The road we’re on

The first time I went to Stillwater, Okla., I drove by myself on a rainy Saturday in February 1987. It was Valentine’s Day, and the Missouri women’s basketball team was playing a late afternoon game at Oklahoma State. I didn’t go to cover it; I just wanted to watch. In those days, Missouri’s women were literally never on television. Very few women’s teams ever were, especially not in the regular season.

I was a senior at the University of Missouri then, a few months from graduation and what I hoped was a future covering sports for a newspaper. But I already was well aware that what I wanted most to cover – women’s basketball – was not valued by the majority of people who ran newspaper sports departments.

One of my journalism instructors, then the sports editor at the Columbia Missourian, said I shouldn’t cover women’s basketball because I was “too into it.” Of course, he didn’t say that to my male counterparts about any men’s sports that they were really “into.”

He felt that I knew too much about women’s basketball, and thus would write stories that tried to impart more than rudimentary facts about teams and games. He didn’t believe there were actually readers who wanted to see the sport covered as if it were something more than just an obligation.

The Missouri men had played earlier that very same day in Stillwater, and Gallagher-Iba Arena had nearly emptied out before the women’s game began. A friend/fellow journalism student was there covering the men and had been asked to do a story on the women, too. He didn’t know much about the women’s team _ he didn’t regularly cover them _ nor had he even been able to watch their game as he was busy during that time writing his story and notebook for the men’s game on deadline.

I offered to write _ literally write, with a pen on a yellow legal pad – a story for him on the women while he finished his men’s stuff. Then he could send it in as his own. And so that’s what we did. In retrospect, it wasn’t ethical, but I didn’t care at the time. I was an idealist; I didn’t want the women to get a story that read as if the author hadn’t seen their game.

It was an 830-mile round trip from Columbia, Mo., to Stillwater, and the speed limit then was 55 mph. Believe it or not, I really tried to not break the law. So it was about a 14-hour drive there and back. And on the way home, the rain began to turn icy. I noticed this just about 5 seconds too late. I saw the car in front of me go off the road, and before I could slow way down, I was next.

There wasn’t much time to think as my car began to spin. It happened very quickly, as these things usually do. Then the car was stopped, the engine off, and I was facing the opposite direction I’d been traveling. I was off into the grass next to the road, but …

I hadn’t hit anything. I hadn’t flipped over. I hadn’t damaged the car at all, nor gone too far off the road to be able to get out. I had simply spun like a top. Physically, neither I nor my car was worse for wear.

Emotionally, though, I had issues. I was still a long way from home, and now terrified. At 21, I didn’t have a credit card, nor enough money, to stay in a hotel. I had to keep driving, albeit at a crawl. I made it back to Columbia sometime around dawn _ exhausted, sore from my frightened grip on wheel … and yet strangely exhilarated because I had “survived” the trip.

However, for several months after that, I didn’t drive well in the rain, to say the least. In April of that year, even with the temperature nowhere near freezing, I myself froze up when an average rain began while I was making an hour and half drive to my parents’ house. I had to pull over at a rest stop and just sit for a couple of hours until the rain stopped.

I was genuinely worried that this intense new fear of driving in the rain would become a complicating factor in my life. How was I going to function if I had to stop driving every time it started to rain?

But then through the rest of that year, the memory of the spinning car gradually lost its hold on me. I can’t remember exactly when I stopped having that panicky feeling as soon as I saw a raindrop on the windshield, but the phobia went away.

In the almost 25 years since that first visit to Oklahoma State, I’ve driven hundreds of thousands of miles, at least a fair amount of them in rain. Some in ice. Some in snow. I don’t really think much about that trip; in fact, I can’t recall the last time it had crossed my mind until Monday.

But as I made a sad journey from Kansas City to Stillwater, it came back to me. I thought, “My life could have been over that day in February 1987. That icy spinout could have ended in many worse ways, and instead, it was essentially harmless.”

People can never know all the instances when the fork in the road of fate went in their favor. Or if a time may come when it doesn’t.

***

Monday, for the first time ever, I drove to Oklahoma for something other than a sports event. That’s always what had brought me there before over the last quarter-century _ usually basketball, but also a few times I’d gone for golf or football.

This time, I went to Oklahoma State’s Gallagher-Iba Arena, but not to see hoops. The building looked and felt different, more like a somber cathedral than a gym. The basketball rims were gone for the day, replaced by a stage with a podium, and large photographs of four people who’d spent a good deal of time there.

It seemed unreal to walk into the gym to pay respects and say goodbye. But that’s what everyone was there to do, four days after a small plane crash took the lives of Oklahoma State women’s basketball coaches Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna, plus OSU boosters Olin and Paula Branstetter.

The memorial itself was touching and poignant, with OSU interim coach Jim Littell handling most of the eulogizing in an uplifting and inspirational way. I talked with former players after the service, some of the same kids I’d spoken to after Cowgirls games over the years.

“I still recognize your voice,” 2009 grad Taylor Hardeman said to me, smiling and yet near tears. “That’s kind of funny, isn’t it?”

Meanwhile, another former Cowgirl, Megan Byford, was hard to recognize for any of us journalists who’d last seen her as a senior in 2010. Now a graduate assistant at Pittsburg State in Kansas, she’d lost weight and changed her hairstyle/color.

“This is like a dream,” she said. “A bad dream. None of this even seems real.”

Many hours later, after I’d filed a story on Oklahoma State and watched UConn-Stanford on television, I was ready to go home to Kansas City. I have a credit card now, and I could have stayed in Stillwater. Yet I didn’t want to. I wanted to sleep in my own bed that night, however much I could sleep.

I walked out of the media room and into what was now an empty arena. The sad accessories needed for a memorial service had been put away. It looked ready for hoops again, except the basket stanchions had not been put back in place yet.

I walked toward the scorers’ table, and noticed a book sitting there. It was a Bible, and I wondered who had left it there. I am not a religious person, which is perhaps as big an understatement as I can make. But I accept that, especially in this part of the country, I am a distinct minority. Religion brings those who believe in it comfort in the most dire times, and on this day, especially, many people here desperately had needed some kind of solace. Their faith provided it.

I looked around the gym for several minutes. And if you’ve ever been alone inside an empty arena, you may have noticed this sensation: It’s so quiet, it’s almost loud.

I thought about the way Gallagher-Iba had appeared the first time I’d been there; a blurry vision in my mind of a much smaller place – it has subsequently been expanded – with wooden bleacher seats. I stood behind the chairs on the Oklahoma State bench that had been filled the last six years by Budke and Serna, two people who would never be here again.

In the outer hallway, there were several floral arrangements, and also banners with what had to be thousands of signatures expressing condolences and gratitude. There were far too many to read, so I just scanned them, walking slowly past, and then I found myself reading one aloud.

There was no reason for me to have noticed it; it wasn’t written in large script or set apart. It was just there mixed in with all the others, and I was incredulous, after reading the message and seeing the name, that I had so randomly seen it in needle-in-a-haystack fashion.

The mourner, Suzanne Long, had written her thanks to Miranda Serna for having given her tickets to see her first OSU football game. I recognized the name and Serna’s kind gesture from having read about it that morning in a fine story by my ESPN.com colleague Liz Merrill on how the community of Stillwater was coping with another airplane-crash tragedy. Liz had talked to Long, a friend of Serna’s and the general manager of a Perkins restaurant near OSU’s campus, on Sunday.

It seemed incredibly bizarre to me that of all those signatures I’d just been passing by, not actually reading them, that one had stood out. Does part of your brain actually see things you don’t always realize it does? Or was it just a random coincidence that my eyes fell on that small note that was all but hidden amongst all the others?

***

I was still contemplating that when I finally left Gallagher-Iba some nine hours after I’d entered the building. It was raining _ a chilly November drizzle, but not an icy one.

Nonetheless, it made absolutely no sense at all to drive the nearly five hours home on a stormy night … and yet I did. I didn’t drive very fast. I reflected on the positive ways media coverage of women’s basketball has changed since 1987 – but also the frustrating ways that it hasn’t.

I considered all the hours of my life I’ve spent by myself in a car going to and from basketball games all over the country. I thought about the other people who do this – some of whom never get paid a cent for their effort. Sometimes, I admit, I’ve questioned the sensibility of our devotion, because the people who make decisions about sports coverage still – for the most part – don’t value women’s athletics the way I wish they did.

But would I change what I’ve done, if I could? No. Most of the time, I successfully remind myself that the true value of something is measured internally. And I must admit, I’ve usually cherished the alone time on the road: That feeling of freedom and motion _ as we pampered modern-day travelers channel our ancestors’ “pioneer” spirit _ and wouldn’t want to give it up.

I’ve driven this stretch of Interstate 35 in Kansas/Oklahoma many times. When I’m doing so at night, I have this sensation _ it’s part eerie and part magical _ that the miles of wheat fields on either side of the highway are like the ocean: dark, mysterious and seemingly endless.

At one of the rest-area “islands” along the way, there is a memorial to Knute Rockne, the legendary Notre Dame football coach who was killed when he was a passenger in a plane that crashed into those fields near the microscopic town – if you can really call it a town – of Bazaar, Kan.

Every time I stop at this “island,” I look at the memorial and think about the same thing: Rockne died along with seven others on Trans World Airlines flight 599, which was en route from Kansas City to Los Angeles. The crash happened on March 31, 1931 _ and it’s the 1931 part that always amazes me.

That was just 28 years after the Wright brothers had finally gotten their contraption off the ground for a brief time at Kitty Hawk, N.C. Maybe it doesn’t seem stunning to everyone else that it would take less that three full decades for human beings to go from a glorified glider “flight” to commercial air travel that criss-crossed the country. But I must say, it stuns me.

The crash that killed Rockne spurred several safety advances in aviation: A structural defect with the type of plane he was riding in was discovered because of the accident _ moisture had weakened the glue bonding on a strut that helped stabilize the wings, causing one to fall off _ and those aircraft were taken out of airline service. Also, the organization that was the forerunner of today’s Federal Aviation Administration had to change the way it conducted investigations – no more would they be done “in secret” – and much was publicly learned from the tragedy.

There have been many, many aviation disasters since, of large and small aircraft. Gravity and force still wield their awesome power on people, and it’s certain we humans will never completely master the skies. There will always be some risk.

We will wait to see the actual cause of the accident that killed Budke, Serna and the Branstetters, provided it can be determined. Just as the 2001 crash in Colorado that killed 10 members of the Oklahoma State men’s basketball traveling party resulted in new policies about team travel, this likely will do the same about coaches’ transportation.

This is not to say any mistakes were made, because we don’t know that there were. Accidents do happen, and some are catastrophic, leaving no chance for recovery. Whatever the crash’s cause, though, we do know the reason that Budke and Serna were on that plane: They were recruiting, the lifeblood of college athletics. They died on the job, and their minds  – when they boarded their last flight – no doubt were filled with all the responsibilities, obligations and opportunities in front of them.

On that Thursday afternoon – just a week before Thanksgiving – life ended suddenly for these two coaches. They left behind shattered families, and you can imagine what this holiday season is like for those surviving loved ones. Yet the image that will stick with me of Monday’s memorial service is Budke’s three children trying to be brave. They are young adults not ready – no one ever is, no matter how old – to be without their father.

But the way that Alex and Brett physically supported their weeping mother, Shelley, and how Sara reached over to comfort her grandmother … I thought, “Kurt would be so proud of them.”

As the families try to make their way through their forever-changed lives, the Cowgirls team now is the visible legacy of Budke and Serna. All the work they put into this program lives on after them, and that at times may seem a burden to the players. Hopefully, though, the Cowgirls will view it as a solemn honor.

Saturday, they took the court again for their first game since the accident, winning 59-35 over Coppin State. It’s just the start of the next chapter – one that no one ever wanted to write.

But that’s the road that the Cowgirls and the loved ones of the crash victims are on now.

None of us can ever be sure when we might spin off our various roads, or what may happen to us if we do. Somehow, though, we just keep driving.

About mvoepel

Mechelle Voepel covers the WNBA, women's college basketball and other college sports for ESPN.com.
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One Response to The road we’re on

  1. Lindsey Wilson says:

    Mechelle,

    Great writing as always. Such a terrible tragedy but you managed to honor their memories beautifully.

    Lindsey