The first time they met, not five seconds after laying eyes on
each other, the young football coach with the strong, handsome
face said, "Hi, I'm Phil Bennett, and I'm never getting
married." That's how Nancy would remember their 1981
introduction, anyway, years after she'd snagged him and made him
her own. Phil's memory of the occasion, though vivid, owes less
to what he said than to what he saw. He saw a beautiful,
blue-eyed blonde with a Coppertone tan and the best smile in all
of College Station, Texas. She was wearing green khaki shorts, a
flowery shirt and sandals. Phil's brother Jim had helped set
them up, and though this qualified as a blind date, Phil knew
that for as long as he lived he would not forget the image of
Nancy Harris as she pulled open the door to her apartment and
invited him in.
"What is it you remember about the first time you saw me?" Phil
used to ask her.
"Your hair was too short, but you had on shorts, and I liked
your legs," she would reply. "You had great-looking legs."
"What about my face?"
October 24, 1999
"You have a nice appearance. You're what I would call a rugged
"That's because I've got so many wrinkles in my forehead. You
know how you get those? From coaching."
Nancy loved to talk, and you wouldn't be wrong to rank her as
one of the world's alltime great talkers. Their two children
notwithstanding, Phil was easily her favorite subject, and often
when he came up in conversation she abandoned use of the pronoun
he and replaced it with we. As in, "We're coaching at Kansas
State now." And, "We've got a great group of kids this year."
At Phil's games Nancy spent most of the time on her feet,
hollering down at the field, singling out players and offering
encouragement. "Sometimes it seemed that Mrs. Bennett knew as
much football as Coach Bennett did, and he knew just about
everything," says Dallas Cowboys linebacker Dat Nguyen, whom
Phil coached at Texas A&M in 1995 and '96.
Even when the crowd numbered 80,000, most of them making noise,
Phil could pick out Nancy's voice from where he stood on the
field. It was easy, because they were so tuned in to each other.
"Telepathy," he calls it. "Like those times in my office when
I'd be sitting at my desk and thinking about something, and
suddenly the phone rang, and it was Nancy calling to talk about
whatever it was I was thinking about."
At games, when somebody sitting close to her was critical of
Phil's team or one of his players, Nancy had a way of putting
the spectator in his place. "Hey, by the way," she'd say,
flashing a smile, "these are all coaches' wives you're sitting
with. Now let me explain to you why things happen the way they
do." Then she'd launch into an analysis of a blitz package or
explain the difference between a 3-4 and a 4-3 front.
Phil liked to glance up before the opening kickoff and find her
seated with the coaches' wives: Nancy all dressed up in the team
colors. She used to joke that she loved it when Phil coached at
Texas Christian and LSU, because she looked good in purple. But
the truth was that she looked good in any color. When he spotted
her, Phil didn't have to nod or wave in acknowledgment. A look
was all they needed, especially when they had their game faces on.
"I knew if it was a good day and we won, she'd be proud of me,"
says Phil, now in his first year as defensive coordinator at
Kansas State. "But I also knew that if it was a bad day and we
lost, she'd be proud of me, too. That was Nancy."
As you've probably figured out, this story isn't about football
as much as it's about love. So that would make it a love story.
And as is the case with most great love stories, this one ends
too soon. To Phil, of course, it isn't over and likely never
will be, despite the fact that Nancy, at age 41, died on Aug.
28, 17 days after being struck by lightning while she jogged
near their home in Manhattan, Kans. Nancy's dead. Just saying it
makes about as much sense to Phil as saying the stars have left
the sky and the moon has turned to dust. Nancy's dead. Now how
can that be true?
"Nance, are you going to run?" Phil asked her that morning.
It was 6 a.m. The night before, the freshmen on the Wildcats
football team had reported for orientation and the start of
two-a-days. This was a joyful time for the Bennetts. After years
of bouncing from one college town to another, they'd found a
place that promised to be more than just a whistle-stop. In his
20-year career Phil had worked at one high school and seven
colleges, building a reputation as one of the top defensive
coaches in the country. In the last decade alone he'd pulled
gigs at Purdue, LSU, Texas A&M, Texas Christian and Oklahoma. At
Kansas State, which hired him last January, he was working for
one of the most respected coaches in the game, Bill Snyder,
who'd made a winner of a program that only 10 years ago was
named by this magazine as the worst in Division I-A.
Phil took an apartment in family student housing until June,
when Nancy and their children, 11-year-old Sam and nine-year-old
Maddie, moved up from Fort Worth. They settled into a house only
about a mile from the football stadium. At night when the
stadium lights were on, a wash of electric white bled into
heavenly black, and the whole amazing spectacle was visible from
the street in front of the Bennetts' house.
"When you're a coach's wife, home is where you happen to be
living at the moment, and every move is only as good as you make
it," says Sue Fello, whose husband, Bob Fello, coaches defensive
ends at Kansas State. "Nancy would walk across the street and
introduce herself to the neighbors. She was so friendly, how
could you not want to get to know her? She and Phil had been in
Manhattan for only a few months, but already everybody knew her."
Nancy's day started with a walk/run that took her several miles
from home and usually lasted about an hour. That morning as he
showered, Phil heard what he thought were artillery exercises at
nearby Fort Riley, but when he left the bathroom and started to
dress, he realized that he'd been hearing thunder.
Weeks before, he'd helped Nancy establish a jogging route, so he
knew where to look for her. He got in his car, and after
cruising around awhile he entered a subdivision with new
construction and passed a police cruiser parked by the curb. He
pulled into the freshly poured driveways of three unfinished
houses, hoping she'd ducked inside to wait out the storm, but
there was no sign of her. At last he headed back to Meadowood
Drive, which led out of the subdivision, and up ahead he saw a
policeman in a slicker. It had begun to rain harder. "Officer,"
Phil called out.
"Hey, Coach," said the policeman.
"Have you seen a good-looking blonde out jogging around here?"
The policeman hesitated, and in his eyes Phil saw the answer.
"Coach, did you know that woman?"
"What woman?" Phil said, raising his voice even though the man
stood only a few feet away. In that moment a picture of
merciless clarity came to him. Phil Bennett, 43 years old, with
two young children to raise, understood that his life would
never be the same again.
She came from a little place called Alvarado, Texas, just south
of Fort Worth, and she came from class and money, or what seemed
like class and money to a rough-and-tumble tomcat like Phil
Bennett. Nancy's dad was a doctor, whereas Phil's old man made
his living as a pipe fitter in the oil fields. Alaska,
California, Louisiana, Texas--if there was oil in the ground, in
all likelihood Jim Bennett Sr. and his family had lived there at
some time or another, establishing a nomadic pattern that
prepped Phil for his future as a college football coach. "I knew
Dad didn't have a job when we'd move in the middle of the night
because he couldn't pay the rent," Phil says.
The Bennetts eventually settled in Marshall, Texas, in 1962,
after a doctor in California informed Phil's mother, Faye, that
she had cancer and needed to be close to her family. Faye got a
job selling cosmetics at Wiseman's department store, and after
an operation she gathered enough strength to cast the disease
from her body and live for three more decades. To Phil, her
victory over cancer served as a lesson: You are as strong as you
will yourself to be.
Heavily recruited out of high school, he went to Texas A&M on a
football scholarship, and as a senior, in 1977, he made
second-team All-Southwest Conference at defensive end. "Phil was
about as tough as anybody on our team," says R.C. Slocum, his
position coach at the time and now the Aggies' head coach. "He
had this competitiveness and this quick temper, and they made
him incredibly motivated, an overachiever. I always thought
Nancy was good for him because she was so friendly and engaging
and even-tempered, while Phil's got that short fuse."
In 1982, a few months after Phil and Nancy began living
together, he got into a fight with a biker who'd dared to toss
an empty beer bottle in Phil's vicinity. The biker was getting
the better of the battle until Phil split the man's forehead
open with his Southwest Conference championship ring. Awash in
blood, the biker slumped to the ground, and Phil jumped on him
and forced his hands into the man's mouth and pulled outward
until the lips seemed to stretch from ear to ear. The man
squealed in surrender, and Phil kicked him in the ribs as a
final gesture of contempt. Phil left the duel with a grotesquely
swollen eye, the flesh all around it an iridescent mosaic.
"Y'all have to help me with Nancy," he told a couple of friends
who'd witnessed the fight.
"To any other girl I'd have said, 'Ah, don't worry about it,'
and I wouldn't have cared what she thought," Phil says now.
"That moment was when it came to me that I was in love with
At home later Phil told Nancy, a registered nurse, that he'd run
into a tree while jogging. "Phil?" she said. "A tree did that?"
"I got poked," he answered with all the sincerity he could
They'd planned to go to a movie, and when Phil went into the
bedroom to change his shirt, Nancy saw scratches and other
abrasions on his back. "The guy had body-slammed me," Phil says.
"Nancy just started crying. She said, 'Phil, what happened to
you?' Then she said, 'When are you going to grow up? If you're
going to be like that, I don't want to be with you.'
"I guess in my head I was still Phil Bennett the football
player," he says. "I was still that guy who didn't back down
from anyone. Still the son of Jim Bennett, the toughest man ever
to come out of Marshall, Texas. Still an idiot, in other words."
He never lied to her again, and he never got into another fight.
As time went by he found himself changing in other ways. He
watched his mouth and stopped telling people off. He quit
dipping snuff, his only vice outside of an occasional beer.
"Hey," Nancy had said once when she found him with a pinch of
tobacco in his mouth, "you want to be weak? Do you want me to
raise our children by myself? Is that what you want?"
"Nancy helped him see things," says Bob Fello. "Sometimes just a
word from her was all it took to put things in perspective. He'd
say she added a dimension to his life that wasn't there until
she came along."
They'd been together for only about six months when Phil got
fired from his first college coaching job. In 1981 Texas A&M
went 7-5 and prevailed over Oklahoma State in the Independence
Bowl, but Phil and the other assistants were let go after the
season when coach Tom Wilson was replaced by Jackie Sherrill.
One staff left, another came in. Most coaches live in a state of
readiness for just such a bloodletting, and Phil took it in
stride. "We're getting a taste of what the coaching life is
like," he told Nancy.
They migrated to Fort Worth and Texas Christian, then the year
after that to Ames and Iowa State. A few years later it was West
Lafayette, Ind., and Purdue. "We're on a journey," Nancy told
him, "and we're on it together."
"I think the hardest part for Nancy was all the moving," says
Tory Dickey, wife of North Texas coach Darrell Dickey and one of
Nancy's closest friends. "Not that she didn't accept it readily
and look forward to the next place they were going, but Nancy
made such great friends that it became hard for her to leave
Sam, their firstborn, came along when Phil was at Purdue. Phil
was so excited about the birth that he took a high school
recruit, Lavitias Johnson of Chicago, to the hospital to meet
Nancy and see the baby. Phil also invited Johnson's parents, and
it made for quite a crowd in Nancy's room. The day before, she'd
endured 19 hours of labor and lost a lot of blood, but Nancy
somehow made herself presentable. She combed her hair and put on
lipstick. Ghostly pale, she darkened her cheeks with rouge. She
was sitting up in bed with a big smile on her face when Phil and
the guests arrived. "Mrs. Bennett, you sure look good for just
having had a baby," Johnson's mother said.
When the room was clear, Phil said, "Nancy, you amaze me."
Purdue didn't get Lavitias Johnson--he went to Michigan--but
Nancy helped Phil recruit other players, and sometimes she grew
to love them. When the Bennetts were at Iowa State in 1985,
Nancy discovered the team's star running back, Joe Henderson,
riding a motorcycle and angrily confronted him. "I just gave Joe
Henderson a piece of my mind," she said to Phil later that day.
"I told him, 'I'm going home and I'm going to tell your mother
and I'm going to tell Coach Bennett. Joe Henderson, if Coach
Bennett catches you on a motorcycle again, we're going to send
"And Nancy didn't call them motorcycles, she called them
murder-cycles," Phil says. "She was concerned for Joe."
At Texas A&M, where Phil returned as an assistant in '95, Nguyen
and his fellow linebackers went to the Bennetts' house for
dinner several times a year, and Nancy always served her
favorite dish, fried skinless chicken breasts. Even after the
Bennetts left A&M following the 1996 season, Nguyen called Nancy
when he needed a lift. "I'd tell her about my problems, and we'd
talk for 30 or 40 minutes, and I always ended up feeling
better," says Nguyen. "You'd want to keep something inside, but
when you'd talk to Mrs. Bennett, you couldn't help but let it
out. I always hung up the phone feeling like a different person."
As Sam and Maddie grew older, Phil became concerned over the
instability of his profession, and he worried about how the
stress of each move affected the kids. He was short-listed for
head jobs at big schools, such as LSU after the 1994 season,
when he was runner-up to Gerry DiNardo. Rather than despair at
the impermanence, Nancy reminded Phil that theirs was an
adventure and that in the long run, they and the children would
be stronger because of it. At each new school that hired Phil,
Nancy had cheerleader uniforms made for Maddie and bought
jerseys to match those of the team for Sam. "Think of the places
you get to go, the things you get to do," she told the kids.
"Some people live in one place their whole lives."
Of all the moves they made, the one from TCU to Oklahoma, last
year, was probably the most difficult for Phil. Although he
relished the opportunity to work for the storied Sooners
program, coach John Blake was under fire, and Phil's tenure as
the defensive backs coach was likely to be short. Phil rented an
apartment in Norman while Nancy and the kids remained behind in
Fort Worth. The commute took three hours each way, but Nancy and
the children drove up after work each Friday and left on Sunday.
"The kids slept on air mattresses," Phil says. "Nancy got me
this little cardboard chest of drawers for my clothes, and she
somehow made the apartment a home. She never complained. That's
why the job at Kansas State was so important to us. We were
going to be together again."
This summer, shortly after being reunited in Manhattan, Phil and
Nancy went on an Alaskan cruise with Snyder; his wife, Sharon;
and the other Wildcats coaches and their wives. The school
president and various alumni also made the trip. As they
traveled through inlets and glacier bays to Ketchikan, Juneau,
Seward and Anchorage, the Bennetts found a quiet spot on the
deck of the ship where for long hours they lay under blankets
holding hands and watching for whales in the dark water. Phil
drank Coronas, Nancy diet sodas. They napped and talked about
the future and filled it with plans. One night they attended a
dress-up dinner, and she wore a black dress that she'd bought
just for that occasion. "Do you know how beautiful you are?"
Phil asked Nancy.
"It was the best time of her life," says Phil's brother Jim.
"When they came back from the cruise, they flew in to Dallas,
and Nancy called us. It was about 6:30 in the morning, and she
was outside our door on her cell phone. And she said, 'I didn't
mean to wake you, I just wanted to tell you about our trip.' She
said it wouldn't take but 15 minutes. Well, she was so excited
that she talked for 2 1/2 hours. After she left I said to my
wife, Peggy, 'They've finally found a home where they can settle
and be for a while. Have you ever seen her happier?'"
On the night of Aug. 10 Nguyen called Nancy from the Cowboys'
training camp. It was around 10, and, no surprise to Nguyen,
Nancy described in detail his heroic play in exhibition games
against the Oakland Raiders and the Cleveland Browns. Nancy
vowed to send photographs, taken over the Christmas holidays, of
Nguyen with Sam and Maddie. Maddie had made him a paper star
just like the one on his helmet. Nancy promised to include
magnets so that Nguyen could affix the pictures and the star to
his refrigerator door. "She was the nicest person I ever knew,"
The storm lasted less than 15 minutes. It came and went before
most of Manhattan was up for the day.
When Phil arrived at the hospital, a security officer tried to
keep him from the emergency room. Phil barreled past the man and
searched the unit until he found Nancy lying on a table, a team
of doctors and nurses frantically working to resuscitate her.
They had cut her clothes off. She looked sunburned, and the
flesh at her breasts issued thin ribbons of smoke. The lightning
had entered her body at the base of her skull and exited below
her knees. It had blown her jogging shoes off and knocked her
six feet in the air. Her forehead was badly cut from the fall,
and blood was draining from the wound. "Nancy, please," Phil
said, collapsing to the floor. He watched as a doctor covered
her face with an oxygen mask. Somebody said, "We've got to shock
her." Phil saw paddles being placed against her chest. "You're
dreaming," another voice said, and a moment passed before Phil
recognized the voice as his own. "We have a pulse," someone said
He went days without sleeping for more than an hour or two. He
ate little, and he cried with a violence that terrified all who
witnessed it. "I can't imagine what it's going to be like to
look up in the stadium and not see Nancy there," he said on the
phone to Joanne Roberts, a friend from his days as an assistant
at LSU. "What am I going to do without her? Will somebody please
answer me that?"
Mercy Health Center of Manhattan stands just across the street
from the Kansas State football complex, and Phil abandoned his
vigil by Nancy's side only to attend practice and to check on
Sam and Maddie at home. Snyder and the rest of the coaching
staff began and ended each day with visits to the hospital. More
than once Phil looked up in a daze in the wee hours of the
morning to find Snyder and other coaches waiting to comfort him.
In all his years with Nancy, Phil had never prayed for money,
never asked to be a head coach. All he'd ever asked of God was
to protect Nancy and the kids. "Dad, I need my mother," Sam told
him one day. "Why does God need her?"
Phil looked hard at the boy and said, "I don't know, Sam."
Later he prayed for answers, but none came. "God, why not me?"
he said. "What is wrong with you? You could strike me dead for
some of the things I've done. But why Nancy? She never hurt
When the hospital room emptied, Phil could hold her. He could
kiss her. But when he looked in her eyes, he saw nothing. The
lightning had reduced her to a vegetative state. Her hands
flinched, but doctors said this was involuntary; her brain stem
had been damaged severely. The darkest hours came when Phil
agonized over whether to take Nancy off life support. "What is
going on around here?" he raged at the nurses one day. "Would
someone please tell me what is happening?"
Members of Nancy's family asked him to consider placing her in a
nursing home. But Phil knew Nancy, just as she had known him. He
would do what was right. She had taught him this. On Aug. 24, 13
days into the vigil, he had the life support terminated. "There
ought to be more Nancy Bennetts in this world," he said when it
was finally over, four days later.
The funeral was held at the same church in Alvarado where Phil
and Nancy had been married 15 years before. Outside, before the
service, Slocum pulled Phil aside and said, "You've been a tough
son of a gun all your life. You have to be tough now."
Slocum couldn't help but recall the wedding and how big a deal
it had been. The Aggies football star marrying the prettiest
girl in Alvarado. Many of the same people were at the funeral.
When Nguyen showed up, Phil put his arms around him, and the two
sat together in silence. It was hard for either of them to
speak. "Dat," Phil said at last, "I just hope you experience
what I had with Mrs. Bennett. To love somebody." He paused, and
a smile came to his face. "I hope you have that."
How do we survive the loss of our heroes? Where does the courage
come from? Six weeks into the season, Phil Bennett is coach of
the fifth-ranked defense in college football, and the undefeated
Wildcats are seventh in the AP poll. Before each game Phil runs
out on the field with his team, just as he's done every Saturday
in the fall since he was a kid in Texas, just as he hopes he
The stadium fills up as the team goes through pregame drills,
and the cheers grow louder with the approach of the opening
kickoff. Inevitably Phil listens for her voice above the others.
For a moment it seems she is there again, calling his name.
Phil turns and faces the crowd, eyes searching for Nancy.
On a cruise this summer, Phil and Nancy would lie on deck for
hours, holding hands and making plans for the future.
"Phil was about as tough as anybody on our team," Slocum says
of the '77 A&M squad. "He was incredibly motivated."
Phil was so excited about Sam's birth that he took a high school
recruit to the hospital to meet Nancy.
Phil worried about the stress of each move on his kids. "That's
why the job at Kansas State was so important to us," he says.
"Dad, I need my mother," Sam said one day. "Why does God need
her?" Phil looked at the boy and said, "I don't know."