Perhaps never in the history of coaching has someone had a more trying beginning to his head-coaching career than Tarleton State football coach Cary Fowler.
The date was March 27, 2010: Just another day of spring football, nothing that stood out. Fowler had gotten the job six days before. His family hadn't yet moved to town. Fowler had no idea his fourth practice as a head coach would change his life forever.
He was pacing the field during the Saturday morning practice at the Division II school in Stephenville, Texas. "The Cowboy Capital of the World" is a small town an hour southwest of Fort Worth whose population of 17,000 nearly doubles when school is in session. When Fowler first got into coaching under Houston Nutt at Murray State, he was about wins and losses, about coaching football more than coaching life.
But this practice would mark the beginning of something else: an examination of his own soul and of his players' souls, of why we are here and of how we should live. Fowler noticed a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, Zach Shaver, was absolutely dominating during that practice. Fowler wasn't surprised. He'd known Shaver since Shaver was a boy and lived two blocks away. Fowler knew the kid had loads of talent, but he was impressed at how Shaver had worked on his body during his redshirt year. The starting job next season was his to lose.
Practice was winding down when Shaver banged heads with another player. It was just another football play, nothing that stood out. He fell to the field near the 50-yard line. Shaver stood up, took a step toward his coach, then fell again. He got up to his knees. At first, teammates thought he had leg cramps. Fowler grabbed Shaver's hand. Then the coach felt Shaver's strength disappear from his grip as the young man lost consciousness. Cellphones were whipped out, and a CareFlite helicopter landed on the football field. Fowler called the 18-year-old's parents to tell them to get to the hospital. The helicopter whisked Shaver to a Fort Worth trauma center, still wearing his purple No. 96 Tarleton Texans jersey.
Two days later, Shaver was dead from a brain injury.
"It changed my direction as a man," Fowler said. "I had looked at it as wins and losses. The first thing I talked about (after getting the job) was about us winning a national championship. This changed my direction of how to coach and how to lead."
Shaver was the first death.
There would be five more, plus two life-changing injuries. People would start to wonder aloud whether Tarleton football was cursed.
Two years after Shaver's death, Fowler walked into the home of Dr. Ron Newsome, the school's longtime play-by-play announcer and former athletic director. Fowler worried something was wrong; the 68-year-old Newsome had been sick with a blood disease and was suffering from depression. Inside the house, Fowler found Newsome, who had hung himself.
Less than a month later, in May 2012, Cody Stephens -- a 6-foot-9 offensive lineman, one of Fowler's top recruits, who felt certain the NFL was in his future -- died in his sleep at his parents' house. His heart had simply stopped, a victim of sudden cardiac arrest.
In March 2014, Chance Wallace, the team's starting safety for the upcoming season, was snowboarding with his family in Crested Butte, Colorado, over spring break. He was ripping down the mountain when his snowboard caught an edge. He landed on his head and fractured his sixth vertebrae, paralyzing him from his neck down.
Four months after that, on July 26, 2014, Cheryl Spellmeier -- the beloved football secretary known for her hugs and for her famous broccoli cornbread -- was driving out of her church parking lot when she was rear-ended and pushed into the path of an oncoming semi. The woman whom football players called "Momma" died instantly.
This past school year brought two more. Offensive lineman Camron Owens, a big Texan who benched 500 pounds and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.8 seconds, had transferred to Tarleton from a junior college. It was his second day on campus when two teammates came to his dorm to grab him for dinner. They found Owens face down, dead of a heart attack from an undiagnosed hereditary heart problem.
At the end of spring semester, freshman defensive back Christain Champine finished his exit meeting with Fowler and got in his car with a teammate to drive home for the summer. Two hours later, a semi hit Champine's car, killing him and severely injuring teammate Malik Brown.
One football program. Five years. Six deaths. Two life-altering injuries. Each of them random, each bringing a new jolt of sorrow.
"A lot of these kids walk around and say, 'Who's next?' " said Rodney Payne, a former Tarleton football player who leads a campus ministry at a Baptist church. "You can just feel that fear in them. I've never seen one program go through this."
"It's crazy there's been so much of it," said Cheri Evans, daughter of the football team secretary players called "Momma." "This group of guys have cried together, they've hurt together. It's a different bond than most programs would have."
"God never gives you more than you can handle, but I wonder how much more the Tarleton family can handle," said Scott Carey, a former player and coach at Tarleton. "You try to process it, and you can't wrap your mind around the magnitude of what's happened at Tarleton the last few years. You can't find answers. There's only one person who knows why this happens. And he's not going to tell us until later on."
Cary Fowler was sitting in his office on a recent summer day. He was thinking about football. In the steam of late summer in small-town Texas, whether you're a head football coach or a high school kid or a parent, you're often thinking about football. Fowler was preparing for an important season, as he was coming off his first year since 2010 without a winning record.
But as he planned for two-a-days and fiddled with his roster and debated defensive schemes, Fowler was thinking about something else, too. Something much bigger than football.
He was thinking about the meaning of life, and the meaning of all these deaths.
"A lot of people would say to you, 'You got a black cloud over you, you're cursed,' " Fowler says. "People say that. I don't look at it that way."
This is what happens when tragedy strikes, at random, again and again and again. You wonder: Why me? Why us? What does God have against Tarleton? Or is there even a God? Because surely a loving God can't one day decide to choose Tarleton, the oldest active member of the Texas A&M system, and declare that this school must go through the trials of Job.
"Really and truly, God should have made a rule when he made mankind that no parent can bury their kids," said Willie Champine, who buried his son Christain after the car wreck in May. "I haven't changed the way I feel about God. But for what reason did he come down and choose this boy? And choose this school? I don't know."
It's one of the things that separates man from beast. We ask why. We wonder if there is something more than this. We try to find patterns in things that are random, find meaning in things that are tragic.
For Tarleton football, the man people have turned to for help in deciphering the meaning of all this has been, more often than not, their head coach.
Fowler has spoken at every one of these young men's funerals. And as the years and the tragedies have passed, he's spoken to his team less about wins and losses and more about life.
And he says things like this: "Make sure you live your life in a way so that if I have to stand up at your funeral, I don't have to lie about who you were."
It is important to note here that Tarleton is a public school and that in America there is a separation of church and state. A state employee reading Scripture to student-athletes is a practice that might rankle organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union.
But it is also important to note that this is football and this is Texas, and in both football and Texas it can be difficult to see where religion stops and football begins. There is no sport in America where coaches so frequently quote Scripture. There is no sport in America that is so frequently used as a metaphor for life and for the battles of good versus evil. There is no sport in America where God is so often invoked.
So it should not surprise you that, when the tragedies began to mount in Tarleton football, they turned to the Bible.
Ed Dittfurth, a pastor at Cornerstone Church in Stephenville, remembers vividly the day Shaver died. Coaches summoned the football team to a large lecture hall. Pastors like Dittfurth, who gives pregame sermons to the team, lined the walls.
Fowler walked into the lecture hall. He hadn't showered since before Shaver's injury. He had just driven back from the hospital in Fort Worth, where his player had been pronounced dead earlier that day, and the coach was heartbroken, blaming himself for the freak injury, praying that he could project strength to his grieving team. Every football player was seated and on time. The coach was holding his Bible.
"I heard a quote one time: 'If your Bible is falling apart, you probably aren't,' " Dittfurth said. "This was a well-worn Bible. The pages were turned up. The cover's been through the ringer. He doesn't have a prepared speech. He only has a Bible."
Fowler told his players that everyone has a different belief system. And everyone is entitled to believe in whichever god they want or no god at all. But in tragedy, this was where he turned.
"Coach Fowler told them, 'We're going to embrace the fact we are all experiencing pain,' " Dittfurth recalled. "And that produces men of character. He led the way. It was OK to shed tears in front of him."
There's a Bible verse that's become a pretty popular one around Tarleton football the past few years.
"To all who mourn in Israel," reads Isaiah 61:3, "he will give a crown of beauty for ashes, a joyous blessing instead of mourning, festive praise instead of despair."
Beauty for ashes. Good things come out of bad. As natural as it is for humans to ask the question why, it's just as natural to try to find purpose in tragedy. These senseless tragedies did not happen in vain. If you are a person of faith, this is something you must believe.
For Tarleton football, beauty has been found in the ashes. It could be as simple as the ease with which current players connect with one another. Or that the young men now know how to reach out to people at their lowest times. Or that Fowler may now be the one of the most proactive coaches in the nation on concussion awareness and baseline testing. Or that these young men will now be equipped to deal with tragedies when they become husbands and fathers.
"God, what are you trying to teach us?" asked Payne, the minister for the campus ministry. "Let's figure out some kind of way to turn this tragedy into a triumph. And it has. It's brought a lot of these kids closer together and closer to the Lord."
A couple weeks before Shaver died on the practice field in 2010, Jacob Rowe, his teammate on the defensive line, heard Payne give an inspiring sermon. "I felt this tremendous conviction to go share Christ with someone," Rowe recalled. Shaver's dorm room was open. He was playing video games. For hours, the two talked about football, and school, and family, and, eventually, life and death and eternity. Rowe told Shaver about the Gospel and Christ dying for his sins.
"You see a kid when that light bulb goes off -- he got it," Rowe recalled. "He teared up. He said he had never understood that. And he accepted Christ right there."
For Scott Stephens, the father of Cody Stephens, the highly touted Tarleton recruit who died of sudden cardiac arrest months before starting college, the meaning of his tragedy was something more tangible. A few days before his son died was the NFL draft. Cody told his father he wanted to be all-conference as a freshman and be drafted four years from now. "Go big or go home, Dad," he said.
After his son died, those words stuck with Scott Stephens. He began the Go Big or Go Home Foundation. He'd learned that sudden cardiac arrest is the No. 1 non-accidental killer of student-athletes in America. The foundation is lobbying to get EKG testing included in every sports physical in Texas; so far, the foundation has helped screen more than 50,000 kids. Staci Owens, whose son Camron also died of an undetected heart ailment, also plans to lobby for more screening of heart problems in student-athletes.
For Malik Brown -- the passenger when Christain Champine died in the car wreck this past May, who suffered bruised lungs, broken ribs and a misaligned spine -- he'll always go back to the hours-long conversation he and Christain had the night before the accident. They spoke about how football isn't life; it's just a way to find your place in life.
"Now I just think of life like, man, it can end at any point, so live every day like it's your last," said Brown, who will suit up at defensive back for Tarleton this season. "Football, it's more than just football now. Now I feel like I'm playing for him."
Of course, it's not always easy to find beauty in all these Tarleton ashes. Willie Champine, who was certain his son would have made the NFL, said he doesn't question God, but he sure can't find some greater purpose in his son's death.
"Sometimes I think I ain't gonna make it, man," he said.
Chance Wallace, the player who was paralyzed in the snowboarding accident in 2014, remembers the month he spent in the Dallas hospital. Everyone on his floor had similar spinal injuries. Everyone on the floor above him had traumatic brain injuries. There wasn't much hope. With all that time to think, he began to wonder whether God even exists. "It just makes you wonder if there really is someone up there, seeing as that we're all supposed to be here to prosper," Wallace said.
But Fowler has taken all these tragedies to create a new charge for himself as a football coach. No more focusing on national championships, although he knows those would be nice. More important is the influence he and his coaching staff can have on all these young men and the influence football can have on all these lives. Those are the things that matter, he now believes, in a society that doesn't always turn boys into men. Fowler doesn't want his players to simply be macho and unemotional. After spending a year in counseling sorting through his own feelings, Fowler instituted weekly share-your-feelings sessions during position meetings. Players tell one another the highs and lows of their week, sharing life's blessings as well as expressing life's pains. Fowler named these meetings "Chance Strong Day" after their paralyzed teammate. On the back of the team's helmets this season are the words, "Super Strong Champs." "Super" is for Camron Owens; they'd nicknamed him "Super Cam." "Strong" is for Chance Wallace, because of the strength he's shown in trying to walk since his paralysis. And "Champs" is for Christain Champine, who was nicknamed "Champ." That's the team's chant this season: "Super Strong Champs!"
Sitting in his office, not long before the new season is to start, Fowler was asked how much the tragedies of the past five years have changed him. He thought a long time before he came to an answer.
He spoke about how his philosophy for discipline has shifted. Players have $100 taken from their scholarships if they don't attend class. And yet he doesn't judge kids who are screwing up. He knows he is "coaching in a fatherless society" and that 80 percent of the players on his team didn't have a father at home. He hopes football -- with its emphasis on teamwork and discipline and pushing through pain -- can create great young men who will break that cycle.
"When Christain passed away, I didn't even want to wake up," Fowler said. "I knew I had to because of the kids. I had to learn to be strong to teach these kids to be strong. There are times to mourn, and there are times to be strong. And these things, they give me strength."
He paused, and he thought for another good long time about these past five years.
It's been more difficult than he ever could have imagined, for reasons he never could have fathomed. He's watched a player die on his football field. He's spoken at a half-dozen funerals. He has presented conference championship rings to parents whose son died before he got the chance to play college football. He has reserved the No. 96 jersey of Zach Shaver, the player who died in Fowler's fourth practice, for the hardest-working player on each team because he wants Shaver to be remembered.
And then, in four perfect words, Fowler explained how all this has changed him.
"I've found my purpose," the football coach said, and he might as well have been speaking for his entire football program.
Email Reid Forgrave at firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter @reidforgrave.