At Texas A&M, where Phil returned as an assistant in '95, Nguyen and his fellow linebackers went to the Bennetts' house for dinner several times a year, and Nancy always served her favorite dish, fried skinless chicken breasts. Even after the Bennetts left A&M following the 1996 season, Nguyen called Nancy when he needed a lift. "I'd tell her about my problems, and we'd talk for 30 or 40 minutes, and I always ended up feeling better," says Nguyen. "You'd want to keep something inside, but when you'd talk to Mrs. Bennett, you couldn't help but let it out. I always hung up the phone feeling like a different person."
As Sam and Maddie grew older, Phil became concerned over the instability of his profession, and he worried about how the stress of each move affected the kids. He was short-listed for head jobs at big schools, such as LSU after the 1994 season, when he was runner-up to Gerry DiNardo. Rather than despair at the impermanence, Nancy reminded Phil that theirs was an adventure and that in the long run, they and the children would be stronger because of it. At each new school that hired Phil, Nancy had cheerleader uniforms made for Maddie and bought jerseys to match those of the team for Sam. "Think of the places you get to go, the things you get to do," she told the kids. "Some people live in one place their whole lives."
Of all the moves they made, the one from TCU to Oklahoma, last year, was probably the most difficult for Phil. Although he relished the opportunity to work for the storied Sooners program, coach John Blake was under fire, and Phil's tenure as the defensive backs coach was likely to be short. Phil rented an apartment in Norman while Nancy and the kids remained behind in Fort Worth. The commute took three hours each way, but Nancy and the children drove up after work each Friday and left on Sunday. "The kids slept on air mattresses," Phil says. "Nancy got me this little cardboard chest of drawers for my clothes, and she somehow made the apartment a home. She never complained. That's why the job at Kansas State was so important to us. We were going to be together again."
This summer, shortly after being reunited in Manhattan, Phil and Nancy went on an Alaskan cruise with Snyder; his wife, Sharon; and the other Wildcats coaches and their wives. The school president and various alumni also made the trip. As they traveled through inlets and glacier bays to Ketchikan, Juneau, Seward and Anchorage, the Bennetts found a quiet spot on the deck of the ship where for long hours they lay under blankets holding hands and watching for whales in the dark water. Phil drank Coronas, Nancy diet sodas. They napped and talked about the future and filled it with plans. One night they attended a dress-up dinner, and she wore a black dress that she'd bought just for that occasion. "Do you know how beautiful you are?" Phil asked Nancy.
"It was the best time of her life," says Phil's brother Jim. "When they came back from the cruise, they flew in to Dallas, and Nancy called us. It was about 6:30 in the morning, and she was outside our door on her cell phone. And she said, 'I didn't mean to wake you, I just wanted to tell you about our trip.' She said it wouldn't take but 15 minutes. Well, she was so excited that she talked for 2½ hours. After she left I said to my wife, Peggy, 'They've finally found a home where they can settle and be for a while. Have you ever seen her happier?' "
On the night of Aug. 10 Nguyen called Nancy from the Cowboys' training camp. It was around 10, and, no surprise to Nguyen, Nancy described in detail his heroic play in exhibition games against the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns. Nancy vowed to send photographs, taken over the Christmas holidays, of Nguyen with Sam and Maddie. Maddie had made him a paper star just like the one on his helmet. Nancy promised to include magnets so that Nguyen could affix the pictures and the star to his refrigerator door. "She was the nicest person I ever knew," Nguyen says.
The storm lasted less than 15 minutes. It came and went before most of Manhattan was up for the day.
When Phil arrived at the hospital, a security officer tried to keep him from the emergency room. Phil barreled past the man and searched the unit until he found Nancy lying on a table, a team of doctors and nurses frantically working to resuscitate her. They had cut her clothes off. She looked sunburned, and the flesh at her breasts issued thin ribbons of smoke. The lightning had entered her body at the base of her skull and exited below her knees. It had blown her jogging shoes off and knocked her six feet in the air. Her forehead was badly cut from the fall, and blood was draining from the wound. "Nancy, please," Phil said, collapsing to the floor. He watched as a doctor covered her face with an oxygen mask. Somebody said, "We've got to shock her." Phil saw paddles being placed against her chest. "You're dreaming," another voice said, and a moment passed before Phil recognized the voice as his own. "We have a pulse," someone said finally.
He went days without sleeping for more than an hour or two. He ate little, and he cried with a violence that terrified all who witnessed it. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like to look up in the stadium and not see Nancy there," he said on the phone to Joanne Roberts, a friend from his days as an assistant at LSU. "What am I going to do without her? Will somebody please answer me that?"
Mercy Health Center of Manhattan stands just across the street from the Kansas State football complex, and Phil abandoned his vigil by Nancy's side only to attend practice and to check on Sam and Maddie at home. Snyder and the rest of the coaching staff began and ended each day with visits to the hospital. More than once Phil looked up in a daze in the wee hours of the morning to find Snyder and other coaches waiting to comfort him.