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A BLESSING. EVEN now, three months after the accident that nearly claimed his life, Don Meyer calls it a blessing. "You can't look at it any other way," he says. It was a blessing to crash into a semi that was carrying 90,000 pounds of grain while driving to a team retreat on Sept. 5. It was a blessing to lose his left leg below the knee, to endure eight surgeries, to spend weeks in the hospital fighting pain so intense that he would croak church hymns as tears streamed down his face. It was a blessing, Meyer says, and here's why: If the wreck hadn't happened, if the doctors hadn't performed emergency surgery to remove his spleen and reattach his diaphragm, they wouldn't have discovered the cancer burrowing into his liver and small intestine until it was too late.
It was a blessing to survive, to know what he's facing and now, more than anything else, to coach again. "I just wonder sometimes because I shouldn't be here," says Meyer, the coach at Division II Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., the man who, with 898 career victories at week's end, needs just five wins to pass Bob Knight as the alltime leader among NCAA men's basketball coaches. "There's no realistic way I should be here right now, when you get down to it, unless there's something I've still got to do."
And that task, wheelchair be damned, is to continue teaching. He may be the greatest coach you've never heard of, but that doesn't mean the 63-year-old Meyer is unknown to legions of his famous brethren. During Meyer's 24 years at Lipscomb University in Nashville, his teams won an NAIA national title in 1986 and set what still stands as the collegiate record for victories in a season (41, in 1989--90). But he also built an empire teaching the game. His youth basketball camps have become among the best-attended in the country, drawing several thousand participants every summer. His annual Don Meyer Coaches Academy has attracted some of the biggest names in college hoops to rural South Dakota, including Rick Majerus, Bill Self, Tubby Smith, Pat Summitt and even John Wooden. And Meyer's vast oeuvre of instructional videos is a staple of staffs from middle schools to the NBA.
"He's been so incredibly successful, and he's one of the most respected clinicians in the country," says Summitt, the alltime NCAA wins leader (with 989) and an old friend. "You can't sit there [with him] and not learn and be inspired. That's just who he is." Arizona associate head coach Mike Dunlap, who led Metro State of Denver to two Division II national titles, remembers cold-calling Meyer in 1996 to ask about attending his coaching academy—and receiving an invitation to stay at Meyer's house, even though they had never met. "Take the greats, and he's right there with all of them," Dunlap says. "He just knows how to teach: anybody, anytime, anywhere. He has a knack for it, like a horse whisperer."
While Meyer hasn't been able to resume all his duties since rejoining the team on Oct. 31—assistant Randy Baruth runs most of the practice drills—it's not hard to figure out how Meyer became a hardwood Mr. Chips. You can see it during one of his daily 5:30 a.m. practices at Northern State's Barnett Center, where Meyer lectures on fundamentals to his players, all of whom keep detailed notebooks, a nod to Knight and NFL coaching legend Paul Brown. ("You can be competitive like a mad dog in a meat house, and all you're going to get is a bullet between the eyes eventually," Meyer says. "But if you're a mad dog that's smart, you're going to be O.K.") You can see it when Meyer summons the energy to blow his whistle, rise up in his wheelchair and holler, his hands pushing down on the armrests like a gymnast on the parallel bars. ("Brett! Have you got eyes on your butt? See the ball!")
And you could even see it on that awful day in September. Riding alone in his gray Toyota Prius, Meyer was leading a six-car caravan west on State Highway 20 to a hunting lodge for the Wolves' annual retreat when his car started drifting over the center line. "I was looking for the turnoff," Meyer recalls, "but then I must have fallen asleep." An oncoming semi going 50 mph slammed into the left side of Meyer's car, the impact sending the driver's-side doors hurtling skyward as the Prius spun into a ditch. When his players reached the car, Meyer was still conscious, but his left side was battered. Yet instead of panicking, the players summoned the poise that Meyer had already cultivated in them. One of them called 911. Senior captain Kyle Schwan asked a few veteran players to help the younger players form a prayer circle, then joined graduate assistant Matt Hammer and sophomore guard Brett Newton next to Meyer.
Schwan grabbed Meyer's hand, and the young men fell back on the slogans of the practice court. We've gotta be tough, Coach! It's the fourth quarter! Dead-ball breathing! Narrow focus! NBA! Next Best Action!
"They saved my life," says Meyer, who was airlifted to an Aberdeen hospital after a 30-minute wait.
"It's a testament to Coach," Schwan says. "In essence he saved his own life because of the way he taught us."
BEFORE THE start of practice Meyer wheels over, the still-healing stump stretched out over a pillow. (He calls the stump—which his wife of 41 years, Carmen, cleans and dresses three times a day—Little Buddy.) Meyer has lost 20 pounds since the accident, and he can't raise his voice, the result of a side full of broken ribs and a collapsed left lung. But he has grown remarkably adept in his short time using a wheelchair, learning how to maneuver in tight spaces and even rise for the national anthem.