In all his years with Nancy, Phil had never prayed for money, never asked to be a head coach. All he'd ever asked of God was to protect Nancy and the kids. "Dad, I need my mother," Sam told him one day. "Why does God need her?"
Phil looked hard at the boy and said, "I don't know, Sam."
Later he prayed for answers, but none came. "God, why not me?" he said. "What is wrong with you? You could strike me dead for some of the things I've done. But why Nancy? She never hurt anyone."
When the hospital room emptied, Phil could hold her. He could kiss her. But when he looked in her eyes, he saw nothing. The lightning had reduced her to a vegetative state. Her hands flinched, but doctors said this was involuntary; her brain stem had been damaged severely. The darkest hours came when Phil agonized over whether to take Nancy off life support. "What is going on around here?" he raged at the nurses one day. "Would someone please tell me what is happening?"
Members of Nancy's family asked him to consider placing her in a nursing home. But Phil knew Nancy, just as she had known him. He would do what was right. She had taught him this. On Aug. 24, 13 days into the vigil, he had the life support terminated. "There ought to be more Nancy Bennetts in this world," he said when it was finally over, four days later.
The funeral was held at the same church in Alvarado where Phil and Nancy had been married 15 years before. Outside, before the service, Slocum pulled Phil aside and said, "You've been a tough son of a gun all your life. You have to be tough now."
Slocum couldn't help but recall the wedding and how big a deal it had been. The Aggies football star marrying the prettiest girl in Alvarado. Many of the same people were at the funeral.
When Nguyen showed up, Phil put his arms around him, and the two sat together in silence. It was hard for either of them to speak. "Dat," Phil said at last, "I just hope you experience what I had with Mrs. Bennett. To love somebody." He paused, and a smile came to his face. "I hope you have that."
How do we survive the loss of our heroes? Where does the courage come from? Six weeks into the season, Phil Bennett is coach of the fifth-ranked defense in college football, and the undefeated Wildcats are seventh in the AP poll. Before each game Phil runs out on the field with his team, just as he's done every Saturday in the fall since he was a kid in Texas, just as he hopes he always will.
The stadium fills up as the team goes through pregame drills, and the cheers grow louder with the approach of the opening kickoff. Inevitably Phil listens for her voice above the others. For a moment it seems she is there again, calling his name.