By Jeff Greenberg
This past Saturday was a big game for the Arkansas State Red Wolves’ football team. After falling short in week one against SMU, they were looking to even their record and get back to winning. However, it turned into a much bigger game when their head coach, Blake Anderson, surprised them before the game and let them know he was there to coach them once again following his leave of absence after the passing of his wife, Wendy.
In the first installment of the 2019 season’s 5th Quarter, I’ll let Coach Anderson’s words tell the story.
1st Quarter: How did you come to the decision to coach the game at UNLV? – “It started during the week. I had committed to just being with my kids and was planning on spending the weekend with my daughter. I had spent last weekend with the boys, and she couldn’t make that, so I had planned on going somewhere with her this weekend. But we couldn’t get it lined up so it started to look like the opportunity may be there to make it to the game. I bought a refundable plane ticket Thursday, but still wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do. I spoke with Terry about it and he was really supportive of it but knew it was my decision to make. I was concerned that I would be a distraction and I did not want that to happen at all. I also didn’t want a lot of fanfare around it beforehand. When I finally got to be in front of my players again as their head coach, I wanted it to be about us inside that room. They had also prepared all week for this game and were mentally engaged in that preparation, so I didn’t want to disrupt that either. Then I talked to my kids Friday night after spending a great day with them in Memphis. We went there and had some fun together racing go-carts, throwing axes and eating dinner together. On the way home I asked them what they thought of me going back. They were great about it, as they have been great through this entire process with me. They said, “Dad, we appreciate having you with us, but we also understand that you have a team that’s counting on you and a staff that’s counting on you, and you’re counting on them too. They’re part of our family. We’re ready when you’re ready. If you’re ready to go back now you need to do it.” I can’t say enough about the maturity and grace they’ve shown me during this time. I’m so proud of them. So, when we got home I kind of sat there on my own thinking about it. When I went to bed, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. But I couldn’t sleep, and I woke up at 4am and decided I’m going. All I hoped is that it would be a positive for the team. They were coming off of a tough loss against SMU and I know they fought hard and put pressure on themselves to win that game for me and for Wendy. I finally decided, if me showing up would help them emotionally in any way then I need to be there. So, I packed a bag and got on the plane.”
2nd Quarter: So now you’re on the plane and headed to a game nobody knows you’re coming to at that point. What’s going through your mind on that flight? – “I was nervous the whole time. I kept wondering if I was doing the right thing because I wanted this to be about the kids. I did not want this to be about me. I was nervous in how they would respond to it. Would they respond the right way? Then I was nervous about trying to get on a commercial flight to Vegas and get there without running into anybody at the airport or on the flight itself. Could I pull this off and surprise them? I did end up running into some people but luckily they were great about it and kept it quiet for me.”
3rd Quarter: What did it mean to you to see and hear the reaction from the players when you walked into that room? – “My heart was racing the whole time which is crazy because I should have known what to expect because the players have been amazing to me throughout this entire ordeal. I think it took them a second to realize it was really me and that I was there. Like they couldn’t believe it at first. So, I guess the surprise factor was indeed there. At that point, Coach Duggan knew I was going to be there. I let him know about an hour ahead of time. But nobody else knew and so you have to imagine the scene. Everybody who is supposed to be in that room was in the room. To hear the door open probably startled some guys and then to see it was me definitely caught them off-guard. I was lucky somebody didn’t kick me out before they let me in. Once they realized it was me all our emotions kicked in and took over the moment. Next thing I know we’re all jumping up and down in the middle of the room. Just a bunch of dudes that love each other and were excited to see each other.”
4th Quarter: When you got onto the field and put that headset on, did it feel right, did you make the right call? – “You know it did. After seeing the team’s reaction, I knew it was right. But everything else is different. Everything is just different now. It’s the first time of doing any of this for me without Wendy. I did this for 27 years, but I was doing it with Wendy. Even when she wasn’t on the sidelines or in the stands, I knew she was a phone call away and watching on tv. It’s just going to be a lot of firsts for me moving forward and that’s something I’ll face every day.”
5th Quarter: Looking at the game itself, if you were looking to put a spark in your team, clearly that was the case. How would you recap their performance? – “I wanted them to play well for them. I really did. I told them yesterday (Sunday) that I don’t need them to play for me. I know they love me and what they’ve done for me and my family is something I’ll never forget. But I want them to win for each other as well. They deserve it. I didn’t want them to start 0-2 because I knew it would devastate them with how hard they’ve worked for this season. I was excited with this performance because we played a complete football game in all three phases. Very few mistakes at all, which hurt us last week. The defense set the tempo right out of the gate and the offense moved the ball well all night long. We haven’t won a lot of out-of-conference games on the road and I think the experts in Vegas had us as a slight underdog by kickoff so to win by that margin was great for the guys in that locker room. It was a big win for us.”
Overtime: How was the flight home for you? – “Long and emotional. This game was the annual wives’ trip for the spouses of the coaches. All of the wives were there but Wendy. I was excited for them and that they got to enjoy the trip because they deserve it. They sacrifice so much and are such a big part of what makes all of this a family-driven program. But for me, I’m used to Wendy being the first person I see coming off the field or sitting next to me on those flights home. So, it was hard. There were times on the flight back that I got emotional and I was missing her so much. But it was mixed emotions because my heart was so full from being around the players and staff again. It’s just an emotional roller coaster that I’m going to have to learn how to handle and learn how to move forward.”