On September 5, 2008, Don Meyer, the men’s basketball coach at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, was heading up a convoy of six cars toward a team preseason retreat. Apparently falling asleep at the wheel, Meyer drifted over a lane and hit a semi-truck head-on going 50 mph. In the crash, all his left-side ribs were broken, he lost his spleen and parts of his intestines, and he endured multiple compound fractures of his left leg. Two weeks later, doctors amputated that leg below-knee.
As if that wasn’t enough, when opening him up, surgeons discovered cancer in his liver. At the time, 64-year-old Meyer was only 11 victories shy of passing Bobby Knight as the all-time win leader in men’s college basketball history.
“I wouldn’t be alive today if it hadn’t been for the team,” Meyer said in a telephone interview. “I owe them an awful lot. They were right there, keeping me awake (until help arrived) and dialing 911 to get the helicopter there. Now they still keep me going. I don’t think about all this other stuff (such as cancer and an amputation) when I’m thinking about them.”
Using a manual wheelchair, Coach Meyer returned to his job for a November 18 contest against Mount Marty College, a 98-57 victory.
Where does he get his strength? “I have to be strong for our team now,” he said. “When alone with my wife, I might not be as strong, and I might break down and cry and wonder how I’m going to deal with (the cancer). When you are with people you work with, it’s easier to be strong.”
He expressed a much greater appreciation, understanding, and empathy for below-knee amputees. He doesn’t have all the answers, he said, and has been just as scared as anyone would be. He lamented not being able to do many things once taken for granted, such as taking the old newspapers out for recycling to help his wife. Around home, he uses a walker as much as possible.
As for passing Knight, Meyer said, “The only important thing now is the next practice. It’s a day by day thing. It’s the team at hand that’s the most important. If you take care of that, those other things (such as winning) will take care of themselves.”
Next week: How Coach Meyer copes.