Holding on - together
More than a year after a crippling accident, the family of USD assistant football coach still waits for signs of recovery
"… Maybe God’s plan includes how Mike’s accident has impacted us all. Are we better as a result? Are we more loving and more concerned about others? Do we take each other less for granted? Do we pray more for each other? Are we better parents, spouses, children? I don’t know this, but this is what I pray for; that this tragic situation has a positive meaning. …"
- From Joni Freidel’s journal, June 18, 2007, a year after her husband was seriously injured in a ranch accident.
BY MICK GARRY
VERMILLION - A ranching accident in summer 2006 didn’t kill Mike Freidel, though it easily could have. His halting progress in the aftermath could have killed his family’s hope, but that hasn’t happened either.
Somewhere in between - between the dream of a normal life and the firm resolve to carry on regardless - the wife and five children of this well-known assistant college football coach keep themselves going forward together.
"We wish we could talk to him," said Joni Freidel, Mike Freidel's wife of 27 years. “The physical disabilities - they're a big deal - but they're not the primary concern. If he's in a wheelchair, we don't care. We miss being able to share the good times with him. We miss being able to talk to him.”
Joni, daughter Kelsey (22), twin sons Jerrod and Jackson (18), son Kylen (16), and daughter Hailey (10), haven’t been able to have a conversation with Freidel since June 19, 2006, the day a trailer tire he was repairing at a Wyoming ranch exploded, sending the outside half of a steel wheel rocketing off his head and torso.
He went into a coma and, more than a year later, really hasn’t left it. Though he often gives family and Sanford Vermillion Medical Center staff indication he is aware of his surroundings - caretakers had to turn off a recent Notre Dame game because the longtime Fighting Irish fan appeared to be agitated by it - he remains seriously handicapped.
He can’t move around without assistance, has lost his vision in one eye, and attempts at communication are most often reduced to technology-aided yes/no responses. He lives at the medical center with short trips outside the hospital accompanied by family and staff. He is expected to move to the adjoining Sanford Care Center when the staff there has been adequately trained to administer to his special needs.
"We don’t know, but we’re assuming he understands what is going on," said Joni, a policy analyst in enrollment services at USD. "It’s just that his body is not allowing him to reply."
One of a kind
Before the accident, the 51-year-old Freidel was never afraid to tell people what he thought.
In 16 years as a defensive coordinator at Augustana and five more at USD, this former Armour and Dakota State University football star built a reputation for being an old-school tough guy who nevertheless fostered a fierce loyalty among his players.
"When I ran into him someplace off the football field, I felt like I could talk to him for hours," USD linebacker Blake Hojer said. "We had a lot in common - he was always asking me how the farm work was coming. When it came to football, though, he was a - what’s the right word, I mean something you can put in a newspaper? Anyway, he was tough. He pushed us. He knew what our abilities were, and he made sure we got there."
Off the field, things were different. He was an excellent guitarist who had played lead guitar in several bands and loved the ranching life that he returned to for a week every summer in Wyoming.
"I think we would all say he put on that football coach cover when he left the house," Jerrod said. "Around us, he could be kind of a goofball."
That irreverent sense of humor, one the sweating linebackers at USD and Augustana on hot August afternoons didn’t see too often, was a staple in the Freidel home.
There was the occasion where he became both amused and confused by his kids’ and players’ slang usage of the term word. He asked questions for several weeks about what it meant and when to use it.
At the dinner table one night, he told his family that he’d figured it out. “It means the truth,” he announced, and thereafter began using it liberally himself.
On Thursdays before games, Mike always had gone over game films with his boys, telling them how they could do things better. It was a teacher-pupil deal. No brow-beating, just information. Last fall, however, that tradition was gone.
"If there’s anything I could have back right now, that would be it," Jackson said. "I just wish we could sit down and watch film, and he could tell us what we were doing wrong like he did our freshman and sophomore years."
"He made things so much easier to understand," Jerrod added. "You’d hear how you were supposed to do things at practice, and then Dad would sit down and make it all seem so much simpler. He was a tremendous resource for us."
With help from the hospital staff, the family took Mike to a Vermillion game at the DakotaDome this season. Joni saw grimaces occasionally from her husband - a good sign considering the maddening lack of an emotional connection they’re usually coping with.
"He seemed to be watching the field and listening," she said. "He frowned a few times. We weren’t sure if he didn’t like the play call or didn’t like the yardage."
Freidel has a switch he can use to indicate yes and no responses to questions. When he’s alert, he’s fairly accurate with those responses.
The family sees glimpses of the husband and father they used to know, however. Recently, Kelsey was telling him about breaking up with her boyfriend and was startled when her father squeezed her hand really hard.
"I didn’t know whether he was mad at the guy or he was glad I dumped him, but it was pretty cool," she said. "He’ll look you in the eye sometimes - he actually has pretty expressive features. He can be very silent and still get a point across. He still has that from before the accident."
The high school football season has its pleasures and pains. The three boys are having good seasons for Vermillion, and their games have been a weekly gathering spot for the Freidels as well as Mike’s and Joni’s extended families.
The sons’ successes, however, have pointed to the glaring absence of their father in a part of their lives where they’d always shared a passion.
"Sometimes we’ll be talking about football with my dad, having a pretty good time," said Reid Meierkort, USD head coach Ed Meierkort’s son and a close friend of the boys.
"And then they’ll get kind of quiet. You know they’re thinking about the same kind of conversations we used to have with their dad."
At one game this year, Kylen caught a touchdown pass from Reid Meierkort, Jerrod ran for a touchdown and Jackson intercepted a pass. Ed Meierkort was watching, and he couldn’t help but think about what his friend of nearly 30 years was missing.
"I thought about how proud Mike would be of those kids. When you visit Mike, you try to communicate that to him, but you just don’t know what is being communicated. I always tell the guys, `Your dad would be very proud of you,’ but you know that him not being there has to hurt."
Keeping the faith
Ed Meierkort calls Joni Freidel “without a doubt the toughest lady I’ve ever met,” and those around the family, while eager to help them, uniformly vouch for their ability to cope.
"I personally can’t imagine what they must be going through, but if there’s a situation where you need to be tough, they’re the right family for it," said Hojer, who has gotten to know several of the Freidel children. "I’m sure Mike preached to his kids to be tough just like he preached it to us."
The tough days are tough days, though, even if you’re tough, too. “To some people, it might seem like this has gone on for a year or so,” Jackson said. “But to us, it seems like forever.”
Six-month and 12-month anniversaries have come and gone without the heartening breakthroughs they’re praying for. At 18 months to two years, patients who have dealt with similar accidents typically have recovered as much as they’re going to recover. Mike Freidel is in that window now.
"Every injury of this type is different," Joni Freidel said. "His doctors, his neurologists - they don’t really know. They won’t even offer a prognosis. Normally, people have recovered what they’re going to recover after two years. That’s what’s normal, that’s the average."
Sitting in an empty staff room at Vermillion High School with her five children around her, she added: “But we all here all hope and pray that, since we know he wasn’t normal before, he wasn’t average before the accident, why would he be average now?”
Community’s support comforts family
The Freidel family has been overwhelmed by the support from friends, the Vermillion community, their church and people who know Mike Freidel from the University of South Dakota, Augustana and Dakota State.
"Even now, people come up to me and tell me they’re praying for my dad," Kelsey said. "That means a lot. Maybe even more now than it did a year ago."
Last year during a fundraiser spearheaded by Joni’s sister, Steph Moser, almost $15,000 was raised for the family via various activities and auctions held at USD and Augustana the week of the Coyote-Viking football game.
Thousands of “Team Freidel” T-shirts were distributed throughout the DakotaDome that day and still are seen regularly at USD games.
"I was out working in Sturgis during the rally, and I saw a woman I’d never seen before with leather chaps on and a bandanna wearing a Team Freidel shirt," Kelsey said. "That was the coolest thing I’ve ever seen."
- Mick Garry, Argus Leader