Fifteen minutes into the interview, Chris Petersen's voice began to crack.
It always does when he talks about his son Sam, but lately the Boise State coach has been getting further into conversations without tearing up. It has been nine years, and even tragedies fade with time.
|Chris Petersen's wife talking about their son's fall: 'An angel pushed him.' (Getty Images)|
His wife put it more eloquently, saying that "An angel pushed him."
Sam is 10 now and is in love with football. He can't play it, but he'll probably be talking about it ad nauseam when the family gathers for a few precious hours on Thanksgiving. The Petersens will fit in the traditional gathering before the season finale Friday at home against Fresno State.
Everyone has a reason to be thankful about something Thursday. The Petersens' blessings are many. They live in a city they love and loves them back. Chris coaches the winningest I-A program this decade (.858). His own record (34-3) would make him the nation's winningest I-A coach if he met the NCAA requirement of five years on the job. He is a victory away from his second undefeated regular season in three years.
It's not surprising, then, that Petersen's name seemingly comes up for every job opening west of the Mississippi, and some east of the Big Muddy, too. Obviously, he would be a perfect fit right now for Washington. His Pac-10 roots stretch back nine years when he was an assistant under Mike Bellotti at Oregon.
"I've never been a big one for moving and uprooting your family," Petersen said.
Sam is a big reason why. He was a toddler that day, 13 months old when he watched a scrimmage from the stands in Eugene. As toddlers will do, Sam lost his balance and fell, screamed to the heavens. It was a nasty fall and on the way out of the stadium Chris thought to ask a team doctor if Sam should be checked out.
"Ah, he's probably OK," the doc said, "as long as he doesn't throw up."
"I'm walking out of the stadium," Chris recalled, "and sure enough he throws up."
That led the Petersens to a doctor's office, which led to an MRI which led to major surgery the next day. Because of that fall, doctors were able to discover Sam had a brain tumor.
There are a lot of things we will celebrate Thursday. The pride in our children. The love of our spouses. To be lucky enough to enjoy a comfortable living. There won't be many folks celebrating the discovery of brain cancer.
But that's what it became when Chris and Barb look back on it. Sam spent eight hours in surgery. There were complications coming out of it but the spunky 1-year-old made it through. Three or four days later it got worse. Doctors hit the Petersens with more bad news. The cancer had spread to Sam's spine.
"It wasn't shocking," Chris said, "it was more devastating."
Barb Petersen spent 30 consecutive days in the hospital without so much as walking outside. Chris somehow soldiered on with his duties as the Ducks' receivers coach. The staff and the Oregon community rallied around the family providing any kind of support they needed.
"If I wasn't in the situation with those people I don't have a clue how we'd get through it," Chris said.
The important thing was that Sam got through it. There was a stem-cell transplant, more surgery, chemo. Meanwhile, Petersen was in the process of accepting a job at Boise as offensive coordinator.
Sam's body had reached its limit on chemo therapy. He can have no more, forever. Doctors suggested more radiation treatment but warned that it could cause other complications. The family declined the treatment and put the situation in God's hands.
If the family wasn't spiritual then, it sure did turn that way.
"A situation like that, there is no in between," Chris said. "It either brings you closer to God or further away. I don't think there's too many atheists on a cancer floor."
So, yes, the family is thankful that Sam fell. The cancer would have manifested itself eventually about a month later, doctors said, but who knows how far it would have progressed by then? The fall led to the discovery that led to all the pain and anxiousness. But it also saved his life.
An angel pushed him.
For the first time recently, Sam was able to get through his annual MRI body scan without being sedated. Try keeping any kid lying still in a doctor's office for two hours. Sam is old enough to understand now. His parents are thankful all the MRIs have been clean.
"He's a football fanatic. He knows a ton about college football and pro football," the coach said proudly. "He's always keeping me up to date on what's going on in football land."
It's unlikely Sam will ever play the sport his father coaches. A shunt in the child's head makes it relatively dangerous to play contact sports. That's OK. Next season Sam might join his older brother and go on his first road trip with the Broncos.
Speaking of the road, there is a long one ahead for the Petersens. Chris won't stop being a hot coaching property any time soon. It's going to be wonderful to see Sam grow up before his parents' eyes.
That it all might take place in Boise for the long term is OK with everyone -- Boise State fans, administration, Chris, Barb and Sam.
"Football coaches are so driven, sometimes it's easy to lose focus of that part of your live," Chris said. "It is for me when we get into that part of the season. There are blessings every week when I go home and see those guys. I don't take it for granted."
It's 15 minutes into the interview and Chris Petersen's voice is beginning to crack.
Giving thanks ...
|Thankfully Utah's Paul Kruger was able to continue playing. (Getty Images)|
• For Myron Rolle, Florida State safety, who on the same day last Saturday earned a Rhodes Scholarship and helped the Seminoles win at Maryland. Wish there were more like him.
• For Ball State. A defensive lineman (Brandon Crawford) is a 32-year-old former Marine. The tailback (MiQuale Lewis) is a minute, sub-atomic particle. The quarterback (Nate Davis) has a glove fetish. The offensive coordinator (Stan Parrish) has both national championship and Super Bowls -- and couldn't be happier in Muncie.
One of the best stories of 2008 moves on to Detroit for the MAC championship game.
• For the BCS. As much as it tries, it can't keep itself out of the spotlight. All the better for us. Without it, we'd actually have days off.
• For the BCS computers which don't have to worry about Texas Tech beating Texas which beat Oklahoma which beat Texas Tech. Will the circle be unbroken? All the machines do is spit out numbers.
• For the ACC standings. For those of you needing a math credit, take a gander. You will go cross-eyed but three hours is three hours when freshman algebra is full.
• For the ACC where even South Carolina is still in the race. Yes, we know South Carolina left the ACC in 1971.
• For Jacksonville, Fla., which is spared the horror of the ACC championship game (it has been moved to Tampa). Try to find a ranked team in there somewhere.
• For Pat Fitzgerald, the only two-time winner of the Nagurski Award, who is also an upstanding, ethical leader of men. In his third season since the death of Randy Walker, Fitzgerald might get Northwestern to a Jan. 1 bowl.
• For Houston Nutt. All he does is deliver. Arkansas was stupid to let him go. Ole Miss will be lucky to keep him.
• For Jim Grobe. Finally, a coach who deserves a 10-year contract.
• For Paul Wulff. The Washington State coach's mother went missing, possibly murdered by his father. Wulff's first wife died of cancer. How painful, really, can a 2-10 debut season be for this classy coach?
• For Mike Slive. The SEC commissioner's wisdom and kindness set him apart.
• For the Rose Bowl. Put the stadium, the city, the fans and teams together on New Year's Day and, you know, it is that special.
• For the games ...
UCLA 27, Tennessee 24 in overtime on Sept. 1. It set the template for Tennessee's season. Four first-half turnovers by UCLA weren't enough for the Vols. Phil Fulmer eventually lost his job.
At the end Rick Neuheisel grabbed a microphone and was leading a post-game pep rally. Great theater.
Texas 45, Oklahoma 35 on Oct. 11. We should have known after Sam Bradford threw for five touchdowns that Oklahoma would be heard from again.
Texas Tech 39, Texas 33 on Nov. 1. It's a shame that the 'Horns season might hinge on an impossible catch by Michael Crabtree that beat Texas with one second left. A shame unless you're from Texas Tech.
• For Mike Tranghese, the Big East commissioner, who has seven months left on the job before retirement. Tranghese held the conference together after ACC expansion and thus preserved the sanctity of major-college football in the Northeast.
• For optimism. Watching the Notre Dame coaches' show we were able to learn that ND leads the country in kickoff return defense. At least there's that.
• For the triple option. Today the ACC, tomorrow the world for Georgia Tech's Paul Johnson.
• For Keith Null. West Texas A&M's quarterback threw for 595 yards and seven touchdowns in his team's 93-68 loss to Abilene Christian on Saturday in the Division II playoffs. What's a guy gotta do?
• For Tyrone Willingham. Courage, there are better days ahead.