At first it looked like just another play: a snap to the
quarterback, the crack of pads, a sideline pass completion
followed by two players tumbling out-of-bounds and into the
Green Bay Packers' bench. As Nancy Haskell watched the Jan. 14
NFC Championship Game against the Dallas Cowboys from her seat
in the upper deck at Texas Stadium, neither she nor the other
Green Bay coaches' wives gave much thought to the ensuing
stoppage of the game. The first real hint that anything was
amiss came when a fan sitting nearby lowered his binoculars and
mentioned that a fallen man on the sideline was wearing tan
slacks. Only then did a thought race through her mind: The
Packers' coaches were wearing tan trousers, weren't they?
"When he said 'tan slacks,' that's when all of the coaches'
wives put our binoculars up to our eyes too," Haskell says.
"Then everyone started scanning the sidelines for her husband
and saying his name out loud: 'I see Mike....There goes
Nolan....I can see Steve.' They were all putting their
binoculars back down, and I was looking and looking, but I
couldn't find Gil."
Suddenly Haskell knew. She jumped up and grabbed the arm of a
friend, and down the stadium ramps they ran.
On the field Packers wide receivers coach Gil Haskell lay
surrounded by doctors and paramedics as head coach Mike Holmgren
squeezed his close friend's hand. When quarterback Brett Favre
rushed over, he was shaken to see that Haskell's eyes had rolled
back in his head and that his tongue was lolling out. Haskell
remained unresponsive for at least five agonizing minutes. At
first the team doctors were calling out his vital signs to each
other--"I've got a pulse....I've got respiration"--and Holmgren
found himself shouting, "We've got movement!" when Haskell's
foot twitched for the first time and his hand squeezed Holmgren's.
February 19, 1996
As the delay dragged on, the thought of beating the Cowboys for
a Super Bowl berth receded. Holmgren thought first about his 25
years of friendship with Haskell. Then: Where was Nancy? And:
Were these doctors suppressing the same thought that was
screaming through his mind? Was there a chance that the
52-year-old Haskell might die right there, near the 35-yard line?
The ambulance that had driven onto the field to collect Haskell
was already in the stadium tunnel on its way to the hospital
when Nancy arrived. She hopped in the front seat just seconds
before the driver pulled away from the arena. Through the window
in the back of the ambulance's cab, she got her first look at
her stricken husband. Packers associate team physician John Gray
was among the three medics attending the coach. Gray now says,
"We were definitely concerned it could have been a lethal injury."
During her sprint to the tunnel, Nancy had missed seeing her
husband being fitted with a cervical collar. Nor had she heard
the gasp from the crowd when the replay was shown on the Texas
Stadium scoreboard. What the crowd saw was Packers wideout
Robert Brooks catching a one-yard pass and Cowboys safety Darren
Woodson quickly driving him out-of-bounds and into Haskell. His
body was catapulted backward, and the back of his head slammed
violently off the artificial turf as one of his sneakers flew
off. Then he was still.
The first sketchy report from Baylor University Medical Center
listed Haskell in critical condition with a skull fracture in
the back of his head and a bruise on the front of his brain. But
the Packers didn't even know that much until after they had lost
the game 38-27 and boarded their charter for home. The score had
been 17-17 with 5:11 to play in the first half when Haskell was
hurt. Favre remembers studying Holmgren before play resumed. "If
he lost it, the rest of the guys on the sideline were going to
lose it," Favre says. "And he did not lose it. He was concerned,
but he handled it very well."
Holmgren soldiered on--through the end of the game, and the
somber flight home, and most of Green Bay's breakup meeting the
next day--until he asked defensive end Reggie White, an ordained
minister, to lead a team prayer for Haskell. As White spoke and
the Packers stood hand in hand, the logjam of emotions finally
broke. "Tears welled up in my eyes," Holmgren says, "and
probably half the players' eyes too."
Everyone, it seemed, had his own affecting memory. For days
Favre couldn't shake that image of Haskell's tongue lolling out.
Numerous Packers mentioned the force of the hit, their dread
fear of paralysis. Gray recalled his first game on an NFL
sideline. "People warned me, 'You won't believe the hitting,'"
Gray says, "but nothing really prepares you for it. The level of
violence, the speed of collisions that routinely go on--it's
unbelievable. TV mutes it. Under the artificial turf there's
some padding. But then it's just concrete."
During those first blurred days at the hospital, one phone
conversation in particular stood out for Nancy: "I have a cousin
whose husband is a race car driver. She said, 'Nancy, somehow I
always thought I'd be the one at the hospital taking this call
As Holmgren and his wife, Kathy, flew back to Dallas two days
after the game to be at Haskell's bedside, Mike Holmgren braced
himself for what he might find.
Holmgren and Haskell are unusually close. Their friendship dates
back to the 1970s and their hometown of San Francisco. They
coached against each other at rival high schools. Both of them
paid their dues before their big career breaks came along.
Haskell was 35 and had been teaching high school phys-ed classes
when he joined John Robinson's Southern Cal staff in 1978.
Holmgren, five years younger, was a history teacher and father
of four when he chased down an assistant's job at San Francisco
State in 1981. Haskell wrote a letter of recommendation for
Holmgren. Less than a decade later Haskell was coaching the Los
Angeles Rams' special teams and running backs, and Holmgren was
the San Francisco 49ers' quarterbacks coach under Bill Walsh.
When Holmgren got the Packers job in 1992, he signed up Haskell
to coach the running backs, and Haskell has been his boss's
closest confidant ever since--"the guy I turn to when the walls
start to close in," Holmgren says.
This season, Haskell's first as the wide receivers coach, the
Packers won the NFC Central title outright for the first time
since 1982. A neck injury had forced All-Pro wideout Sterling
Sharpe, who had caught 314 passes in his last three seasons, to
retire last February, but in his absence the Green Bay passing
game blossomed. Favre was named the league's offensive MVP, and
under Haskell, Brooks, Anthony Morgan and Mark Ingram combined
to catch 172 passes. The Packers thumped the Atlanta Falcons
37-20 in the first round of the playoffs and then dethroned the
defending Super Bowl champion 49ers 27-17 in the divisional round.
Green Bay was one win away from its first trip to the Super Bowl
in 28 years. On the morning of the conference championship game
against the Cowboys, as the Packers gathered to board buses
outside their hotel, Holmgren announced to his players, "I'm
going to make this trip a little differently today, guys." Then
he strode over to a waiting Harley-Davidson motorcycle with
chrome mufflers and black leather saddlebags trimmed with silver
studs, straddled the seat and roared away. For the next 30
minutes Holmgren led his team's convoy to Texas Stadium.
A few hours later Haskell's ambulance was tearing down another
freeway toward the hospital. Nancy says that she remembers
thinking, God, this ride is taking a long time.
The first two days were a tense waiting game. Doctors weren't
sure what brain functions Haskell might have lost. Though a
spinal cord injury was ruled out after he arrived at the
emergency room, a CAT scan showed a fracture carving a jagged
path down the back of Haskell's skull. "The back of your head is
a pretty substantial structure," says Michael Foreman, the
Baylor trauma surgeon who attended Haskell. "And he broke all
the way through that."
The brain contusion and swelling were also concerns. Again
Haskell was lucky: Medication succeeded in reducing the
swelling. Within three days Haskell was out of intensive care
and the fog in his mind was just beginning to lift. By the
fourth day after the accident, Foreman spoke enthusiastically
about how Haskell's cognitive skills were rushing back.
"Blossomed literally before our eyes," Foreman said.
Haskell was well enough to be discharged on day 11, and one of
the first things he did was get into a spat with his pal
Holmgren. The private plane that the Packers had dispatched to
bring Haskell back to Green Bay had barely touched down when he
called Holmgren and pronounced himself ready to join the
Packers' staff in Honolulu to help coach the NFC squad in the
Pro Bowl. "Oh, no, you won't," Holmgren said.
"Why not?" Haskell demanded.
Laughing now, Haskell says, "I did do that. But I feel great. No
Haskell's doctors say they expect him to make a full recovery.
He still faces more cognitive testing to determine whether there
is any lingering damage, and he will undergo light physical
rehabilitation three times a week to restore his stamina. But
his motor skills and speech are fine. Last week Haskell was
stubbornly putting in four-hour days at the office, and by the
weekend he was attending the NFL's scouting combine in
When Haskell watched the replay for the first time, says his
wife, "he was very quiet."
"I thought, No wonder you got hurt," Haskell says. "See, I
thought the play was past me. I don't remember getting hit at
all. I just remember the ball was thrown to Brooks. I remember
immediately thinking, He's not going to get the first down. Then
I looked down at our play sheet to see what the next call was.
And they were on top of me. In that split second, it was too late.
"To be honest, it's a little embarrassing to me now," Haskell
adds, laughing sheepishly.
Holmgren can laugh now as well about his first nervous
conversation with Haskell at the hospital. "You know how you
always say something really stupid?" Holmgren says. "He had two
black eyes, a swollen face and an IV going, and I said, 'How are
you doing, Gil?' He said, 'Well, Mike, my head hurts.'"
Nancy can joke about her excitement when Gil finally recognized
two of his daughters, Pattie and Paula, on the second day after
the game. Nancy immediately said to him, "Gil, honey, do you
know who I am?" and Haskell looked her over and said, "Why...I
think you're a farmer."
During Haskell's recovery the phone rang nonstop. Thousands of
cards and letters poured in. Grade school children sent homemade
get-well cards, and adults sent along photos of their families,
tales of their experiences, tips about what Haskell could expect
in rehab. To Nancy's astonishment, the hospital received dozens
of flower arrangements, many accompanied by cards that said no
more than "a Dallas fan" or "a Green Bay fan."
"You just want to thank everyone in every state," says Nancy.
"Then you think, It's a good world. It really, really is."
At one point she jokingly told her husband, "You're making
everyone forget Kato Kaelin. You've started Gilmania."
And Haskell, being a no-nonsense guy, just snorted. "Gil's the
type of guy who could never understand why this mattered to
anyone," says Bob LaMonte, a longtime friend from San Francisco.
"Gil's attitude is, Hey, I'm a coach. I got knocked down. Now
I'm home and the rest doesn't matter."
Which is wrong, of course. It was football that suddenly didn't
matter--not when somebody's best friend, somebody's husband,
somebody's dad had slammed his head so violently on the turf
that the main concern was whether he was going to die. And now
that Haskell's home? The Packers can smile and say they lost to
Dallas, they fell one win shy of the Super Bowl, and they still
got a happy ending.