Saturday night at the Farris Center, I was wrapping up coverage of the University of Central Arkansas-Northwestern State basketball game.
It had been a long day with having to also monitor via radio four state high school semifinal games. The UCA men's game went down to the wire almost at the exact time the Conway High School girls game did against Fort Smith Northside in North Little Rock.
There were plenty of tense moments.
Little did I know the real stressful time was just ahead.
The Farris Center was generally empty and quiet except for the cleanup crew and players and their families slowly drifting away. The Northwestern State players and coaches had slowly boarded their bus to return to Natchitoches.
Suddenly, I heard an alarm and folks began emerging from the locker room areas, heading toward the rear door near the baseball stadium. Steve East, UCA's sports information director, popped up from his seat at the press table where he was doing his game reports. Folks were running with a sense urgency. They were talking on cell phones.
I couldn't accurately hear their shouts. Then, I saw the reflection of flashing lights outside the arena.
I saw UCA men's coach coach Russ Pennell, in sweats and carrying a clothes bag with the suit he wore during the game, joining the group rushing outside.
Something was very wrong.
As I was leaving, I was told that the Northwestern State bus driver was suspected to have had a heart attack.
As I walked across the parking lot, several folks assembled outside the bus. A fire truck was already on the scene and first responders were in emergency mode. An ambulance was just pulling into the parking lot.
There were a series of events that you can either relate to incredible good fortune or divine providence.
Conway Regional Medical Center was just around the corner.
UCA officials, several of whom were still in the area after a busy day, responded quickly.
You have to understand this about bus drivers who transport teams. The Southland Conference is a league that has lengthy bus trips for every school. The drivers are often regulars. After hours and hours (and even years and years on the road), there is bonding with the coaches and players. Everyone is family.
This particularly driver is reportedly in his 70s but volunteered for the trip just because of the relationship with the team and it's something he enjoys doing.
I'll spare the suspense. The driver is now home and OK. School officials said after tests, the incident was a blood pressure episode and not a heart attack.
It took three buses to get the NSU team and coaches to get back to campus Saturday night and early Sunday morning. Fortunately, the NSU baseball team had played Little Rock in Little Rock that day. So, with the regular bus in limbo, the baseball bus picked up the team and took it to Fordyce, where a third bus met them so the second bus could return to Little Rock. The first bus and the baseball bus had to later be driven to Louisiana.
The women’s athletic trainer, Colleen Brown, who stayed to work the men’s game so men’s athletic trainer Stephen Kim could dress out and possibly play, eventually rode on four buses Saturday.
NSU coach Mike McConathy has maintained his CDL (commercial driver’s license) that he used to drive buses and vans when he was head coach at Bossier Parish Community College. However, he wasn’t on the bus company’s insured list of drivers so officials wouldn’t let him drive.
An inspiring element of this saga is how UCA and NSU personnel, who had competed intensely against each other an hour earlier in a game, began working together and coordinating nicely in a possible life-or-death situation.
Doug Ireland, NSU's veteran sports information director who was one of the last to board the bus, told me this in an exchange of emails, "Coach McConathy and the NSU staff were overwhelmed and remain deeply appreciative of the tremendous response by the UCA basketball and sports medicine staffs, Steve East, and the campus and local emergency personnel. The level of concern and kindness shown us was exceptional."
This had a happy ending.
Several of us who witnessed it are still stunned by " what ifs" and the various elements of grace.
What if the bus had left the parking lot 15 minutes earlier (the team was slower exiting the Farris Center than most teams after they lose)? What if the episode with the driver had then happened on I-40? What if the right people had not been in the right place at the right time to do the right thing? What if the NSU baseball team had not been playing in Little Rock and was able to help facilitate safely getting the folks back to Natchitoches?
The game had a loser.
Postgame, it was win-win.
Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @dmaclcd.