BATON ROUGE, La. — The hard exterior of the barrel-chested, red-blooded Cajun coach turned soft in a Los Angeles hospital room.
His wife laid on a gurney, medical staff hurriedly wheeling Kelly Orgeron to emergency surgery, the infection in her lower abdomen serious enough that it came with a warning. Kelly might not make it, a doctor told Ed Orgeron, pulling aside the brawny husband out of earshot, so he thought, from the sickly wife.
From her fast-moving gurney, her stomach churning with pain, Kelly heard the doctor’s troubling words, and she responded with a gesture meant for her soulmate, flinging into the air an index finger and shaking it like a first-grade teacher does at a mischievous student.
“As if to say,” Kelly recalls the intention of her finger wag, “‘Don’t listen to him. I’ll be back.’”
The ottoman is cushioned and white, situated in front of a pair of armchairs and dropped between an expansive kitchen and a living space lit by walls of windows.
For a quick moment, Kelly Orgeron uses the ottoman to demonstrate how a victim of scoliosis ties his or her shoes. From a standing position, she plops her left foot on its surface, slightly hunches over and moves her hands toward the tennis shoe.
“See,” she says, “this is what I have to do.”
Kelly can’t bend down to tie her shoe in the way you and I might, because, attached to her spine, from neck to tailbone, are three metal rods, a dozen screws and two hooks. She must use a higher surface to prop up her shoe or squat into a crouching position. There is a third option, used in the early-morning hours before her football-coaching spouse leaves for the office.
“I got to buckle her shoes,” says Ed Orgeron, the LSU football coach.
The story of Ed Orgeron has been told—a fiery Cajun man who battled alcoholism in his younger days, who motivates players in the wildest ways and who inexplicably, some might say, landed his dream job 19 months ago.
What hasn’t been told is the tale of his wife—a woman from a tiny farm community in Arkansas who battled depression for nearly three decades, who nearly left this world last summer because of a surgeon’s errant scalpel and whose 15 surgical scars are the byproduct of scoliosis.
“It’s unbelievable,” says Cody Orgeron, one of Kelly and Ed’s three boys. “My mom’s a very strong woman. She wouldn’t go down without a fight. Kept swinging and went out on top.”
On top? That’s where she sits now, speaking to a reporter in a $900,000, five-bedroom lakeside home overlooking a well-kept golf course eight miles from LSU’s campus. The interior is her masterpiece. A blank slate in February, when the family purchased the home, is now an elegant, white-themed portrait with a country girl’s stamp—it’s not all ritzy.
“See that,” Kelly says of a dark-colored tray resting on the ottoman. “It’s from TJ Maxx. People ask me, ‘You shop at TJ Maxx?!’ I love TJ Maxx!”
The latest chapter of Kelly’s story was kept secret the last 13 months, hidden from the bright media spotlight that shines on this Southeastern Conference program, purposely buried deep in the Louisiana mud.
Last May, three months before the start of his first full season as LSU’s football coach, Ed Orgeron dealt with a family crisis, the matriarch of his five-person household clinging to life, the victim of a surgical mishap. Doctors punctured her colon, a hole that created a two-month ordeal so horrific, she says, that at one point Kelly wished she were dead.
“This story, you can’t make up,” Kelly says. “You can’t.”
Like all families in the major college coaching profession, the outcome of football games has shaped the Orgerons. Their monthly income and place of residence are tied to young adults in padded uniforms playing a violent game.
In 2007, Ole Miss administrators planned to extend Ed Orgeron’s head coaching stint at the school to a fourth year before his team blew a 14-point fourth-quarter lead in a rivalry game against Mississippi State. In 2013, Southern Cal officials were poised to promote Orgeron from interim to permanent coach, even discussing with him a $13 million contract, Kelly says, one day before a 35–14 loss at home to crosstown adversary UCLA. They hired Steve Sarkisian two days later.
In 2016, LSU stripped the interim title off Orgeron’s name, only after he led the Tigers to a Thanksgiving night victory over Texas A&M and then-Houston coach Tom Herman snubbed the school for Texas.
In fitting fashion, Kelly and Ed’s first meeting—a blind date in Memphis before the 1996 Liberty Bowl—only happened because of the result of one game and the location of another. Syracuse’s loss to Miami in its regular season finale that year sent the Orange and their defensive line coach to the Liberty, when a win would have sent them to the Orange Bowl.
A mutual friend convinced Kelly to drive the hour from her home in tiny Lake City, Ark., to meet the boisterous coach, known by a peculiar nickname, Bébé, a French word meaning “baby” that he adopted while growing up in south Louisiana.
Naturally, the two divorcees first laid eyes on one another on a football field.
“I went to their bowl practice,” Kelly says. “He was walking off the field and I said, ‘You must be Bébé.’”
“Why, yes I am,” Ed answered.
Two months later, they eloped, a marriage at a courthouse in Ed’s home parish witnessed, Kelly says, by a random stranger walking the halls. Her turbulent life as a college football coach’s wife began. Ed missed the birth of his twin sons, Cody and Parker, and later, he missed a lot more. The family—including Tyler, Kelly’s son from a previous marriage—lived separately from one another for five years during Ed’s time on Lane Kiffin’s staff, first at Tennessee and then Southern Cal.
Dad lived mostly out of a hotel room at a Radisson in midtown Los Angeles. Kelly and the kids remained in Mandeville, La., a suburban town just north of New Orleans to which the family moved after Ed’s firing at Ole Miss. Kelly, Tyler, Parker and Cody visited L.A. most weekends during the season, taking a 5 p.m. flight from New Orleans to the west coast.
Kelly slowly learned football, a game she knew nothing about before meeting Ed. “Zero,” she says emphatically.
She’s raised a football family. Cody and Parker are members of the football team at McNeese State, an FCS program in Lake Charles, La. Parker started as a freshman at receiver in 2016, and Cody is a redshirt sophomore quarterback. Tyler is an offensive analyst at LSU. “They all want to be coaches. I don’t know where I messed up,” Kelly jokes.
The image is tattooed in Scott Owens’s mind: his teenage sister, Kelly, sinking 12-foot jump shots while wearing a full-torso body cast.
The Milwaukee brace is used to treat spinal curvatures in children by rigid immobilization. A wide, hardened belt wraps around the waist and is connected, by metal rods in the back and front, to a type of chin rest that encircles and supports the head.
“I couldn’t even imagine walking across the room with this body cast, let alone playing basketball,” says Owens, Kelly’s oldest brother. She dealt with other issues, too, all tied to scoliosis, like splitting migraines so fierce they were triggered by walking close enough to Kelly’s face. “A lot of people would have said, ‘Poor me,” Owens says. “Not Kelly. She pressed on strong.”
Kelly wore the brace 22 hours a day for three years until surgeons inserted a rod into her back at age 15. Folks from her hometown describe Kelly as a sports-minded beauty pageant winner, and someone that did not let her predicament slow her down. Heck, just a couple of years ago, she used to beat her sons in the game of HORSE, Tyler says.
As a youngster with the brace, Kelly was forced to alter her basketball shot mechanics, and she could not swivel her head—there goes the peripheral vision—but she still played, running around the hardwood for the Lake City High School Catfish. The school, now consolidated and relocated, sat along a main thoroughfare: Catfish Drive.
In this 2,400-person town, about 15 miles east of Jonesboro, catfish are a familiar sight—whether in ponds or in the nearby St. Francis River, says Brenda Hutcheson, a town historian, retired teacher and longtime member of the city council. In a sign of its remote isolation, Lake City is missing two cornerstones of nearly every American city: a McDonald’s and a Walmart.
“We don’t even have a stoplight,” Hutcheson says.
“Everybody knows everybody,” Scott Owens says. “If you are a 16-year old having your first beer and somebody’s seen it, your momma knew about it before you got home.”
Kelly grew up here, as a self-described daddy’s girl and tomboy who used to help her father Bobby till farmland for cantaloupe, watermelon and cotton, while riding on his big, hulking tractor. That’s what made November of 1985 so difficult.
Bobby Owens, driving a rental car with his truck in a repair shop, was struck by a train and killed at the age of 46. Kelly was a sophomore in college. Railroad crossing arms and, even, flashing lights didn’t exist then at each junction.
“The train … he went on the tracks and didn’t see or hear it,” Hutcheson says. “He came from a family of 12. You can imagine the impact their family has on a community of what was then 1,200-1,500. It was crushing to the whole community.”
Bobby left four children—Scott, Russ, Kelly and Misty—and wife Janis, behind. Janis, at the age of 39, buried her husband on their 25th wedding anniversary, and if those numbers don’t make sense, it’s because Janis married Bobby as a 14-year old, and bore her first three children before she turned 18.
Janis Kay Owens passed away on Christmas Day in 2012 from lung complications rooted in her job as a beauty salon worker—the inhaling of harmful fumes and chemicals 14 hours a day for six days a week for 40 years.
“She had a bilateral lung transplant,” Kelly says. “It gave her seven years.”
Kelly has outlived her father by eight years despite so many surgeries that she’s lost count. At the time of her first back surgery in the early 1980s, doctors told Kelly she’d need another procedure by her 50th birthday. The rod inserted in her back would, by that time, have compressed discs in her lower spine. “They were exactly right,” Kelly says.
Tingling in her hands and feet were the first signs. At one point last spring, walking grew more difficult, the pain shooting from her lower back down her legs. A week before surgery, she braved through an LSU alumni event near New Orleans, by the end of the night needing her husband’s assistance to walk.
Last May, a team of neurosurgeons conducted two 10-hour surgeries in a three-day span, inserting supporting rods and screws into her lumbar spine and hips. During the first procedure, a surgeon nicked her colon, something medical staff did not realize until several days later, when Kelly’s stomach grew so swollen that her husband phoned the doctor—he’ll never forget—at 4:30 a.m.
“Come now!” he boomed over the phone line.
Kelly Orgeron calls it her “prayer rehab.”
Christian Healing Ministries, located in Jacksonville, Fla., describes itself as a Christ-centered, ecumenical and non-profit organization dedicated to the practice and teaching of healing prayer. Kelly spent about 10 days there in 2013 to treat depression she believes developed nearly 30 years prior, with the death of her father.
She only realized her illness after the passing of her father-in-law and her mother, two months apart in 2012.
“That’s what broke me. I thought I was fine,” Kelly says. “Yeah, fine—I lost 25 pounds in a short time, and people in the community thought I had cancer. I was depressed for 30 years. I functioned, but you just put up that wall.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” she said she told herself. “But you’re not.”
Four years later, she lay on a hospital bed in serious danger, her husband having frantically phoned the doctor. He arrived, checked her blood pressure and read it to Kelly aloud: 69 over 37. A normal person’s blood pressure is 120 over 80. “Oh boy, I’m in trouble,” she mumbled to herself and quietly looked to her husband’s white, blank face. “I didn’t want to scare Ed.”
Medical staff uncovered the accidental slit in her large intestine and rusher her to surgery, presuming Kelly was developing sepsis, the body’s deadly response to an infection, in this case because of the pin-sized laceration in her colon. She emerged more than four hours later, groggily waking to learn, from her husband, that doctors performed on her a colostomy. In other words, the waste from her intestines would empty into a bag through a hole created in her abdomen.
It is as bad as it sounds, and what transpired in the moments afterward was a reaction that she regrets. “I wish they would have never woken me up from this one,” she said aloud, and her husband roared, threw himself on top of her and screamed, “Me and the boys can’t do this life without you!”
A three-day stay in the hospital turned into 21, and her husband was summoned two days after her final surgery to Destin, Fla., for Southeastern Conference spring meetings. A friend stayed with Kelly for the duration of her hospital stay, and she returned to Louisiana two weeks later, living with a purse-sized bag attached to her side under her clothing—some of the worst few weeks of her life. Scott Owens, while on business trips to south Louisiana, stayed with his sister during that time.
“She never got depressed,” Owens says from his home in Fayetteville, Ark., “but there were days when I was down there and it would be me and her and I could tell it was a tough day.”
“It was horrifying,” Kelly says. “Horrific.”
On July 27, 2017, her husband turned 56 years old, and his wife had a successful reverse colostomy, the inadvertent puncture wound in her large intestine having healed. Kelly Orgeron is scheduled for one more surgery with regards to her scoliosis, a neck operation to fuse the cervical portion of her spine to the metal rod inserted more than 35 years ago.
“Why was this my journey?” Kelly asks from a seated position in her living room. She steals a glance to good friend Ya’el Lofton, her husband’s administrative assistant, seated at a kitchen table.
“I don’t know,” Kelly says, “but all these tests are part of my testimony. Hopefully, I’m done with the tests.”
Every once in a while, Tyler Orgeron’s right arm goes numb, and sometimes, his back tingles.
He never got the chance to walk on to the McNeese State football team because of the condition his mother, unintentionally of course, passed on to her eldest son. The 14-inch scar along Tyler’s spine was the entry point for a 2009 surgery where doctors inserted two foot-long steel rods, three metal hooks and 13 screws. The ‘S’ curve in his spine arched 60 degrees at his upper back, making his right latissimus dorsi, a primary back muscle under the armpit, protrude abnormally.
He put off surgery until his senior year of high school, in which doctors then described the procedure as an “emergency.”
“Afterward, my physical therapy was learning how to walk again,” Tyler says. “Taking 10 steps was probably the hardest thing I ever had to do.”
Scoliosis is a sideways curvature of the spine, and it is, indeed, hereditary. About three million cases of the condition are diagnosed each year, but only 10% of those are serious enough to require surgery.
Ed and Kelly monitored Parker and Cody throughout their childhood, hoping and praying their spines stayed straight. “So far,” Ed Orgeron says, “so good.” Ed married Kelly when Tyler was five years old. Stepdad and stepson are so close that this spring Tyler legally took his father’s last name.
As for that doctor’s error last May, the Orgerons aren’t pointing fingers. The same surgeons performed neck surgery in 2011 on future NFL Hall of Famer Peyton Manning, Ed says. Accidents happen, and Kelly knew, entering the procedure, that this was a potential risk. “I couldn’t focus on blaming anyone. It takes every single ounce of mental toughness to get through that,” Kelly says.
Kelly has changed since the events of last May, Scott Owens says. She looks at life differently, savoring each minute, hour and day. Ed Orgeron says he and his wife are as close as they’ve ever been, something forged during his week-long stay in her hospital room. It all came two months before his first preseason camp as LSU’s head football coach, a 9–4 season in which the Tigers recovered from September losses to Mississippi State and Troy to win six of their final seven regular season games.
“So many people I know have let those things affect their life negatively,” Owens says. “Those two people did not. They came out stronger.”
Ed Orgeron enters his second full season as the LSU football coach without such distractions this summer, but with more pressure resting on his broad shoulders—the price of replacing two behemoths: Nick Saban awakened a sleeping giant in 2000, winning more SEC championships in his first four seasons (two) than the program won in the previous 14 years; Les Miles averaged 10 wins in his 11 full seasons and won a national title.
Her husband might feel the pressure, Kelly says, but she doesn’t. His Tigers have been a punching bag this offseason, it seems. Many prognosticators are projecting them to finish as low as fifth in their own division, and they are absent from some preseason top-25s. They lost as many as eight offensive starters, most of them at key positions such as quarterback, running back and receiver, and for the first time since at least 1974, the school starts a season without a tailback on its roster with a rushing touchdown in college.
Kelly rises from her seat as a reporter details the above. She straightens her back and glares. “This is not about the naysayers, but, yes, it’s win or lose in this career,” she says. “Do I listen to the naysayers? Do they really matter? Any time you feel the pressure and things get hard, that’s when you dig your heels in. That’s what I’ve done all my life.”