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Waves Of Grief
Michael Silver
February 13, 1995
A coach's dream season is shattered by the deaths of his ex-wife and daughter
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February 13, 1995

Waves Of Grief

A coach's dream season is shattered by the deaths of his ex-wife and daughter

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At sunset, the roaring ocean and the ethereal mist that shrouds the chiseled coastline of Mendocino, Calif., can conspire to create an awesome and spellbinding beauty. It was such a scene that had brought peace to the troubled mind of Diane Painter, and after she took her life on the night of Jan. 15, her children, Doug Painter and Debbie Menta, decided to take their mother to her favorite spot one final time. They brought Diane's ashes to a desolate cove along that craggy coast and waited for the sun to go down.

As they stood on a sandstone precipice high above the ocean, Debbie and Doug were very likely mesmerized by the splendor of the setting: the breakers billowing up from the weathered rocks, the uncommonly warm winter sunshine, the cloudless sky. They probably never saw the huge wave that knocked them from their perch and completed a bizarre spiral of family tragedy. Had she been there in more than spirit, Diane Painter might have warned her children that appearances can be deceiving.

Dwain Painter, Diane's ex-husband, now understands that cruel truth all too well. After realizing the dream he had envisioned for his entire adult life—making it to the Super Bowl—Dwain, the quarterbacks coach of the San Diego Chargers, has been rocked by the chain of events that began with Diane's suicide and ended with the death of their 32-year-old daughter, Debbie. After being swept off that Mendocino cliff and thrown into the frigid Pacific, Debbie and Doug, 23, were thrashed against the jagged rocks below. After a brutal, icy beating, Doug climbed to safety. He was found half an hour later, bleeding from head to toe, stripped naked by the rocks and suffering from shock and hypothermia. Miraculously, he would require only a three-night hospital stay. Debbie's body was discovered the following morning, making her the second victim in a saga that began nearly four decades ago on the football fields of western Pennsylvania.

"You're just hoping you're going to wake up and everything's a dream, even though you know it's not," Bill Pugsley is saying from his home in Greensburg, Pa. "You just sit here and wonder, What's going to happen now? Who's going to be the next to go?"

Pugsley, 42, is Diane Painter's younger brother, the third child of Harry and Margaret Pugsley. Back in Pitcairn, Pa., the Pittsburgh suburb where his parents still live, Bill watched Diane, 10 years his elder, embrace her first love in a small-town romance. Dwain was Gateway High's star quarterback, Diane a popular cheerleader. He was the student-body president; she was the vice president. Dwain headed off to Rutgers University to continue his football career, and Diane, a straight-A student, followed. "He was the only guy that she ever really knew, from her junior high school days on," Bill says. "That was about it for her as far as that went."

By the end of college, Dwain and Diane had married, and Debbie was a toddler. A quarterback and defensive back for Rutgers, Dwain was not pro material, and so he chose to coach, landing a job at Wall ( N.J.) High in 1965. The position was not glamorous, but it was a typical starting point in the career of a young, hungry coach: succeed at the high school level, then network your way across the country until someday you get your big break and make it to the pros. If everything goes right, you end up with a Super Bowl team, and then those long hours of watching film, washing uniforms and eating potato-chip-and-soft-drink dinners pay off. It's a great personal sacrifice, and an even greater sacrifice to ask of your family, but you don't think about it when you're starting out. You're on your way up, you're headed for new places, and life is no more complicated than the next game plan.

Like all women who marry football men, Diane could count on little stability. She fashioned a career as a schoolteacher—"A lot of times Dwain didn't make enough money to support the family," Harry Pugsley says—but she switched schools with the frequency of a military brat. Dwain's career took the Painters from New Jersey to Northern California, Utah, Southern California, Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Illinois.

Each time the family moved to a new state, Diane, who had a master's degree in physical education, had to obtain a new teaching credential before returning to the workplace. She was recertified seven times in all, but, says Bill, "that was what she did. Their goal was to win the Super Bowl."

While Dwain was breaking down film or schmoozing a recruit's parents, Diane was consumed by the X's and O's of family life. "She would be left with packing the bags and getting the kids going in school," Bill says. "As a coach's wife, you're almost a combination of mother, father, mover. You probably have to go through that situation to understand it."

The Painters made it through 23 years of stops and starts before the big break came. In 1988 Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll hired Dwain as a receivers coach, his first NFL job. "It was a big move for everybody," Bill recalls. "She had been away for so long, and it was like she had made the big circuit and finally made it back home."

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