During those first blurred days at the hospital, one phone conversation in particular stood out for Nancy: "I have a cousin whose husband is a race car driver. She said, 'Nancy, somehow I always thought I'd be the one at the hospital taking this call from you.' "
As Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, flew back to Dallas two days after the game to be at Haskell's bedside, Mike Holmgren braced himself for what he might find.
Holmgren and Haskell are unusually close. Their friendship dates back to the 1970s and their hometown of San Francisco. They coached against each other at rival high schools. Both of them paid their dues before their big career breaks came along.
Haskell was 35 and had been teaching high school phys-ed classes when he joined John Robinson's Southern Cal staff in 1978. Holmgren, five years younger, was a history teacher and father of four when he chased down an assistant's job at San Francisco State in 1981. Haskell wrote a letter of recommendation for Holmgren. Less than a decade later Haskell was coaching the Los Angeles Rams' special teams and running backs, and Holmgren was the San Francisco 49ers' quarterbacks coach under Bill Walsh.
When Holmgren got the Packers job in 1992, he signed up Haskell to coach the running backs, and Haskell has been his boss's closest confidant ever since—"the guy I turn to when the walls start to close in," Holmgren says.
This season, Haskell's first as the wide receivers coach, the Packers won the NFC Central title outright for the first time since 1982. A neck injury had forced All-Pro wideout Sterling Sharpe, who had caught 314 passes in his last three seasons, to retire last February, but in his absence the Green Bay passing game blossomed. Favre was named the league's offensive MVP, and under Haskell, Brooks, Anthony Morgan and Mark Ingram combined to catch 172 passes. The Packers thumped the Atlanta Falcons 37-20 in the first round of the playoffs and then dethroned the defending Super Bowl champion 49ers 27-17 in the divisional round.
Green Bay was one win away from its first trip to the Super Bowl in 28 years. On the morning of the conference championship game against the Cowboys, as the Packers gathered to board buses outside their hotel, Holmgren announced to his players, "I'm going to make this trip a little differently today, guys." Then he strode over to a waiting Harley-Davidson motorcycle with chrome mufflers and black leather saddlebags trimmed with silver studs, straddled the seat and roared away. For the next 30 minutes Holmgren led his team's convoy to Texas Stadium.
A few hours later Haskell's ambulance was tearing down another freeway toward the hospital. Nancy says that she remembers thinking, God, this ride is taking a long time.
The first two days were a tense waiting game. Doctors weren't sure what brain functions Haskell might have lost. Though a spinal cord injury was ruled out after he arrived at the emergency room, a CAT scan showed a fracture carving a jagged path down the back of Haskell's skull. "The back of your head is a pretty substantial structure," says Michael Foreman, the Baylor trauma surgeon who attended Haskell. "And he broke all the way through that."
The brain contusion and swelling were also concerns. Again Haskell was lucky: Medication succeeded in reducing the swelling. Within three days Haskell was out of intensive care and the fog in his mind was just beginning to lift. By the fourth day after the accident, Foreman spoke enthusiastically about how Haskell's cognitive skills were rushing back. "Blossomed literally before our eyes," Foreman said.