Houston Baptist's toughest year (cont.)
While the administrative side of the enterprise continues to unfold, Cottrell's emotional focus this past season was heavily on his team, and not solely because of the Keys' tragedy. Senior forward Fred Hinnenkamp's cousin, Joshua McMackle, was a freshman at Texas Southern University last March when he was shot and killed at a block party. A month later -- early on the morning after the Keys' accident -- Jonathan Evans, then a senior point guard at Bellaire High School just outside of Houston, had close friend and teammate Tobi Oyedeji, a Texas A&M commit, die from injuries suffered in a car crash after their senior prom.
Evans, who to that point hadn't really been recruited by the Huskies, came home that Sunday night and turned on the news to see the latest coverage of Oyedeji's death. The next story was about the Keys, and Evans turned his thoughts to the program. Cottrell soon invited him for a campus visit and Evans quickly committed, feeling the order of that news broadcast had fated him to attend the school. He wears No. 35 in honor of Oyedeji.
For Evans, especially, having Key and his firsthand experience with significant loss on the staff has been a plus. "If anyone can understand my pain, it's coach Key," he said. Although to this point, Evans hasn't been ready to sit down with Key and fully talk about his own pain. Neither he nor Hinnenkamp have been able to completely reconcile their heartache, but now a year removed from the tragedies, both are starting to find some perspective and peace.
"I have questioned stuff. Why would this happen? Why would this happen to a person like this?," Evans said of Oyedeji. "But in the aftermath of it all, I can kind of understand it more because between Tobi and Emma, they've touched so many people's lives. I don't think a lot of people [outside the program] would understand."
The team gathered in late August at Emma's memorial service, the first time they were fully together since her death. The emotion carried over to the fall, when Cottrell arranged to have a patch with a light pink "E" stitched to the Huskies' uniforms. Cottrell gathered the team in the locker room a few days before the season-opening scrimmage and presented Key with a jersey, which made him (and several players) break down in tears.
"I know that if nothing more, [Emma's] death will have a huge impact on the guys who were on this team many years from now and I've had several of them tell me that," Key said. "They'll always remember wearing the "E" on their jerseys this year and they'll know why."
The rest of the season was rife with these little moments of emotion. Key cried again on the sideline before the first scrimmage when he looked up into the stands and saw Sherry, sitting with Eiley in the same spot where they used to sit with Emma, smile and mouth "I love you."
Then there was the late-night bus trip to South Alabama, when Key's focus on a movie playing suddenly was broken. He looked out the window and immediately recognized where they were: Grosse Tete, La., right near where the accident had occurred.
In the conference tournament in Orem, Utah, the banged-up Huskies somehow upset off No. 2 seed NJIT in the quarterfinals, extending their season for one extra day. That night, Key shared the news with an appropriate spin.
"I know a little redhead who is very happy today looking down from heaven," he remarked. "Her favorite tie finally won a game."
Because of the tragedies, the entire vibe around the program has changed. Wins and losses still matter a lot, but results don't linger like they used to, even as the defeats piled up this past season. The coaching staff still rides the players hard, but with a much grander perspective.
Cottrell and assistant coaches Keith Berard and Jud Kinne helped carry Key through his tougher moments. Basketball became inexorably more personal. On the wall in the office Key shares with Kinne, Emma's youth basketball jersey hangs framed. Video breakdown sessions often morphed into chats about family or religion or maybe just some random thing on TV. It was Cottrell who helped Key decide on the wording for the memorial plaque at Emma's grave site while Sherry was still recovering.
"I wouldn't wish this last year on anybody," Cottrell said. "You go through the hardest thing ever you're going to go through in your whole life, and your wife is unable to make any decisions. A friend of his videotaped the funeral. Think about that for a second. Someone video'd the funeral so that at some point in time in the future, Sherry can see her eight-year-old daughter being buried. That's hard to think about."
Sherry sits quietly at the family's dining room table, looking a bit uncomfortable, wondering where to begin. Her injuries and the subsequent rehabilitation left her several months behind Steven in the grieving process. Her corporate job coding software doesn't provide her with the spiritual outlet Steven enjoys at HBU. Beyond a church support group, she hasn't really opened up about Emma, so even finding a starting frame of reference is difficult.
"I'm not sure how you can reconcile it," she said about Emma's death. "I think this is what God has planned for us. One of the things that I heard in the compassionate friends group I was going to is God picked us to be her parents because he knew whenever this happened, that we wouldn't turn away. It's a gift to be her mom, of course, but I don't know that going through the pain is a gift."
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