Coping through crisis
Henderson State's Erwin uses passion for sports to help grieve
I washed the spit off my chin and splashed cold water on my face. I was one match away from the Kansas High School State Wrestling Championship. My next match would prove to be the toughest and most important of the season. But my mind was everywhere but in the arena.
I was so nervous that I couldn't even hold down the Imodium. Then I heard the familiar sound of those sharp cowboy boots on the gym floor. I looked up and saw my coach standing in front of me, his eyes piercing through my skull into my nervous brain. He put his hands on my shoulders.
"Timmy," he said, "you're just one match away from all you have worked so hard for."
It was February 27, 2006. It would have been my little brother Jordan’s 15th birthday. Instead of celebrating, I was standing in front of 2,000 screaming fans. Jordan had always been a great wrestler; I had always loved basketball. After he won his first wrestling tournament at just 6 years old, he said, "Someday I’m going to be a state champion." Four years ago I decided to give him that dream. I was going to win a state championship in his memory.
No Comforting Words
September 4, 2000: It was Labor Day, and we didn’t have school. Football practice, however, was on. I was a chunky, blond-haired, blue-eyed seventh grader and my brother was a skinny but well-built fourth grader – far more athletic than me. I left for practice on that warm afternoon with my buddy, Cale. Jordan was sitting cross-legged in our broken down recliner, his nose buried in a Harry Potter book. I walked out the door hollering, "See ya later, butthole."
If you blink on that long, lonesome drive through western Kansas, you miss the town of Hoxie. There are about 1,100 people within the city limits and another 500 living outside of town. It’s the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. If a farmer is struggling to get his crop cut, other farmers drop what they are doing to lend a hand. The tightly knit community is like a big family.
That day's practice started out like every other, with stretching and agilities. We then moved on to a tackling circuit. A commotion in the parking lot caught our attention. A man walked up and pulled my coach, Dick Heskett, aside.
Have you ever truly felt despair? I had seen it portrayed in movies, but that was all I knew of the emotion. When Coach Heskett, who was also my uncle, called me over, choked up, trying to find the words to tell me what had happened, I knew despair.
He looked at me and put his hands on my shoulder pads. "Timothy," he said. No one ever called me Timothy. "Jordan’s been hit by a car, and you need to get to the hospital immediately."
I felt the life sucked right out of me. Swallowing those words was like swallowing a watermelon.
I arrived at the hospital still wearing my cleats and shoulder pads, helmet in hand. I was led to an empty hospital room where I found my parents to be hysterical. I wanted to run away. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but to see my parents in a pile on the floor, crying and screaming for God to save Jordan, was horrifying. Shortly after I arrived, a nurse who was a friend of the family came in and told us that everything was fine, Jordan was stable.
I’m not sure if I hate her for lying to us, or if I should thank her for settling my parents down. No more than five minutes later, the doctor came in. "Jim, Pam, Timothy," he said. "I am so very sorry. He was gone when he arrived, and we could never get his heart going again."
My mom fell back to the floor and my dad hurled a hospital mattress across the room.
A few moments later, an eternity of horror, my grandparents showed up. My grandpa Archie agreed to take me to his house. I sat there listening as he made arrangements for the days leading up to the funeral. A few hours later, he wanted to go back and check on my parents. I refused to get into the car with him. I had so much anger and tension built up that I just needed to run, run as fast as I could until I was exhausted and couldn’t remember anything.
Grandpa Archie lived about five blocks from the hospital. My best friend, Tyler, happened to be outside his grandparents’ house with his family as I ran back to the hospital. They stopped me. Tyler had been my best friend since diaper days, and I was glad to see him. His mother was the type of neighborhood mom who made every kid feel like her own. She met me with tears and a giant hug. Tyler’s dad, Kirk, was one of the most respected men in town. He was a hard-nosed farmer and arguably the best wrestling coach in the state. He had led Hoxie High School to seven state championships and placed teams in the top three another seven times in his career, not to mention the dozens of coaching awards he had received over the years. Kirk was smart, humble and somehow always knew the right words to say.
Today there were no comforting words. Nothing could make my hurt go away. There were only hugs and tears.
My senior season had been one for the record books. Tyler and I both won the first tournament in December and we were off to a great start. Next we moved to the Colby dual tournament.
Dual tournaments were really a grind: you could wrestle up to seven matches a day. It was tough to come out of a dual with an unblemished record, yet Tyler and I both finished with seven wins and no losses. At this point I knew my dream of winning the championship was within reach. Next came the Goodland Holiday Classic dual tournament, where I would face my stiffest competition yet. Somehow, Tyler and I again went undefeated that weekend — for a combined 16 wins.
Forgiving is no Easy Task
I remember thinking that the hardest day would be the funeral. I feared that as Jordan's coffin made the slow descent below ground, the harsh reality would set in. I told myself that if I could just bite my lip and make it through that gloomy Thursday afternoon, all would be well again. This worked, but only for a few hours.
I left my brother's funeral dinner early so that I could play in the second football game of my seventh grade season. This may sound selfish of me, but it got me away from the shrill sounds of my mom’s screams, and for that reason alone it was worth it. I remember wishing that she would eventually lose her voice. Every time I saw her drop to her knees and scream my brother’s name, I just wanted to be somewhere else.
Even the bus ride was like a funeral. Nobody made a sound. Usually, guys were cracking jokes and jumping from seat to seat, talking about girls or the game we were about to play. A few players took the occasional glance at me and whispered to the person beside them, but I didn’t care. I was away from the emotion and that was all that mattered. I played in that game the day of my brother’s funeral, and we won. From the time the ball was kicked off until the final siren blew, life was normal again. There were no tears, no screams and no reminders of the tragedy that tore my family apart just days before.
To this day, no one has told me exactly what happened on the day my brother died. I learned what information I know about the accident from a news segment preceding the funeral. I also gathered a good bit of detail from my mom, who still has to live with the memory of her youngest son dying in her arms.
The wreck involved two vehicles: an early '90s Buick Regal and a newer red Dodge Durango. Jordan was leaning against a light pole on my friend Cale’s bike, tying his shoe. The kid driving the Buick pulled out in front of the Durango at a four-way intersection. After the impact, the Durango sailed over the top of the Buick, pinning Jordan to the light pole. My mom was at the convenience store only a few yards away.
She saw everything.
One night I remember her crying, saying there was so much blood. Those words made me want to beat the life out of both drivers for a long time. In the Bible it says to forgive, so I found a way to forgive them. I feared that if I didn’t, I would never make it to Heaven to see my brother again.
The undefeated record and all those first-place finishes before Christmas break meant nothing now. We were in the last half of the season, and that’s when you have to be flawless to earn a state championship. Our first tournament of 2006 was the J.R. Durham Invitational. For the first time all year, I had my hands full with a state champion from Nebraska. His name was Mitch Zook. He looked as if he had been chiseled out of stone. This guy’s abs had abs. In the finals he tossed me around like a rag doll.
Starting the third and final period, I was losing by five points — an enormous deficit in a wrestling match. Kirk knew that I was great off the bottom position, so he told me to choose bottom starting the third period. He was right. Two seconds later I had escaped and cut the deficit to four.
We were back on our feet, where I wrestled the best. I tied Zook’s arms up and hit a quick duck-under, which cut the deficit to two. I let him up. I knew that I couldn’t score while on top.
I was then on my feet and down one with under a minute left. Ten, nine, eight. It was my last chance, and I could tell that he was worn down. I set him up for my move and got the take-down. I ended up winning that match with one second left on the clock, and took home first place.
Coach said he had faith in me all along, because he knew just how badly I wanted it. I wanted that perfect season more than anything.
Finding Ways to Cope
For a long time, my brother's room stayed exactly the same as he had left it – the bed somewhat-made. My parents went in from time to time, but I always steered clear. As the dust collected in Jordan’s bedroom, problems swirled in our household. My mom would lie in bed for days, even weeks, crying. My dad was somewhat like me: he wanted to get away from the emotions. He was constantly working in the garage.
I had a beautiful blonde-haired, blue-eyed baby sister named Amber. She became my whole world, and she meant everything to me. I spent a lot of my time playing with her, while my parents grieved in their own ways.
A few months after the funeral, I awoke in the middle of the night and headed up stairs to the kitchen sink for a drink of water. I opened the door and found my mom slumped over the kitchen counter. She appeared to be half-dead or intoxicated. Then I noticed the orange plastic pill bottles scattered across the counter top. She had tried to kill herself that night and she nearly succeeded.
My dad rushed her to the hospital, where her stomach was pumped and she was saved. She was sent to one of the nation’s top mental institutions, which happened to be in Topeka, Kan. We visited her on the weekends.
The sight of her lifeless on the kitchen counter was burned into my brain. I decided that I could never talk to her about Jordan or even speak his name in our home again. I was afraid of upsetting her and wanted to keep her spirits high. I could swallow Jordan's name and forget all about him in order to salvage what was left of my family.
Even so, I started seeing his face everywhere I went. I tried talking to friends, but Hoxie was such a small place. Everyone in my hometown knew Jordan and had shed a tear or two for him. I couldn’t take the tears, so I found another way to ease my feelings and remember him without causing others pain. My dad had been a high school football coach for a few years in Hoxie, so he had keys to the weight room. I would go to the weight room whenever I was having trouble and think about Jordan. I would get sad sometimes, but mostly I got angry. Then I would start lifting. I would do rep after rep, set after set.
Sometimes, I would close my eyes and watch Jordan ride his little green Kawasaki four-wheeler across our gravel driveway while I chased after him, throwing rocks. Then I would shed a few tears, un-rack the weight and lift until the memory was gone again. But I could close my eyes and remember the nights when me, the big brother, would sneak into his room and sleep with him because I was scared.
Each time, I would think of sadder, more personal memories to fuel my fire. Each time, I would put weight on that I had never been able to lift, and imagine myself picking that red Durango up off of him and saving his life.
Keeping the Memories Alive
Coach Baker stood in front of me on that horrible September day as I headed back to the hospital. He stood here again at the state tournament, six years later. He was ready to see all the sweat and tears that had fallen from my face pay off. I took my sweats off and pulled on the tight straps of my red and black Hoxie singlet.
Coach slapped me on the back. "Alright, Timmy," he said. "Give ‘em hell." I had been picked by nearly every newspaper in Kansas to win the 215-pound state championship that year as a senior. This was my chance.
The match, against Steven Foster from Sedgewick County, remained even the entire time. He shot, I countered. I shot, he countered. After two periods, we were tied 3 to 3. In the final period, I lost the match and fell short of my dream. All those newspapers were wrong. I walked off the mat as a loser.
I felt like everything, all those hours I put in the weight room, all that extra mat time, was for nothing. It wasn’t the fact that I had lost that killed me. I saw winning that championship for Jordan as the only way to make up for all those hurtful things I had done and said to him.
I lay on the gym floor crying my eyes out, while Coach Baker stood over me and calmly said those things that true coaches say. "Things don’t always go like you plan them to," he said. "Now are you going to lay there and quit, or are you going to get back up and battle for third place?"
I like to believe that my brother reached down, picked me up by the britches and carried me on. I wrestled one match after another like a man possessed. I pinned my next opponent early in the second period. I kept pushing and pinned my next opponent early in the second period as well. Winning the next match would put me in the fight for third place. I pinned Billy Davis from Blue Stem High in 59 seconds. I won the match for third place against Jordan Bliemeister, a very talented wrestler, by a major decision.
I was the third best wrestler in the state of Kansas.
I was no state champion; there was no great gift for me to honor Jordan with on his birthday. That day made me realize something, which has carried me ever since and has given me the strength to write this story. There is no love in the world stronger than the love brothers have for one another. I wish I would have told him every second of every day that I loved him.
It has been 10 years since the accident, four years since I stood in front of the fans at the Kansas state tournament. Later that year, Kirk Baker retired from his 21-year career as a wrestling coach. Kirk and I never really talked about the struggles that I faced. I like to think that he truly took me in as a son and helped me grind through the bad days.
My parents are happier now. My dad still tries to stay busy, whether he is building a house or building a line of bird houses that he stamps with my brother’s initials to keep his memory intact. My mom is a lot better. After several years of love and support from our family and friends, she is herself again. Somehow, we were able to convince my mom that my sister and I needed her as much as she needed to remember Jordan. She began to cherish every moment that she shares with my sister and me. I can’t remember the last time I actually worried about the night I found her in the kitchen. I am proud of her.
Amber has grown so much. She recently started playing fifth grade basketball and volleyball. I haven’t been around much to watch her play, but the reports that my dad has given me let me know that someday she will bring home many medals of her own.
I still struggle daily with ways to cope with my memories of Jordan. I play football for Henderson State University, a Division II school in Arkansas, and have fallen in love with my beautiful girlfriend, Ryleigh. I hope to eventually start a family of my own with her.
I just hope that someday I am able to forgive myself for not being able to protect Jordan on that September day so many years ago.
This story originally ran on ThePostGame.com.
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