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A tragedy tests faith, brings Houston Baptist program together

KATY, Texas -- Emma's tree stands in a sun-drenched spot on the front lawn at Edna M. Fielder Elementary School, in line with the curbside area where the young students exit their buses in the morning. The bronze plaque at the base of the tree sparkles in the sunshine, reminiscent of the smile of the porcelain-skinned redhead it commemorates. Like the children it greets every weekday, the tree is still young and needs support to grow, but it's standing a bit taller these days than when it was first planted last year. So are the family and the basketball program still coping with Emma's death.

About 10 miles away, Steven Key, Emma's father, leans forward in a leather chair in the office of the only boss he's ever known, Houston Baptist University basketball coach Ron Cottrell. Key, known as "Savvy" to the rest of the HBU staff due to his Savannah, Ga., upbringing, has been with the program since 1991, when he joined Cottrell's newly restarted NAIA venture as a student manager. Today, he's the lead assistant for the now-nascent Division I program at this small Christian school on the west edge of Houston, one of the last to make the leap to the big time before the NCAA instituted a temporary four-year moratorium on such moves in 2007.

At this moment, though, Key's focus is not on the Huskies, who recently completed a 5-26 season, one sabotaged by injuries and personnel departures that ended with just eight scholarship players available. Not on how Emma's loss impacted the team, whose players also had to endure two other deaths last spring. He's thinking about the accident. Key was driving the family's Toyota Sequoia last May 15 when the car hydroplaned across the median of Interstate-10 in Grosse Tete, La., came to a stop in the westbound lanes and was struck broadside by an oncoming 18-wheeler.

"I know she didn't suffer," Key finally said, softly, of his eight-year-old daughter who was killed on impact. "I know she didn't. It's hard to explain and it's one of those surreal movie kind of things. It's almost one second you're eating a french fry and talking, and the next you're looking around going 'What's going on?', picking your face out of an air bag and trying to kick your door open.

"My issue with it is I can remember everything, and that's hard sometimes. Smells, the things I saw, knowing exactly what prompted it. I can retrace the whole thing."

Immediately after the accident, Steven extracted the Keys' other daughter, then-two-year-old Eiley, from the car. He was unable to reach Emma or his wife, Sherry, who was breathing but unconscious, having suffered significant brain trauma, a broken right pelvis and a shattered left humerus. Despite his own broken ribs and injured back, Steven lifted Eiley (pronounced EYE-lee) on his shoulders and wandered around the highway, even heading over to the truck to make sure the driver was OK. Anything to keep her from fixating on the wreckage. He remembers seeing the departing ambulances that took away his firstborn and his wife. One he knew he had lost. The other, he didn't know if he'd ever get back.

Four days later, Key left his critically injured wife to drive back to Houston to bury his daughter. There was another crash on I-10 west that shut down the highway, just as Key's accident had done the Saturday before. The expected four-hour drive took more than seven. The 4 p.m. funeral was delayed multiple times, eventually starting just before dinner.

"To me, that was God putting that there to teach me some patience," Key said, "but also to remind me, 'Hey, ease up. Don't worry about it. Everything's going to be OK.' "

Faith underscores every aspect of life for Key, the son and the brother of preachers and an active parishioner himself. Staying as an assistant coach at the same school for an entire career is its professional manifestation. Having it be one with an open religious affiliation makes it more personal. Still, Emma's death was a massive test of his faith. How can you reconcile the death of your daughter as part of any greater good?

Pastor Alex Kennedy had been with Key during the first few days after the accident, both at the hospital in Louisiana and then the grave side at Emma's funeral. Revisiting the tragic period in his office at Kingsland Baptist Church last month, Kennedy tried his best to answer that question.

"The Bible never promises the absence of grief for us," he said, "but it does promise the presence of Christ for us through our struggle."

*****

The subsequent days and weeks after the funeral were detailed in short, choppy status updates on a private blog by Steven and numerous members of the extended Key family as he returned to Louisiana to be with Sherry. He took up residence in a room in the children's wing of Our Lady of the Lake Hospital, staying there around the clock despite strict visitation rules in the intensive care unit that limited Steven to a handful of 30-minute visits with Sherry each day. Sherry spent more than two weeks on a ventilator, underwent multiple surgeries and faded in and out of coherence as Steven sat squeezing her hand for a few precious minutes at a time before being ushered back to his room.

Three weeks after the accident, Sherry had stabilized enough to transfer to Houston's TIRR Memorial Hermann Hospital and begin her rehabilitation. Steven was able to transition back into his role as a temporarily single father of one small daughter. Going back into the house alone for the first time before Emma's funeral had been extremely emotional for him, but now some of the unexpected moments of parenthood were starting to soothe his deep pain.

It had been a Key family tradition for the girls to make Steven a Father's Day breakfast featuring all sorts of unhealthy delights (including lots of candy). When he woke up last June 20, he knew that meal wasn't coming, but he got something he needed a lot more.

"Daddy, I need ask you question," Eiley said as he awoke.

"Yes, sweetie?"

"I love you!"

Sherry continued to improve physically and her alertness and memory retention increased as well. While encouraging for her long-term recovery, her progress was pushing Steven toward an emotional moment. As June turned to July, Sherry started to ask (and, more important, remembered asking) why her daughters hadn't come to see her in the hospital. She still didn't know Emma was dead.

Steven doesn't remember much of what he said on July 10, when he finally told his wife. He just recalls that Sherry knew as soon as he said a small prayer at her bedside and then looked up into her eyes, which already were filling with tears.

"She just kind of woke up and everything was all right, except for the worst news she ever got in her life," Steven said of that day. "That's why I've always said it was the best day and the worst day of my life. The best day because I finally got my wife back. But the worst day because I had to tell my best friend the worst possible news."

Six days later, Sherry came home. When their car pulled up to their driveway, she noticed that ribbons had been tied around two of the trees in their front yard and noted aloud how they were in the colors of Fielder Elementary School before realizing why they were there. A few seconds later, an ebullient Eiley bounded out of the house to welcome her mother. The future for the Key family, set in motion in an instant two months earlier, had finally arrived.

*****

Ron Cottrell is well-versed in the concept of family, having two teenage daughters of his own and running a basketball program that hawks it as a virtue. While tons of recruiting pitches use the term family to define the atmosphere at a particular program, the spiritual nature of Houston Baptist as a university and the smallness of the campus make it a truism for the team. Everyone in the athletic department pretty much knows everyone else, which is why Emma's death hit them so hard.

For Cottrell (pronounced COT-truhl), it resonated deeply because of how he had seen Emma follow in the growth footprints of his own daughters. Everything that he and his girls experienced, whether related to the basketball program or just as a family, he got to see again a handful of years later through Emma's relationship with Steven. Now the little girl who would hand out snacks and water to the homeless is no longer around, though memories of her remain vivid.

"She had an unbelievable impact on people," Cottrell said. "Sunday school teachers, classroom teachers, her classmates -- at a very, very young age -- and I can't help but believe that happened because the Lord knew she wasn't going to be around very long."

Cottrell, a deacon at his own church, also knows about faith in a basketball sense. He was hired by the school in the fall of 1990 to restart the program for the 1991-92 season after the school's president had shut it down. Just five years before that decision, the Huskies had won the TAAC (now Atlantic Sun) tournament title and made the program's only NCAA tournament appearance. Now they were starting virtually from scratch after a two-year blackout, as only one player remained on campus from the old Division I team.

The former assistant to Nolan Richardson at Arkansas quickly built the Huskies into an NAIA power, eventually winning nine straight Red River Athletic Conference championships before making the leap back to NCAA Division I for the 2007-08 season. HBU has made some decent progress thus far, but Cottrell understands the significant challenges ahead, with two primary ones being the financing and construction of a new on-campus arena and landing in a more prestigious (and geographically suitable) league than the Great West Conference.

Now finished with the NCAA's four-year transitional period, HBU can market itself as a full-fledged Division I member, which combined with access to the large Houston market, should be inviting to suitors. The team's current home, however -- 1,500-seat Sharp Gym, the site of 60 consecutive victories during the NAIA days -- won't help the university in the ongoing high-stakes conference realignment game.

Technically speaking, Cottrell can now sell recruits on the chance to play in the NCAA tournament, but since the Great West doesn't receive an automatic bid, the Huskies' only path right now is as an at-large, which is to say really no path at all. As important for a small, private school that had to greatly expand its athletics department to meet Division I requirements, the travel in a league that has other members in New Jersey, Illinois, both Dakotas and Utah is a huge expense and burden on the student-athletes.

While the administrative side of the enterprise continues to unfold, Cottrell's emotional focus this past season was heavily on his team, and not solely because of the Keys' tragedy. Senior forward Fred Hinnenkamp's cousin, Joshua McMackle, was a freshman at Texas Southern University last March when he was shot and killed at a block party. A month later -- early on the morning after the Keys' accident -- Jonathan Evans, then a senior point guard at Bellaire High School just outside of Houston, had close friend and teammate Tobi Oyedeji, a Texas A&M commit, die from injuries suffered in a car crash after their senior prom.

Evans, who to that point hadn't really been recruited by the Huskies, came home that Sunday night and turned on the news to see the latest coverage of Oyedeji's death. The next story was about the Keys, and Evans turned his thoughts to the program. Cottrell soon invited him for a campus visit and Evans quickly committed, feeling the order of that news broadcast had fated him to attend the school. He wears No. 35 in honor of Oyedeji.

For Evans, especially, having Key and his firsthand experience with significant loss on the staff has been a plus. "If anyone can understand my pain, it's coach Key," he said. Although to this point, Evans hasn't been ready to sit down with Key and fully talk about his own pain. Neither he nor Hinnenkamp have been able to completely reconcile their heartache, but now a year removed from the tragedies, both are starting to find some perspective and peace.

"I have questioned stuff. Why would this happen? Why would this happen to a person like this?," Evans said of Oyedeji. "But in the aftermath of it all, I can kind of understand it more because between Tobi and Emma, they've touched so many people's lives. I don't think a lot of people [outside the program] would understand."

*****

The team gathered in late August at Emma's memorial service, the first time they were fully together since her death. The emotion carried over to the fall, when Cottrell arranged to have a patch with a light pink "E" stitched to the Huskies' uniforms. Cottrell gathered the team in the locker room a few days before the season-opening scrimmage and presented Key with a jersey, which made him (and several players) break down in tears.

"I know that if nothing more, [Emma's] death will have a huge impact on the guys who were on this team many years from now and I've had several of them tell me that," Key said. "They'll always remember wearing the "E" on their jerseys this year and they'll know why."

The rest of the season was rife with these little moments of emotion. Key cried again on the sideline before the first scrimmage when he looked up into the stands and saw Sherry, sitting with Eiley in the same spot where they used to sit with Emma, smile and mouth "I love you."

Then there was the late-night bus trip to South Alabama, when Key's focus on a movie playing suddenly was broken. He looked out the window and immediately recognized where they were: Grosse Tete, La., right near where the accident had occurred.

In the conference tournament in Orem, Utah, the banged-up Huskies somehow upset off No. 2 seed NJIT in the quarterfinals, extending their season for one extra day. That night, Key shared the news with an appropriate spin.

"I know a little redhead who is very happy today looking down from heaven," he remarked. "Her favorite tie finally won a game."

Because of the tragedies, the entire vibe around the program has changed. Wins and losses still matter a lot, but results don't linger like they used to, even as the defeats piled up this past season. The coaching staff still rides the players hard, but with a much grander perspective.

Cottrell and assistant coaches Keith Berard and Jud Kinne helped carry Key through his tougher moments. Basketball became inexorably more personal. On the wall in the office Key shares with Kinne, Emma's youth basketball jersey hangs framed. Video breakdown sessions often morphed into chats about family or religion or maybe just some random thing on TV. It was Cottrell who helped Key decide on the wording for the memorial plaque at Emma's grave site while Sherry was still recovering.

"I wouldn't wish this last year on anybody," Cottrell said. "You go through the hardest thing ever you're going to go through in your whole life, and your wife is unable to make any decisions. A friend of his videotaped the funeral. Think about that for a second. Someone video'd the funeral so that at some point in time in the future, Sherry can see her eight-year-old daughter being buried. That's hard to think about."

*****

Sherry sits quietly at the family's dining room table, looking a bit uncomfortable, wondering where to begin. Her injuries and the subsequent rehabilitation left her several months behind Steven in the grieving process. Her corporate job coding software doesn't provide her with the spiritual outlet Steven enjoys at HBU. Beyond a church support group, she hasn't really opened up about Emma, so even finding a starting frame of reference is difficult.

"I'm not sure how you can reconcile it," she said about Emma's death. "I think this is what God has planned for us. One of the things that I heard in the compassionate friends group I was going to is God picked us to be her parents because he knew whenever this happened, that we wouldn't turn away. It's a gift to be her mom, of course, but I don't know that going through the pain is a gift."

Physically, Sherry is mostly back to where she was before the crash. Emotionally, she's worked past a lot of the initial heaviness, days when she would openly cry in front of Eiley or break down at night when Steven got home from work. Part of her rehabilitation involved speaking with multiple therapists to help her reacclimate to normal life, but the underlying pain is still there.

Everyday happenings can get to her. Eiley often does things that remind her of Emma at that age. Each day, the school bus stops in front of their house -- still the neighborhood's stop after the Keys insisted it not be changed -- and picks up or drops off every child except for her daughter. Now when she goes to HBU games, she only has to pack a bag for Eiley instead of also making room for Emma's coloring pads and favorite snacks.

She's unable to spend much time in Emma's room, which is still the way her daughter left it with the bright pink walls and the neat bunk bed with an iCarly pillow, although Eiley sometimes plays in there.

She also hadn't visited Emma's grave until this past Friday, two days before the anniversary of the accident. Sherry stopped by the cemetery alone on the way home from work. Her emotions were subdued -- Emma's gravesite never carried much that significance to her.

"The truth of the matter is, I don't think she's there," Sherry said. "That's her earthly body, the body God gave her while she was on this Earth, but I think her soul is not there."

Sherry is not really certain how things will unfold from here. She was able to keep her job when her employer, Continental Airlines, merged with United, and even that is a source of conflict. Is that where she is supposed to be or should she be at home raising Eiley, now her only child?

One thing that remains strong through all of the adversity is her relationship with Steven, whom she met on the Houston Baptist campus in the early '90s when she was a rocket-armed third baseman for the softball team. Sherry said they remain very trusting of each other, their communication has improved and Emma's death has made them much more compassionate, to the point where Sherry wants to help other families who have lost children work through their own grief. She also wants to see Steven and the Huskies realize their dreams.

"The fact of the matter is, and I've said this to myself for a long time, he loves his job," Sherry said. "He loves the coaching, he loves the kids."

*****

In the Keys' backyard, there's a mosaic bench with Emma's name on it that was made by the father of last season's star forward, Andrew Gonzalez. On this morning, after spending an hour talking about her late daughter, Sherry gathered around the bench with Steven and Eiley for their first family photo as a threesome.

The challenges will keep coming. The Keys made it through Easter and Mother's Day, and on Sunday they commemorated the one-year anniversary of the accident with a small prayer service beside one of Emma's favorite places, the baptismal pool at Kingsland Baptist Church. In late June, Sherry will honor her daughter's birthday and, a day later, try to celebrate her own. Then comes summer recruiting, when Steven and Emma used to travel together to tournaments, and then the dawn of another season, when both a family and a basketball program take their next steps forward.

In the face of crisis, Pastor Kennedy says, a faithful person can either "get bitter or better."

The Keys have chosen the latter.

"The biggest thing right now," Steven said, "is helping Eiley understand that [Emma] is in a better place."

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