Posted: Tuesday May 17, 2011 10:21AM ; Updated: Tuesday May 17, 2011 11:59AM
Andy Glockner

A tragedy tests faith, brings Houston Baptist program together

Story Highlights

HBU assistant Steven Key lost his 8-year-old daughter in a car accident last year

Key's wife was seriously injured and was in ICU at the time of the funeral

As the Keys tried to cope, the faith, family at Houston Baptist helped them along

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Edna M. Fielder Elementary School commemorates the life of Emma Key with a tree at its entrance.
Edna M. Fielder Elementary School commemorates the life of Emma Key with a tree at its entrance.
Andy Glockner/SI

KATY, Texas -- Emma's tree stands in a sun-drenched spot on the front lawn at Edna M. Fielder Elementary School, in line with the curbside area where the young students exit their buses in the morning. The bronze plaque at the base of the tree sparkles in the sunshine, reminiscent of the smile of the porcelain-skinned redhead it commemorates. Like the children it greets every weekday, the tree is still young and needs support to grow, but it's standing a bit taller these days than when it was first planted last year. So are the family and the basketball program still coping with Emma's death.

About 10 miles away, Steven Key, Emma's father, leans forward in a leather chair in the office of the only boss he's ever known, Houston Baptist University basketball coach Ron Cottrell. Key, known as "Savvy" to the rest of the HBU staff due to his Savannah, Ga., upbringing, has been with the program since 1991, when he joined Cottrell's newly restarted NAIA venture as a student manager. Today, he's the lead assistant for the now-nascent Division I program at this small Christian school on the west edge of Houston, one of the last to make the leap to the big time before the NCAA instituted a temporary four-year moratorium on such moves in 2007.

At this moment, though, Key's focus is not on the Huskies, who recently completed a 5-26 season, one sabotaged by injuries and personnel departures that ended with just eight scholarship players available. Not on how Emma's loss impacted the team, whose players also had to endure two other deaths last spring. He's thinking about the accident. Key was driving the family's Toyota Sequoia last May 15 when the car hydroplaned across the median of Interstate-10 in Grosse Tete, La., came to a stop in the westbound lanes and was struck broadside by an oncoming 18-wheeler.

"I know she didn't suffer," Key finally said, softly, of his eight-year-old daughter who was killed on impact. "I know she didn't. It's hard to explain and it's one of those surreal movie kind of things. It's almost one second you're eating a french fry and talking, and the next you're looking around going 'What's going on?', picking your face out of an air bag and trying to kick your door open.

"My issue with it is I can remember everything, and that's hard sometimes. Smells, the things I saw, knowing exactly what prompted it. I can retrace the whole thing."

Immediately after the accident, Steven extracted the Keys' other daughter, then-two-year-old Eiley, from the car. He was unable to reach Emma or his wife, Sherry, who was breathing but unconscious, having suffered significant brain trauma, a broken right pelvis and a shattered left humerus. Despite his own broken ribs and injured back, Steven lifted Eiley (pronounced EYE-lee) on his shoulders and wandered around the highway, even heading over to the truck to make sure the driver was OK. Anything to keep her from fixating on the wreckage. He remembers seeing the departing ambulances that took away his firstborn and his wife. One he knew he had lost. The other, he didn't know if he'd ever get back.

Four days later, Key left his critically injured wife to drive back to Houston to bury his daughter. There was another crash on I-10 west that shut down the highway, just as Key's accident had done the Saturday before. The expected four-hour drive took more than seven. The 4 p.m. funeral was delayed multiple times, eventually starting just before dinner.

Emma Key
Houston Baptist assistant coach Steven Key lost his firstborn daughter Emma (above) in a car accident last May.
Courtesy of the Key Family

"To me, that was God putting that there to teach me some patience," Key said, "but also to remind me, 'Hey, ease up. Don't worry about it. Everything's going to be OK.' "

Faith underscores every aspect of life for Key, the son and the brother of preachers and an active parishioner himself. Staying as an assistant coach at the same school for an entire career is its professional manifestation. Having it be one with an open religious affiliation makes it more personal. Still, Emma's death was a massive test of his faith. How can you reconcile the death of your daughter as part of any greater good?

Pastor Alex Kennedy had been with Key during the first few days after the accident, both at the hospital in Louisiana and then the grave side at Emma's funeral. Revisiting the tragic period in his office at Kingsland Baptist Church last month, Kennedy tried his best to answer that question.

"The Bible never promises the absence of grief for us," he said, "but it does promise the presence of Christ for us through our struggle."


The subsequent days and weeks after the funeral were detailed in short, choppy status updates on a private blog by Steven and numerous members of the extended Key family as he returned to Louisiana to be with Sherry. He took up residence in a room in the children's wing of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, staying there around the clock despite strict visitation rules in the intensive care unit that limited Steven to a handful of 30-minute visits with Sherry each day. Sherry spent more than two weeks on a ventilator, underwent multiple surgeries and faded in and out of coherence as Steven sat squeezing her hand for a few precious minutes at a time before being ushered back to his room.

Three weeks after the accident, Sherry had stabilized enough to transfer to Houston's TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital and begin her rehabilitation. Steven was able to transition back into his role as a temporarily single father of one small daughter. Going back into the house alone for the first time before Emma's funeral had been extremely emotional for him, but now some of the unexpected moments of parenthood were starting to soothe his deep pain.

It had been a Key family tradition for the girls to make Steven a Father's Day breakfast featuring all sorts of unhealthy delights (including lots of candy). When he woke up last June 20, he knew that meal wasn't coming, but he got something he needed a lot more.

"Daddy, I need ask you question," Eiley said as he awoke.

"Yes, sweetie?"

"I love you!"
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