By David Pickle
The holidays will be difficult this year in Brad Bigler’s home.
“It’s tough when the holidays come around, especially when you lose anybody,” said Southwest Minnesota State’s men’s basketball coach. “But not having a child around the holidays when you’re putting up stockings – you’re putting up three stockings and you have only two kids, it does hit you a little differently. It becomes more and more real.”
The situation was all too real to begin with. On July 28, Bigler’s car was struck head-on by a drunk driver. Bigler and his wife’s grandmother were seriously injured. Drake, the Biglers’ 5-month-old son, was killed.
News of the death hit hard in the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference, where Bigler’s roots run deep. He played basketball at Southwest Minnesota State before becoming a coach, and his wife Heather also was a volleyball student-athlete there.
“Just about every men’s basketball coach in our league was at the funeral,” said NSIC Commissioner Butch Raymond.
But the coaches wanted to do more than show emotional support. They wanted to prevent others from having to experience such a tragedy. Out of it came a conference initiative to run through the basketball season that will heighten awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. The effort, called “It’s a Slam Dunk – Don’t Drive Drunk,” will be led by Student-Athlete Advisory Committees at all 16 NSIC member schools.
Bigler has been open in discussing the tragedy. He has spoken to three television stations and a newspaper, in addition to NCAA.org. Reliving the experience causes him obvious pain, but he wants people understand the hurt and suffering that drunk driving can cause.
Here’s what happened:
On July 28, a Saturday, Brad, Heather and Drake attended a wedding. Afterward, they picked up Heather’s grandmother on the way to a family cabin. Brad was trying to help a fellow coach find a job and worked while Heather drove on County Road 41 in Pope County, Minn. Great Grandma Sharon, as she’s known, insisted that Brad move to the front seat so he wouldn’t become carsick while he worked.
It took only a flash to change the Biglers’ world forever.
“I was actually texting and the moment I looked up, my wife screamed,” he said. “I looked up for a moment and she tried dodging him. And then the accident.”
Bigler was pinned in the car, his life eventually saved by the emergency crew. He did not see the other driver, Dana Schoen, until Schoen’s trial a couple of weeks ago. Schoen pleaded guilty, his third alcohol-related offense, according to the Marshall (Minn.) Independent newspaper.
The sight of the man who caused his family so much pain caused a surge of emotions for Bigler, but he said he and Heather work hard these days to avoid living in a world of anger. Digging deep, he’s even been able to find a degree of compassion.
“You’d be lying if you said your adrenaline isn’t going,” he said, recalling his first view of Schoen. “But I think you have to understand that it’s a very unfortunate accident that has affected a lot of people’s lives.
“As much as this affected our family, it’s unfortunately affected his family as well. He has two children, and I know that it’s not fun for him. He’ll eventually do his time, he’ll pay the price for it, and it’s something I don’t think anyone wishes to be part of.”
Heather remains frustrated with Minnesota’s drunk-driving laws, which don’t trigger a felony until a fourth offense.
“We’re working on making the laws tougher for repeat offenders,” she told the Independent. “When you get behind the wheel and you are intoxicated, you’re a loaded weapon in my opinion.”
The centerpiece of the NSIC initiative is a video contest among the SAACs at all 16 member campuses. Each video is required to be between 30 and 60 seconds, to encourage students and fans not to drink and drive, and to include the “It’s a Slam Dunk” slogan. The videos will debut during home basketball games the weekends of Feb. 1-2 or Feb. 8-9. The conference office and NCAA staff will partner to select a winner.
In addition to the awareness that the videos generate, the student-athletes will go for a bigger takeaway: commitment.
“Each of the SAAC groups will be working the crowd to sign pledge cards for people not to drink and drive,” Raymond said. Everybody who signs the pledge will get a wristband, which will include the slogan, the NCAA logo, the NSIC logo, and hearts flanking the name “Drake.”
The school gathering the most pledges will win an award from the conference.
Techniques for Effective Alcohol Management, often known as TEAM, pitched in 10,000 wristbands for the effort. Raymond said that Mary Wilfert, NCAA associate director of health and safety, also has provided valuable counsel and assistance.
There will a second video presented at each school – one from the Biglers themselves. At the back of it all will be the reminder that drinking and driving comes with a human cost.
In the meantime, Brad and Heather work to create a healing environment. “We’re always going to remember Drake,” he said, “but life does have to move on, and we have to be great parents for our kids. We want our kids to have those funny moments, to be able to smile and life.”
Bigler also wants the members of his basketball team to learn from the episode, but only as an example in the larger context of caring for those in need.
“Cancer hits a lot of families,” he said. “We donated a week’s worth of games early this year to a local 3-year-old who has cancer, and for our guys to take pride in doing that and to be there for that family, it was a good thing.
“Along with college coaching in general, you have a lot of opportunity to teach life lessons. And whenever you get that opportunity, you want to make sure you capitalize on it because it could make a difference in those young athlete’s lives. That’s what you want.”