Thursday, September 25, 2008

Events in my life made me unafraid

Last Friday night, I came across the the Baylor-UConn game on ESPN. I'd remembered reading something about Baylor's new coach, Art Briles, months earlier, so I was curious to see how his Bears were doing.

Baylor ended up losing, 31-28, to UConn, a top 30 team that's off to a 4-0 start.

But Baylor hung in there against a quality opponent, which is remarkable because BU hasn't had a winning season since 1995.

After the game, I went back and found the ESPN article about Coach Briles that I'd seen from February. I remember it because it was not only well written, but incredibly moving.

Growing up, Briles' father coached the high school football and basketball teams. He also taught at the school and served as its principal.

He was a man of his times and circumstances. He kept his hair short, wore modest clothes, measured his words, sat in the back at church, understood that kids were kids and believed the players on his football team should be an extension of all that is sacred about living in a small town. "You were expected to act right and be right," Art Briles said.

After playing for his Dad in high school, Art, an all-state QB, left for the University of Houston to play for the Cougars. UH had started the season 3-1 and was playing SMU on the road at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.

Here's how the article on ESPN describes what happened:

On the morning of Oct. 16, 1976, Dennis and Wanda Briles rose early, pulled out of their driveway across the street from the school, turned right at the only stoplight in town and accelerated east on U.S. 380 out of Rule. Wanda Briles' older sister, Elsie Kittley, sat in the back seat of their Galaxie 500.

The sky was clear. The road was dry. The sun warmed the cotton fields of Haskell County.

Seventy miles into their trip, the car passed Newcastle. Three miles farther, it crested a hill on the highway. A commercial truck on the other side of the slope drifted into the eastbound lane as it reached the apex.

The impact sheared the roof from the Ford. Its three passengers died instantly.

Two hours away, Houston beat SMU 29-6. The announced attendance was 28,204, with three empty seats that, in their vacancy, rerouted the coordinates of one player on the field who kept wondering through all four quarters why he never heard his mother shout his name.

The coaches informed Briles in the Cougar dressing room at the top of the tunnel at the Cotton Bowl. His teammates, delirious from their victory over the Mustangs, dissolved into whispers. They began to undress quietly.

"One day you have a net," Briles said. "Next day, it's gone. You need people in your life, people who care about you and love you. I think that's made me a more insightful coach."

After the tragedy, Briles quit school and went to work as a forklift operator.

"I knew I had two paths," said Briles, a lanky man of 52 who still can't talk about his parents and aunt without long pauses, hard swallows and faraway stares.

You could wallow in despair and doubt, and whine and wonder. Or you could choose to move forward and live in honor of your parents and God. I decided I would look for a reason to prevail.

I went through a six-month spell after it happened where I had to get myself together and decide whether I would fight or falter. I just had the realization that not anything is going to happen unless you make it happen. You've got to pick a road to go down, and I chose one where I tried to build a positive legacy for my family's name. I became determined to honor them in the best way I could." So he coached football.

Briles returned to college, eventually earning a degree from Texas Tech and a master's from Abilene Christian, then went on to become a successful Texas high school coach, taking over a team that hadn't made the state playoffs in 30-something years and guiding it to four state championships.

Said one of his former players there:

“Everybody wants to win, but he came along at the right time and really got everybody united for a common goal. He got everyone involved — not just the football team, but the band, the school, the entire community. He made the players realize they can be successful and reach their goals.”

When asked about the challenges of reviving a struggling Baylor program, Coach Briles said:

"That doesn't worry me. I've been on the bottom of the floor. I'm not intimidated by circumstances. Events in my life made me unafraid."