Brad Bigler needed his players as much as they needed him.
So, just two months after the July 2012 car crash that killed Bigler's 5-month-old son, Drake, and broke 10 bones in Brad's body, the Southwest Minnesota State men's basketball coach returned to work.
"It was almost like a different form of therapy to get your mind busy and surround yourself with a lot of people that care about you and a lot of people that need you to be a leader," said the 33-year-old Bigler, whose team will host Minot State at 7 p.m. Saturday. "It changes your mind and your approach."
Southwest Minnesota State men’s basketball coach Brad Bigler has led the Mustangs to a 12-11 record this season after recovering from a July 2012 motor vehicle accident, the second tragedy that rocked the Bigler family in as many years. Photo courtesy of SMSU sports information/Greg Devereaux photography.
Another part of Bigler's therapy is using his platform as a basketball coach to prevent similar tragedies from happening to other families.
The driver who struck the vehicle driven by Bigler's wife, Heather, was under the influence of alcohol and sentenced on Jan. 25 to 48 months in prison for criminal vehicular homicide. The driver, 38-year-old Dana Schoen, admitted to a 0.32 percent blood-alcohol content in his guilty plea and had been convicted of drinking and driving twice before, once in 2000 and again in 2005.
Brad and Heather have partnered with the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference for "It's a Slam Dunk, Don't Drive Drunk." At every men's and women's NSIC game last weekend, school Student Athletic Advisory Committees set up booths to have fans sign pledges that they wouldn't drink and drive. Videos of the Bigler family discussing the loss of Drake were also played to raise awareness of the issue.
The campaign will extend to this weekend's conference games - with each mention of the tragedy poking at a reservoir of pain within Brad Bigler.
"I would be lying to say that when they're talking about it prior to the game or when the video plays when I'm walking down the hallway, that it doesn't affect me," he said.
But Bigler's advocacy was a natural progression for a coach who SMSU starting center Nick Smith described as "selfless," the type of man who puts his players' needs before his own.
"Last weekend was a tough weekend," said Minot State coach Matt Murken, who became friends with Bigler when both were young assistants in the NSIC. "It was a great event to raise awareness, but I'm certain it was a tough weekend for him and a lot of us. We've been impressed by how he dealt with it, but he deals with that every day. The fact is, part of his family's missing."
Murken visited Bigler in the hospital soon after the accident, along with coaches from at least three other NSIC schools.
"I know from the time we visited him two days after, some of the coaches knew he had a long way to go," Murken said, "but we were impressed with his commitment to making something positive out of something negative and not thinking about strictly himself, or even strictly his family."
Drake's death was the second in Bigler's immediate family in as many summers. In July 2011, Bigler's mother, Diane Bigler-Hagenow, died in a kayaking accident.
Murken, who lost his father in 1999, shared conversations with Bigler following that incident as well.
"We talked about dealing with the loss of a parent and what that grieving process is like," Murken said. "I'd just try to talk with him about my experiences and some of his. We'd be at a recruiting event for a day, standing in the balcony just talking about real-life stuff for a half a day before we realized that we hadn't really watched too much."
Both Murken and Bigler said it'll be fun to square off against one another this weekend as head coaches.
The somber video at halftime will undoubtedly affect both men, but Bigler said the extra suffering now is an acceptable tradeoff for raising awareness of the dangers of drunk driving.
"Being in the college scene, college students are more likely to make these types of mistakes," he said. "For us to be able to connect with them, to use our story to be able to put our situation in front of them to show them the consequences of drunken driving ... If we can stop even one of these situations from happening again, I think that's a worthy cause and a great legacy for Drake."