. But we had a long road to go and we did everything we could to make Brad comfortable.

This is the point where my faith in fellow coaches took a giant leap forward. Brad Harker was a huge Notre Dame fan. He was also a huge Lou Holtz fan. And as luck would have it, Lou Holtz was bringing his team in a couple weeks to play Ohio State at Ohio Stadium. The football stadium was located just a stone throw from the Doan Hall rehab center. Brad's family asked me if it was possible to get Brad into the game for the first half of one of the most anticipated games in Ohio State and Notre Dame football history. Sold out for months, this game was one of the most highly anticipated in college football history. Of course, I told her I would try but did not hold out much hope.

I called the Ohio State football office and asked if it was possible to get Brad into the game for a half. I used every connection as I explained he was a huge Notre Dame fan, a Lou Holtz fan and this would mean so much to him. I got a call back saying to my surprise it was all set. Later that week, Ohio State coach Jon Cooper, the Friday before his biggest game at Ohio State University as head football coach against legendary Lou Holtz and Notre Dame University, made the trek to Doan Hall and visited Brad in the rehab facility. He spent considerable time along with members of his staff with a young man who played a different sport, from another university, a huge fan of his opponent and brought hope, smiles and compassion to the Harker family. Coach Cooper had no obligation to do this. He did not need to arrange entrance to the game, visit the young man or spend the time that he did. His empathy and compassion will never be forgotten.

The unselfish act by Coach Cooper and others who allowed Brad to attend the game and be on the sideline before the game showed the empathy and compassion of the people at Ohio State. Brad sat in his wheelchair on the Notre Dame sideline and watched the teams warm up. Outstanding college athletes highly skilled at their sport like he was just a few months earlier. Brad was only allowed to stay for the first half because of his still vulnerable condition. Ohio State won that day. Brad met his idol Lou Holtz after being introduced by Coach Cooper and saw Ohio State and Notre Dame play in person thanks to the efforts of Ohio State’s staff. He eventually was released later that fall from the hospital several months after the summer baseball season had concluded. A once strapping young MLB prospect, he was never able to play baseball again. Brad returned to the classroom and was eventually able to help as a student assistant with his old college baseball team.

This incident taught me as a young coach that no matter how hard we try, how hard we prepare, to lead our teams and make them successful in competition, we are never ready for the myriad of things life can throw at us. But thanks to the generosity and kindness of strangers we can all get through the most challenging of adversity. Brad Harker and his family did not deserve what happened to him. The kindness and generosity shown by his teammates, coaching staff, owner Jerry DiCuccio, Les Wexner, the OSU hospital staff of doctors and nurses, GLSCL league members, Coach Cooper and his staff and the Harker family taught me lessons in coaching and relationships not taught in textbooks. Compassion was their wish to see others free of suffering and to make their journey more bearable.

I have unfortunately witnessed several life shattering events during my time as a head coach and Director of Athletics. I have witnessed men and women who rose to the moment or shrunk horribly from it but in every situation, I learned life lessons. Everyday thousands of coaches, athletes and staff go out of their way to make a positive impact in someone’s life. Let’s not judge our coaches solely on just wins or losses but on the impact, they make on other’s lives. We need to use the lessons we learn from the actions of folks like Coach Cooper and Coach Holtz in moments of adversity to make someone else’s life better. What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside you.


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