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Tragedy still with Cougars

Football team’s memories of fatal car-bus crash vivid

They never tell you about this, on all those autumn fields. How could they?

It is a precise, proscribed world in which they move, and if there is chaos and pain and sometimes failure, it is orchestrated chaos and pain and failure, lined out in five-yard increments, hashes marking every yard’s progress. And, beyond that, two sidelines to keep it all contained.

Inside those sidelines, you buckle your chinstrap and move your feet and hit-hit-hit. Outside …

Well. Outside there is the evening of Oct. 19, sometime just before 9 o’clock, somewhere near LaPorte on I-94/I-80.

“Hey,” said Saint Francis assistant coach Cody Williamson, or something like that, looking up.

And then, the collision.

And then, a woman, screaming.

And then, blood. So much blood.

The crash

Solomon Grimes knew enough not to try move the man.

He’d had a health class or two and knew about neck injuries, or suspected neck injuries, and so he just stayed there with the young man in the car as his life slipped away from him. His name was Joshua Walbern, and he was 21. Now he was bleeding profusely and wasn’t moving and would not see 22, and Grimes stayed with him.

He and fellow Saint Francis assistants Cody Williamson, Pat Mahorney and Grant Veith ran to the car after it swerved into their team bus’s lane and the bus hit it, and two months later that’s something Grimes, the Cougars’ defensive backs coach, still clings to when that night comes up. He even has a phrase for it.

“We ran toward the storm and not away from the storm, you know,” he says. “In a situation like that, some people don’t do that.”

It would be some solace, if you can call it that, for the days ahead. Grimes is a football man, they were all football men, and if football is a man’s game it’s still just a game. And this was … something else.

A man bleeding out in front of you, a woman in the driver’s seat screaming, the players, football men, too, watching it all: The game can’t prepare you for that.

And so right after Grimes called head coach Kevin Donley, who was on the other bus, he called his father, who’s a pastor. They prayed together, and then they prayed for the young man and his family, and there would be other phone calls that week, when sleep wouldn’t come. Because how else do you get past something like that, if you ever do?

“It was something I’ll never forget,” Grimes says. “I’m a spiritual guy, and I think when you see something like that, it’s tough. Even though I think of myself as a mentally strong person, it doesn’t matter who you are. That will humble you.

“The few days after were very tough for me. It was something I couldn’t carry for the rest of the season and the rest of my life, so I did my best in the moment.”

As did they all.

Dealing with it

Donley looks back now and wonders if he did it all wrong.

The night of the accident, when the team reassembled at an oasis on the Toll Road, they all prayed and then waited on the second bus and then went on home, arriving in the wee hours of Sunday morning.

They’d just beaten Saint Francis (Ill.) to go to 5-1, their only loss was to eventual national champion Grand View (Iowa.), and they had a beatable Robert Morris team coming up.

So Donley’s thinking was simply to try to move on.

Now he thinks that was a mistake – and not just because Robert Morris upset the Cougars that Saturday.

“I’ve been doing this for a long time,” he said. “But how do you handle the tragedy of a bus wreck? You have 35 kids who saw someone lose their life right in front of their eyes. So I didn’t handle that as well as I should have.

“I tried to deal with it as quickly as possible, put it to rest. I probably should have gotten more into the counseling part of it, and I didn’t. And it kept coming up all week.”

He pauses. He’s a football man, too, but he knows something of the world outside those careful lines. He grew up during the Vietnam War, saw the flag-draped caskets come home, always felt a twinge of guilt about that. And so when 9/11 happened, he decided to go ahead and play four days later, seeing it as a patriotic gesture.

This, of course, was different.

“Kind of puts life in perspective,” Donley says. “How important is a football game, you know?”

Moving forward

Two months along now, and Christmas again.

The tree is up. The gifts lie beneath it. On the Saint Francis campus, Brookside, the lavish Bass summer home, is decorated for the holidays to a fare-thee-well.

And Grimes, who played football at Bloomington North High School and then middle linebacker for Donley at Saint Francis, looks back at that October night and sees the greatest gift of all: The fact that it is, yes, two months along.

“I think it stuck in our minds more than we thought,” he says.

“Being that close to death and dying, honestly, it put everything into perspective. As strong as our mindset is, it was a traumatic thing – and there’s just nothing but time that can heal it.”