The rest of thecampus was asleep when the Bluffton University baseball players converged ontheir field at 8 a.m. last Sept. 30. It was a typical fall morning, needles ofsunlight poking through the changing leaves, the occasional train whistlepiercing the silence. The 40 players had gotten up early for the 50-inninggame, an annual intrasquad rite that their young coach had inaugurated when hetook the job a few years back. In truth the game didn't span 50 officialinnings. Each hitter started with a 3--2 count, and each team batted threeinnings at a time. The event lasted from the morning until the sky could nolonger hold daylight.
A few residents ofBluffton, a village of 4,000 in a pastoral pocket of northwest Ohio, stopped byto watch an inning or two. So did a few curious students. But mostly the gamewas a team-building exercise, a means of getting acquainted with the freshmenand their families. With few exceptions the players' hometowns were within anhour's drive of campus, so it was an easy trip for their folks. After the 25thinning everyone took a long lunch break, digging into monstrous sandwiches fromthe Subway alongside the interstate.
The Beavers werecoming off a 17--21 season, successful by recent standards and with luck thestart of a turnaround. The baseball coaches believed that, as a hand-paintedsign in the Bluffton basketball locker room put it, TALENT IS IMPORTANT;DEPENDABILITY IS CRITICAL. ¬†But particularly with no seniors, 29-year-oldhead coach James Grandey figured team chemistry would be important for theBeavers to continue improving. The guys seemed to get along well; the coacheswould often run into a pack of them headed out for milkshakes at the DariFreeze or wings at Luke's. "Every coach tries to emphasize that the playerslike one another," says Grandey, "but you can only lead them so far.It's really up to them."
The 50-inning gameserved another vital purpose: It was the baseball program's big annualfund-raiser. Every year the team spent spring break in Florida, where it playedas many as nine games (a full quarter of its schedule), and the money raisedhelped pay expenses. The 2007 opener would be in Sarasota against EasternMennonite University, which like Bluffton is affiliated with the MennoniteChurch.
The Beavers usedto split into eight or nine cars and caravan to Florida, but in Grandey's firstseason, 2004, they weren't halfway to Cincinnati before he said, "Neveragain. Next year we're taking a bus." Problem was, bus transportation costan additional eight grand. That's how the 50-inning game originated. If youraunt or neighbor or pastor pledged a dime an inning, that was five bucks."Everyone finds 20 sponsors," says Tim Kay, a junior pitcher. "Itadds up." At Ohio State, a two-hour drive from Bluffton, the baseball teamflies to Florida for spring games on a charter. The Division III Beavers wereplaying a marathon game to raise money just so 28 of them could ride a motorcoach for 20 hours.
Late thatafternoon the sky started to spit rain. "We figured, by the 42nd inning itcounts as a complete game," says Grandey. Still, everyone had fun. And theteam raised enough cash to take a bus to Florida for the third year in a row."Other people don't always understand," says Ryan Baightel, a juniorshortstop and the team captain. "Once our season ends, the Florida trip isall we think about for the next nine months."
Bluffton'sbaseball field is just a long fly ball from I-75. And as 28 players prepared tohead for southern sunshine on Thursday night, March 1, none would have guessedthat 600 miles down that same river of asphalt their lives would changeforever. They said a prayer for a safe journey and then boarded a motor coachbound for Sarasota. The departure was delayed when the bus's DVD system went onthe fritz, potentially depriving the team of Talladega Nights and The Departed,but Coach Grandey--"Handy Grandey!" the players yelled--fixed it.
At 4:30 on Fridaymorning, an hour outside Atlanta, the bus stopped so that a new driver couldtake over. A few of the players were awake to greet 65-year-old Jerry Niemeyerand his wife, Jean, who left Ohio in their own car before the ballplayersdeparted, got some sleep at a motel along the way and met the bus just over theTennessee-Georgia line. The Niemeyers lived 10 miles from Bluffton, and Jerry,retired from a plant job with Philips Electronics, drove school teams on roadtrips. Jean had recently stopped working after 23 years at McDonald's andsometimes tagged along with her husband. Just as it was for the players, theFlorida trip was a treat for the Niemeyers. They could escape the northern Ohiochill. Wearing purple-and-white Bluffton caps, they would sit in the bleachersor on lawn chairs and cheer the Beavers, each of whom they knew by name.
By 5:30 a.m. thebus was cruising through Atlanta at 65 mph in the High Occupancy Vehicle lane.The players, their four coaches and the student manager were in various statesof sleep. Some lay stretched out on the floor. Some were sprawled across rowsof seats, partly suspended over the aisle. Others balled team jackets intopillows and pressed their heads against the windows. According to reports, onlysix seats--the driver's seat, the jump seat next to it and the four seats inthe first row--were equipped with seat belts.
It was Jean'sshriek that woke everyone. Investigators believe that her husband unwittinglytook a left exit thinking that it was the continuation of the HOV lane. Theexit wasn't particularly well marked, and, according to subsequent reports,many accidents had occurred on that ramp over the years. As the bus reached thetop of the ramp, where it intersected with an overpass running perpendicular tothe interstate, Niemeyer was still driving at highway cruising speed. Trying toturn at the last instant, he hit the retaining wall across the overpass withsuch force that four passengers were ejected through the windshield and landedon the bridge. The bus crashed through the fence on top of the wall, rolledover in midair--flinging the remaining passengers around like socks in adryer--and fell 30 feet, landing on its left side in the middle of southboundI-75. "I woke up as soon as the bus hit the wall," freshman A.J.Ramthun said. "Next thing I knew I looked out and saw the road coming up atme."
Moans and screamsechoed through the cabin. Pools of blood mixed with pools of diesel fuel.Twisted bodies were strewn inside and outside the bus. Even the mostexperienced rescuers claimed it was one of the most gruesome crash scenesthey'd ever witnessed. "You're sleeping, and all of a sudden there's thiscrash, like the bus has gone off a cliff," says Brandon Freytag, a juniorpitcher. "Your friends are beaten up, bruised, bloody. Then you look outand there are tons of lights, because all the traffic has stopped. Everyone islooking at you. Man, it was totally like a dream. One you'll neverforget."
Jerry and JeanNiemeyer died on impact. Grandey, sleeping stretched over the entire first row,was catapulted against the sides and ceiling of the bus, breaking most of thebones in his face, lacerating his right thigh and dislocating his ankle. Hetried to lift his 290-pound body but couldn't move. Todd Miller, a 22-year-oldassistant, was hurled onto the overpass, suffering severe head trauma and fourbroken bones in his lower back.
Now dependabilitytruly was critical. The players who weren't badly hurt responded with acollective purpose that was almost eerie, as if they'd prepared for this horrorin preseason drills. Freytag, who suffered only scrapes and bruises, whippedout his cellphone and made a poised call to 911; other players called theirfamilies from phones they found scattered on the road. Players assessed whichteammates needed immediate medical attention, who could be moved and who oughtto remain immobile. As 55 firefighters and dozens of ambulances converged onthe crash site, sophomore pitcher Matt Perkins led others in prayer. "Theseguys hadn't played a game yet," says James Harder, Bluffton's president,"and they responded like a team in the truest sense of the word."
The most difficulttask fell to Baightel, the captain, who sustained nothing worse than a bruisedfinger. He was approached by James Augustine, an Atlanta emergency doctor."I hate to do this," Augustine said in a near whisper, "but can youhelp me identify the bodies?" The sight of blood had always made Baightelqueasy, but he thought of the families of his dead teammates. "I just knowif I were them," he says, "I'd want to know as soon aspossible."
Baightel followedAugustine and confirmed that, yes, that was Tyler Williams, a sophomoreoutfielder and the fastest guy on the team. Williams, 19, was the Beavers'class clown. He cracked up teammates with his improvised raps and hisimpressions of Scottie Pippen and Coach Grandey. But in the classroom Williamswas uncharacteristically serious. He aspired to become a sports agent or anentrepreneur.
Baightel alsoidentified his buddy David Betts, 20, an energetic sophomore whosegreat-grandfather had been the university's longest-serving president. Bettswas a tireless worker both on the field and in the classroom. He also asked somany questions that his teammates nicknamed him Q.
Not far from Bettslay Scott Harmon, a quiet freshman with a maturity at odds with his boyishfreckled face. In one of his last high school games, in Elida, Ohio, Harmonbroke his nose in a first-inning collision yet later hit the game-winning homerun. He had only recently turned 19 but was already preparing to become a mathteacher and called his girlfriend, Lindsey Reiff, his "futurefiancée."
Baightel also hadto identify the body of Cody Holp, 19, an irrepressible pitcher. Radiatingcharm and confidence, Holp had been the freshman with the most presence. On hisMySpace page Holp wrote, "[I'm] up for doing anything as long as it's crazyenough for me." But he was also thoughtful and considerate. In high schoolhe held a job that entailed caring for Donald Kirby, a man with cerebral palsy.When Holp went home from Bluffton, he always looked in on Kirby.
A week later afifth Bluffton player, pitcher Zach Arend, 18, died from injuries suffered inthe crash. A freshman, perhaps still trying to find his social moorings on theteam, Arend hadn't talked much, but teammates described him as "a classiclead-by-example type" who seemed to do everything with a sense of purpose.In high school he had been a standout football, basketball and baseball player.He wore a broad smile even on the mound as he mowed down upperclassmen inscrimmages.
At Arend's funeralin Paulding, Ohio, the priest at his family's church, G. Allan Fillman,addressed more than 500 mourners, half of them watching on closed-circuit TVbecause the sanctuary couldn't accommodate them. The Reverend Fillman askedwhat so many had been wondering: Why? Why did such a terrible tragedy befallfive baseball players--"the five nicest kids you could ever hope tomeet," says Ramthun--still in the early innings of life? Fillman offered afew suggestions. Maybe Arend had been about to encounter a situation that wouldhave jeopardized his salvation. Maybe the Lord simply needed him. But finallythe priest sighed, "I don't know."
The abruptness ofdeath, the unexpected loss of teammates and friends, is enough to puncture thecomfortable cocoon of any college. The bus tragedy didn't approach the horrorof the massacre at Virginia Tech, but it hit Bluffton similarly hard. Blufftonis a place where fawns run across campus and where students leave theirbackpacks and laptops unguarded while they eat at the Marbeck student center.The university has 900 resident undergraduates but feels half that size.
Founded byMennonites 108 years ago, the university is still affiliated with the Christiansect, which is sometimes described as "liberalized Amish." Though only20% of current students and roughly half the faculty are Mennonites--"Youwon't see too many horses and buggies on campus," says one professor--theschool is decidedly faith-based. The core curriculum for undergraduatesstresses understanding the Bible and studying nonviolent approaches to civicengagement. Chapel attendance is optional, but hundreds show up. As GeorgeMetz, chair of the education department, says, "You don't come here unlessyou have a strong Christian identity."
In an instant theplayers fortunate enough to have survived the bus crash were stripped of theirinnocence. "These guys saw things no one should ever see," says JacquiSlinger, Bluffton's counselor for disability services, "and it's not goingto be clear for a long time how they'll be affected." Players who had neverbeen interviewed in their lives were suddenly the subjects of pressconferences, their bruised faces and raw emotions beamed all over the world.They were in awe when, sitting in hospital beds and hotel rooms in Atlanta,they saw references to their team--COLL. BBALL: 2 BLUFFTON CRASH VICTIMSUPGRADED TO FAIR--crawl across the bottom of TV screens during ESPNbroadcasts.
Their confusionwas intensified by the circumstances of the crash. There was no obvious placeto affix blame or direct anger. (Atlanta police reported that Niemeyer was notimpaired by drugs or alcohol.) And the human cost seemed so random. Studentmanager Mike Engler, sitting to the right of Holp and in front of Betts, onlybanged up his shoulder. Kay was sleeping upright one row behind Williams at thetime of the crash and walked away with a busted lip. "Why am I stillhere?" asks Kay. "That's something I struggle with every night when Ilie down."
Yet, to a man, theplayers say that the tragedy has solidified, not shaken, their faith. Theyfocus on the lives that were spared. They note their good fortune in crashingclose to three of the finest hospitals in the country. Ask John Betts, aMennonite, if he's angry about the death of his son, and he laughs."Angry?" he says. "David was a gift from God I had for more than 20years. How can I be angry about a gift?"
Ask the players ifthe crash was a random event, and they shake their heads no. "It'simpossible not to think there's something bigger going on," says Baightel."We might not know in a month, or a year, or 10 years, but there has to bea reason."
The players havedrawn strength and comfort from each other. The team's fabric was alreadyuncommonly taut, but it has been pulled "a hundred times tighter," saysEngler, by what the players experienced that cold morning in Atlanta. As theiremotions pinball from grief to relief to guilt, they adhere to a code: On agood day you help pick up a teammate. On a bad day you let a teammate pick youup. "You feel like you've lost five brothers," says Kay, "but youhave 35 others to lean on."
Linda Smith, aflight attendant for AirTran, a regional discount airline, was at her homeoutside Atlanta preparing to enjoy a day off when she turned on her TV andwatched news of the Bluffton tragedy. She learned from the crawl on the screenthat her airline would be donating a charter flight to transport the players'families and school administrators from Toledo to Atlanta. She grabbed thephone, called into work and said, "I have to be on that flight." Smith,64, was raised in northern Ohio and remembers going with her parents to visitBluffton. But she had another reason for volunteering.
On the afternoonof March 2, Smith met the Bluffton traveling party at a private airfield inToledo. The tableau was all too familiar to her: stoic-looking men from theathletic department leaking tears; players' parents and siblings in shock,their mouths forming perfect O's; folks clad in school colors. Smith hadn'tplanned to share her backstory, but then she got to talking to Bluffton'sfootball coach, Greg Brooks, who casually mentioned that he was once a graduateassistant at a small university named Marshall. "Ever heard of it?" heasked.
"Oh,yeah," Smith said, inhaling deeply.
In the fall of1970 Smith was a 28-year-old flight attendant for Eastern Airlines and themother of an eight-month-old son. Her husband, Jerry, a pilot, told her he'd beflying the Marshall football team home from a road game at East Carolina. Jerrywas the first officer, or copilot, on that charter, which crashed into a fielda mile from the airport in Huntington, W.Va., killing all 75 people on board.It remains the worst transportation tragedy in NCAA history.
More than 35 yearslater Linda still grieves every day. When the movie We Are Marshall came out inDecember, she was invited to the premiere in Huntington but couldn't bringherself to go. "I won't see it," Linda says. "I justcan't."
Drawing on herpersonal experience, however, she tended to passengers on the Bluffton charter,serving food and cold drinks, smiling warmly, always finding the right thing tosay. A few of the parents had never been on a plane before, and Smith heldtheir hands during takeoff and landing. Often she just listened. "Mostweren't so much grieving as they were in shock," she says. "I'd beenthere. You're thinking, Can this be real?" A few days later she flew on thecharter back to Toledo. Her overarching message was this: You'll never get overit, but you will learn to live with it.
Smith wasn't theonly stranger who felt compelled to help members of the Bluffton community. Theaccident had been on the news for only a couple of hours when Delta joinedAirTran in announcing that it would fly the players' friends and relatives backand forth between Ohio and Atlanta for free. The Marriott Marquis providedlodging for the players and their families in Atlanta. The Red Crosscoordinated meals. The Atlanta Hawks gave the Bluffton contingent a luxurysuite for the March 3 home game, at which they were greeted by DominiqueWilkins. "That," recalls John Betts, "was the first time in 36hours the guys smiled." President Harder described this widespreadhospitality and compassion as the Miracle of Atlanta.
Meanwhile, TaylorUniversity of Upland, Ind., dispatched a team of administrators to Bluffton tohelp the school prepare for the return of the student body, which had leftcampus for spring break the day of the fatal crash. (Taylor lost four studentsand a staff member in a 2006 traffic accident.) Ohio State's baseball teamdonated the gate receipts from its season opener. The ball team at DefianceCollege--Bluffton's archrival--took to the streets of Defiance, Ohio, withcanisters to raise money. The governor of Ohio, Ted Strickland, was present atthe memorial service in Bluffton's packed gym on March 12, the day classesresumed. Taylor University catered the event, adamant that no one at Bluffton,cafeteria staff included, miss the ceremony.
Bluffton's Kiva, asunken room in the student center that serves as a central meeting place, wasawash in flowers sent by other college baseball programs--most of them, likePepperdine, having no connection to the school. President Harder's assistantwas surprised to field a call from Pete Rose, who had heard about the tragedyand simply wanted, as a baseball player and an Ohioan, to express condolences.While Tim Berta, Bluffton's student coach, lay in critical care in Atlanta'sGrady Memorial Hospital, he received an unexpected, unannounced visit from adignified older gentleman. Berta, who had suffered severe head trauma, wasunconscious. No matter. Hank Aaron sat beside the bed and talked to him all thesame.
Major LeagueBaseball announced that it would donate $50,000 to Bluffton's memorial fund.The Cleveland Indians sent new gloves. The Florida Marlins shipped cases ofpractice balls. The Cincinnati Reds donated catchers' equipment and honored thefive deceased Bluffton players at their home opener. Nike sent new cleats forall the Bluffton players, and Wilson Sporting Goods sent duffel bags, helmetsand other equipment. Grandey received a stack of handwritten letters, some sentto his home, from prominent college and pro coaches. He asked that their namesnot be disclosed because, he says, "I know they didn't send a note to meand the team to get public recognition from it."
Perhaps the mostheartening support came from strangers who "had never even heard ofBluffton when the bus was flipping off that overpass," as Miller, theassistant coach, put it. A woman who declined to give her name dropped off abag filled with new Nike sneakers; she had heard that players had lost theirshoes on the road. Players returning to campus were swamped with e-mails andFacebook.com invitations, most from other college kids who had used theInternet to find contact info. All those ideals that were discussed inchapel--compassion and service and fellowship? Here was evidence that theyweren't just words.
"Even as wewere grieving we thought, Man, there's a lot of humanity in this world,"says Grandey. "I know in some ways our legacy will be the tragedy, but Ihope it's also the goodness of people and the goodness of our players and theirfamilies. I can tell you this: For the rest of our lives, when something badhappens to someone else, we're going to respond. How could we not, with the waywe've been helped?"
Even the mediaplayed a role in the healing. The players and Bluffton administrators takepains to stress that, overall, reporters treated them with sensitivity. "Itwas good to talk about everything," says Freytag. "It's not like wewere really hounded. Everyone was respectful." The TV cameras andnotebook-wielding journalists at the funerals weren't perceived as intruders.Rather, their presence was seen as a validation of the lives being celebrated.How could parents doubt the significance of their children's lives when thefunerals were the subject of newscasts and newspaper articles all over thecountry? "The media really changed the nature of what the familiesexperienced," says Harder. "They were dealing with a loss of life, butthey also knew that, on a huge scale, people cared about their sons."
Many at Blufftonstill can't explain precisely why the story exerted such a powerful grip on somany Americans. True, the accident occurred just a few miles from CNN's worldheadquarters, which helped trigger the initial media attention. True, the storybrought together several subjects that resonate with the public: sports,college, death at an early age. And who can't relate to a group of young menfrom the heart of the country traveling together for spring break? There butfor the grace of God go millions of us.
Harder suspectsthe "overwhelming outpouring" points to something deeper: "I thinkwe all value community, and we're happiest when we know we're a valued memberof a group, where we care for others and they care for us. And maybe theultimate community is a team--especially a team of young athletes who aren't onscholarship, who play their sport by choice."
The Blufftonadministrators and coaches left it to the players to decide whether to play outthe 2007 season. Unanimously they voted yes. Then they checked with thefamilies of their deceased teammates to make sure it was O.K. by them. "Ijust thought of David," says John Betts. "He would have said, 'Are youguys kidding? Play ball!'"
Bluffton's opener,at home on March 30, drew nationwide attention. Dozens of media trucks showedup along with more than 1,000 fans. Good Morning America even broadcast asegment from the ball field. Three of the five sets of grieving parents came.President Harder prayed before the crowd. The players all wore black jerseys inhonor of their dead teammates.
The Beavers lost10--5, and then something unusual happened. The well-wishers told the players,You won simply by being out there, but the team took little solace in the moralvictory. "Between the lines, we're just thinking about baseball," saysBaightel, "and that means wanting to win." Could they get upset about amissed cutoff throw when five of their teammates had just been killed? Couldthey stew over a botched hit-and-run when they were only a few weeks removedfrom a brush with death? Yes, it turns out. Baseball, the Beavers found, was adiversion from--not a reminder of--the tragedy.
Grandey, hobblingon crutches, his jaw wired, expressed the same sentiment. "I know I'mgetting better," he said, "because I get pissed off when welose."
Unfortunately theBeavers continued to lose. This team that had designs on winning 20 games,maybe even taking the Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference title, was 4--16as it headed into the final week of the season. Besides having lost the fivedeceased players, Bluffton did without five others who were too injured toplay. And even among those who had medical clearance, the bumps and bruises andsprains exacted a price. Grandey's injuries limited his ability to coach, andwhile Miller and fellow assistant Jason Moore filled in capably, Miller suffersmemory loss and, for a while, took Percocet every four hours to ease pain fromthe broken bones in his back.
Naturally there isemotional residue as well: nightmares, survivor's guilt, fears that plague themind. Most of the players still recoil at a whiff of diesel fuel. "That'sthe worst," says Kay. More than once practice was interrupted so playerscould talk to National Transportation Safety Board investigators, whostrip-mined the survivors' memories for every gruesome detail of that day. Whenthe university offered the players counseling, some administrators worried thatthe young athletes would not attend out of fear of being stigmatized. Thatconcern evaporated when the first counselor arrived at 8 a.m. and had to stayuntil 11 p.m. "I still have a sense that things haven't gotten to the worstpoint, because it still doesn't seem to me that [the dead players] aregone," says Engler, the student manager who roomed with Betts. His voicetrails off as he gets lost in thought. "Man, I don't want the day to comewhen I really realize it."
Everywhere arereminders that time is moving at warp speed. The media circus packed up itstents and left. Attendance at games returned to customary Division III levels:50 or 75 fans, maybe 100 if the weather was nice. Preparations for graduationare under way. The purple ribbons encircling the sugar maples and the oaksthroughout campus are starting to fade and fray. "I've already told theteam, the hardest time is going to be the summer," says Grandey, echoingwhat the grief counselors predict. "Right now we have each other. No one isreally alone. Once school gets out, boy, it's going to be tough on all ofus."
Until then they'llwring all the comfort they can out of playing together and grieving together.The Beavers have a new pregame ritual. They cluster to say a prayer in theleftfield bullpen. They gravitate to a spot on the outfield fence where fivebanners bear the names and numbers of Arend, Betts, Harmon, Holp and Williams.One by one, the players touch the jerseys, some slapping them with theirgloves, others using their bare hands. It's a way of connecting with their fivedead teammates--ages 18 to 20--each way too full of life to have it taken away.The players then form a circle and put their hands in the center. Withoutyelling, but in voices firm and full of conviction, they join together in thatold sports refrain: "One, two, three--team!"
Before each home game the Beavers bow their heads in prayer beside theleftfield memorial to their late teammates.
The Bluffton bus dropped 30 feet from the overpass to thehighway.