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Dave Christensen's Experience Helps Guide Wyoming Through Tragedy

Sep 8, 2010 – 8:51 AM
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Graham Watson

Graham Watson %BloggerTitle%

Wyoming coach Dave Christensen knows how to deal with the death of a player because he's done it before -- twice.

And while all three tragedies were at different stops and involved different circumstances, the pain of losing a player -- a child -- never gets any easier even as Christensen becomes more prepared to handle the aftermath.

"Unfortunately, I have experienced this a couple times," Christensen told FanHouse. "Never during the season, but yeah, I've gone through it. It's just a tragedy."

Managing grief is never something a coach wants to get good at, but Christensen's prior experiences at Toledo and Missouri helped hold his Wyoming team together after a Labor Day car accident claimed the life of true freshman Ruben Narcisse and landed freshman C.J. Morgan in the hospital.

"I think our kids are holding pretty well right now," Christensen said. "It's hard. It's very difficult because we don't have time to sit back and reflect and do all the things that happen in the offseason. We have to continue to move forward.

"The only thing that's going to help is time and you can't rush time; it is what it is."

It was just five years ago that Christensen, who was then the offensive coordinator at Missouri, helped hold the Tigers together after redshirt freshman linebacker Aaron O'Neal collapsed during a voluntary summer workout and died two hours later.

Ten years before that, the same coaching staff, then at Toledo, handled the death of walk-on Allen Thigpen, Jr., who died of a viral inflammation of the heart after losing consciousness during a winter workout.

With Monday's car accident, the initial information was sketchy since it didn't happen on university property.

Around 8:40 a.m., Christensen received word that four of his players -- Narcisse, a linebacker; Morgan, a wide receiver; linebacker J.J. Quinlan and cornerback Trey Fox -- were in a car accident just south of the Wyoming border as they were coming back from Fort Collins, Colo., around 5:30 a.m.

Fox was the driver and investigators said he apparently fell asleep at the wheel and his truck veered off the road.

Christensen knew Narcisse and Morgan were in bad shape, but it wasn't until 10 a.m. that he learned Narcisse, a 19-year-old from Miami, didn't make it.

"I knew there were two kids at different hospitals and that was all we knew at that point in time," Christensen said. "Then when I found out that one of them didn't make it ... it would be dishonest of me to sit here and say that I just went to work on it, that it didn't faze me at all. That was not the case. These are like my kids. I'd imagine my reaction was pretty similar to if it had been one of my own kids. I was hurt. Severely hurt."

But Christensen also knew he had someone he could lean on. He called Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who had been the head coach at Toledo and Missouri during the other tragedies, and Pinkel immediately helped Christensen, a second-year head coach, manage the crisis.

"These are like my kids. I'd imagine my reaction was pretty similar to if it had been one of my own kids. I was hurt. Severely hurt."
-- Dave Christensen, Wyoming football coach, on the death of linebacker Ruben Narcisse
"I talked to coach Pinkel, just visited with him about some of the things we had done," Christensen said. "We worked through it and he reminded me of some of the things we did. Then I had to come up with a plan of action."

Pinkel has said many times that O'Neal's death changed him for the better. The school wasn't great in the crisis -- it was sued by the O'Neal family for wrongful death -- and it opened Pinkel's eyes to the relationships he had with his players and how they needed him to be more than just a football coach.

"I don't think that the healing process will ever stop," Pinkel told The Associated Press a year after the tragedy.

While Christensen said he didn't want to discuss the specifics of his talk with Pinkel because "it's all still too difficult to talk about, even now," the first thing Christensen did was get his players together and make sure that all of them knew the coaching staff was there for them.

"We made a decision not to change our routine, to keep going forward, but still give some attention to our kids," Christensen said.

"We'll spend even more time with them and be with them as much as we can and let them know that they've got support from us 24 hours a day, seven days a week and we're going to help them through it."

The one thing Christensen wanted to make sure didn't happen was a blame game. After O'Neal's death, there was an amalgam of sadness, anger and frustration because the players wanted answers about what happened to their teammate. Christensen said he knew his players would want similar answers, but he continued to stress that what happened wasn't anyone's fault.

"There's obviously some similarities, but there's really no blame game here or second guessing or any of that stuff," Christensen said. "It was a tragic accident where the driver fell asleep while the other guys were sleeping. Nothing else was involved other than that. They wrecked. It was an accident."

Christensen has been in touch with Morgan, Quinlan and Fox and will give all three as much time as they need to return to the field. Morgan had elbow surgery and is set to be released from the hospital Wednesday. Quinlan stood on the sidelines of Tuesday's practice because, Christensen said, he wanted to be with his teammates. Fox went home to Glenwood Springs, Colo., to be with his family. Christensen expects him to return to the program.

In talking with Pinkel, one of the things Christensen wanted to work out was the proper way to honor Narcisse (right). Similar to O'Neal, Narcisse never played a down, but that didn't make him any less important to the team.

Christensen said that Narcisse's initials will adorn every helmet and that a different player will get to wear Narcisse's No. 12 jersey during games.

But the first thing Christensen did was preserve Narcisse's locker similar to the way Missouri preserved O'Neal's. Everything in it is behind a piece of Plexiglass, left exactly the way Narcisse left it and it will remain that way until Narcisse's class graduates.

"When I had to give the players the news (about Narcisse), it was the most difficult thing I've ever had to do," Christensen said. "It's hard. Any time you lose a young life, it's a tragedy. But we're going to continue on. We're going to play a game against Texas on Saturday and we're going to do everything we can to prepare to play the best game that we can possibly play."
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