Phil liked to glance up before the opening kickoff and find her seated with the coaches' wives: Nancy all dressed up in the team colors. She used to joke that she loved it when Phil coached at Texas Christian and LSU, because she looked good in purple. But the truth was that she looked good in any color. When he spotted her, Phil didn't have to nod or wave in acknowledgment. A look was all they needed, especially when they had their game faces on.
"I knew if it was a good day and we won, she'd be proud of me," says Phil, now in his first year as defensive coordinator at Kansas State. "But I also knew that if it was a bad day and we lost, she'd be proud of me, too. That was Nancy."
As you've probably figured out, this story isn't about football as much as it's about love. So that would make it a love story. And as is the case with most great love stories, this one ends too soon. To Phil, of course, it isn't over and likely never will be, despite the fact that Nancy, at age 41, died on Aug. 28, 17 days after being struck by lightning while she jogged near their home in Manhattan, Kans. Nancy's dead. Just saying it makes about as much sense to Phil as saying the stars have left the sky and the moon has turned to dust. Nancy's dead. Now how can that be true?
"Nance, are you going to run?" Phil asked her that morning.
It was 6 a.m. The night before, the freshmen on the Wildcats football team had reported for orientation and the start of two-a-days. This was a joyful time for the Bennetts. After years of bouncing from one college town to another, they'd found a place that promised to be more than just a whistle-stop. In his 20-year career Phil had worked at one high school and seven colleges, building a reputation as one of the top defensive coaches in the country. In the last decade alone he'd pulled gigs at Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M, Texas Christian and Oklahoma. At Kansas State, which hired him last January, he was working for one of the most respected coaches in the game, Bill Snyder, who'd made a winner of a program that only 10 years ago was named by this magazine as the worst in Division I-A.
Phil took an apartment in family student housing until June, when Nancy and their children, 11-year-old Sam and nine-year-old Maddie, moved up from Fort Worth. They settled into a house only about a mile from the football stadium. At night when the stadium lights were on, a wash of electric white bled into heavenly black, and the whole amazing spectacle was visible from the street in front of the Bennetts' house.
"When you're a coach's wife, home is where you happen to be living at the moment, and every move is only as good as you make it," says Sue Fello, whose husband, Bob Fello, coaches defensive ends at Kansas State. "Nancy would walk across the street and introduce herself to the neighbors. She was so friendly, how could you not want to get to know her? She and Phil had been in Manhattan for only a few months, but already everybody knew her."
Nancy's day started with a walk/run that took her several miles from home and usually lasted about an hour. That morning as he showered, Phil heard what he thought were artillery exercises at nearby Fort Riley, but when he left the bathroom and started to dress, he realized that he'd been hearing thunder.
Weeks before, he'd helped Nancy establish a jogging route, so he knew where to look for her. He got in his car, and after cruising around awhile he entered a subdivision with new construction and passed a police cruiser parked by the curb. He pulled into the freshly poured driveways of three unfinished houses, hoping she'd ducked inside to wait out the storm, but there was no sign of her. At last he headed back to Meadowood Drive, which led out of the subdivision, and up ahead he saw a policeman in a slicker. It had begun to rain harder. "Officer," Phil called out.
"Hey, Coach," said the policeman.