Waves Of Grief

A coach's dream season is shattered by the deaths of his ex-wife and daughter
February 13, 1995

At sunset, the roaring ocean and the ethereal mist that shrouds the chiseled coastline of Mendocino, Calif., can conspire to create an awesome and spellbinding beauty. It was such a scene that had brought peace to the troubled mind of Diane Painter, and after she took her life on the night of Jan. 15, her children, Doug Painter and Debbie Menta, decided to take their mother to her favorite spot one final time. They brought Diane's ashes to a desolate cove along that craggy coast and waited for the sun to go down.

As they stood on a sandstone precipice high above the ocean, Debbie and Doug were very likely mesmerized by the splendor of the setting: the breakers billowing up from the weathered rocks, the uncommonly warm winter sunshine, the cloudless sky. They probably never saw the huge wave that knocked them from their perch and completed a bizarre spiral of family tragedy. Had she been there in more than spirit, Diane Painter might have warned her children that appearances can be deceiving.

Dwain Painter, Diane's ex-husband, now understands that cruel truth all too well. After realizing the dream he had envisioned for his entire adult life—making it to the Super Bowl—Dwain, the quarterbacks coach of the San Diego Chargers, has been rocked by the chain of events that began with Diane's suicide and ended with the death of their 32-year-old daughter, Debbie. After being swept off that Mendocino cliff and thrown into the frigid Pacific, Debbie and Doug, 23, were thrashed against the jagged rocks below. After a brutal, icy beating, Doug climbed to safety. He was found half an hour later, bleeding from head to toe, stripped naked by the rocks and suffering from shock and hypothermia. Miraculously, he would require only a three-night hospital stay. Debbie's body was discovered the following morning, making her the second victim in a saga that began nearly four decades ago on the football fields of western Pennsylvania.

"You're just hoping you're going to wake up and everything's a dream, even though you know it's not," Bill Pugsley is saying from his home in Greensburg, Pa. "You just sit here and wonder, What's going to happen now? Who's going to be the next to go?"

Pugsley, 42, is Diane Painter's younger brother, the third child of Harry and Margaret Pugsley. Back in Pitcairn, Pa., the Pittsburgh suburb where his parents still live, Bill watched Diane, 10 years his elder, embrace her first love in a small-town romance. Dwain was Gateway High's star quarterback, Diane a popular cheerleader. He was the student-body president; she was the vice president. Dwain headed off to Rutgers University to continue his football career, and Diane, a straight-A student, followed. "He was the only guy that she ever really knew, from her junior high school days on," Bill says. "That was about it for her as far as that went."

By the end of college, Dwain and Diane had married, and Debbie was a toddler. A quarterback and defensive back for Rutgers, Dwain was not pro material, and so he chose to coach, landing a job at Wall (N.J.) High in 1965. The position was not glamorous, but it was a typical starting point in the career of a young, hungry coach: succeed at the high school level, then network your way across the country until someday you get your big break and make it to the pros. If everything goes right, you end up with a Super Bowl team, and then those long hours of watching film, washing uniforms and eating potato-chip-and-soft-drink dinners pay off. It's a great personal sacrifice, and an even greater sacrifice to ask of your family, but you don't think about it when you're starting out. You're on your way up, you're headed for new places, and life is no more complicated than the next game plan.

Like all women who marry football men, Diane could count on little stability. She fashioned a career as a schoolteacher—"A lot of times Dwain didn't make enough money to support the family," Harry Pugsley says—but she switched schools with the frequency of a military brat. Dwain's career took the Painters from New Jersey to Northern California, Utah, Southern California, Arizona, Georgia, Texas and Illinois.

Each time the family moved to a new state, Diane, who had a master's degree in physical education, had to obtain a new teaching credential before returning to the workplace. She was recertified seven times in all, but, says Bill, "that was what she did. Their goal was to win the Super Bowl."

While Dwain was breaking down film or schmoozing a recruit's parents, Diane was consumed by the X's and O's of family life. "She would be left with packing the bags and getting the kids going in school," Bill says. "As a coach's wife, you're almost a combination of mother, father, mover. You probably have to go through that situation to understand it."

The Painters made it through 23 years of stops and starts before the big break came. In 1988 Pittsburgh Steeler coach Chuck Noll hired Dwain as a receivers coach, his first NFL job. "It was a big move for everybody," Bill recalls. "She had been away for so long, and it was like she had made the big circuit and finally made it back home."

Sometime before the end of the 1991 season, the dream soured. The accumulated strains of the football life, including the temptations of a coach's lifestyle—the frequent road trips, the long hours away from home—finally took their toll, and the marriage began to crumble. Its end coincided with Noll's resignation following the '91 season. Noll's successor, Bill Cowher, chose not to retain Painter, who moved on to a job as the receivers coach for the Indianapolis Colts. Diane stayed behind in Pittsburgh. "She felt she couldn't go any further with this footballing all over the country," Harry Pugsley says. But by Bill's account, Diane stayed behind because of the impending breakup. "She would have gone to Siberia with him if the marriage had still been intact," he insists.

According to the Pugsleys—neither Dwain nor Doug agreed to be interviewed by SI—both of the Painter children sided with their mother after the divorce, though they remained in contact with their father, who was hired by the Chargers in January 1994. Last month Doug flew to San Diego to watch Dwain's new team defeat the Miami Dolphins 22-21 in an AFC divisional-playoff thriller, and he was at Three Rivers Stadium the following Sunday, Jan. 15, for the AFC Championship Game.

No one will ever know what dark thoughts raced through Diane Painter's head on that foggy afternoon as the hometown Steelers lost to the Chargers 17-13. The outcome of the game turned on an end-zone pass with 1:08 left, Charger linebacker Dennis Gibson knocking the ball away from the outstretched hands of running back Barry Foster. Several hours later Diane—wearing a Steeler sweatshirt—walked into the garage of her Bellevue, Pa., home, started her car and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. She left behind in the kitchen a two-sentence note: "I love you all. Please forgive me."

During Super Bowl week the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette ran a story about Diane's suicide that quoted Harry as saying, "I feel it's the game that did it." Now he says that while the Charger victory may have been "a trigger," it was not what killed his daughter. "There were a lot of other reasons, all of them confidential," he says. "My daughter had a multitude of problems, and that wasn't the whole story."

Indeed, suicides can seldom be explained by a single event. Harry, 77, speculates that Diane may have been worried about her mother, who in December had undergone a surgical procedure to relieve arterial blockage. Bill says that a back injury Diane had suffered while working as a phys-ed instructor in Georgia 10 years ago had debilitated her. There was probably emotional pain that can never be charted, but one circumstance remains clear: The Chargers' victory meant that Dwain would be fulfilling the couple's dream—but with another woman, Cathy Reinert, to whom he is engaged to be married, by his side. After the game Diane called her mother and said, "I'm the one who should be going to the Super Bowl, and not his girlfriend."

Amid the wrenching emotions of Diane's memorial service on Jan. 18, Dwain "was the worst of anybody," Bill says. Charger secondary coach Willie Shaw says that Dwain was still shaken up when he returned to the team to prepare for the Super Bowl. "That put a lot of stress on him," Shaw says. "There's a lot of guilt involved."

Debbie and Doug stood by their father, but they declined his invitation to join him in Miami for the Super Bowl. Doug, who had been living with his mother, flew to Foster City, Calif., where Debbie lived with her husband, Mark, and their 18-month-old son, Taylor. Four days after the Chargers lost to the San Francisco 49ers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX, Debbie and Doug drove to Mendocino, a lovely coastal enclave 130 miles north of San Francisco, with the intention of saying goodbye to their mother at her favorite spot on earth.

Wave patterns on the Mendocino coast can be extremely deceptive to those unfamiliar with the area tides. Clusters of small breakers can converge on one rock-laden area to produce a much larger wave, a so-called sneaker wave. This is what awaited Doug and Debbie. They had driven along Heeser Drive, which loops along the Mendocino Headlands and into California State Park land; they parked their car in a designated area and stepped over the logs that serve as a vehicular barrier, walking across a narrow, grassy meadow and onto a misty precipice. Late in the afternoon the temperature was still in the mid-60's, and the fog that often hides the ocean from view was absent. "The air was calm, but the ocean was anything but calm," says Ed O'Brien, one of the Mendocino volunteer firefighters who arrived after Doug, naked, bloodied and inexplicably clutching his wallet and keys, was found by a local artist, Joy Verner.

O'Brien calls it a miracle that Doug is alive. He and Debbie were thrown into a crevice below and thrashed violently against the rocks. "The water is 52 degrees, and they were getting thrown around far worse than any washing machine you ever saw," says photographer David Russell, who arrived with the firefighters.

Somehow, Doug survived. Dwain arrived at Mendocino Coast District Hospital the next day, and by Sunday father and son were headed out of town. Where they will go from here is uncertain, but one thing is clear: Their vantage points have been irrevocably altered.

PHOTODAVID J. RUSSELLDebbie lost her life in the turbulent waters off Mendocino. PHOTOSEAN HAFFEY/SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE/APPainter's road to the Super Bowl wound through nine states over 30 years before leading to San Diego. PHOTORANDY OLSONAfter San Diego's win, Diane chose to end her life in the garage of this house in suburban Pittsburgh.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)