Commentary

Everything to gain

Coach Brian McDermott took back his life after a brutal accident

Originally Published: December 24, 2013
By Seth Wickersham | ESPN The Magazine

brian mcdermottBob LeveroneMcDermott serves as a special assistant coach for the running backs at West Chester.

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HE THOUGHT THE doctors were partying in his hospital room. That was Brian McDermott's hazy assessment when he emerged from a coma shortly after Memorial Day. Brian was 24 and the running backs coach at Mount Union, a university in Ohio. He had traveled to Delaware for a long weekend with friends. But now he didn't know why he was in the hospital or why he couldn't move. Then he saw his older brother, Pat, staring at him with glassy eyes.

Pat and Brian are not twins -- but they could be. Both are brutes, sturdy and broad. Both played fullback at West Chester University, near their home outside of Philadelphia. Both were coached there by Bill Zwaan, a loving hard-ass who had played high school ball with their father. And both became coaches. Brian had just won a D3 national championship at Mount Union and had planned to apply for coaching jobs closer to home. Pat was an assistant at a local high school and the subject of a story I wrote last January about an out-of-print coaching bible called Finding the Winning Edge, authored by the legendary Bill Walsh. Pat had bought the book hoping it would help him reach his goal of becoming a college or pro coach. Instead, he arrived at the painful realization that most coaches, including Walsh, eventually do: Winning isn't enough to alleviate the pressure placed on them by the game and themselves.

In the hospital, of course, all of that seemed trivial. Brian asked his family what had happened. Early in the morning of May 26, Brian and some friends had been walking home from the bars on a dark stretch of highway in Dewey Beach when a state trooper accidentally hit Brian with his car. Brian spent the next few days in a coma, with a broken pelvis and shattered left leg. Hearing this for the first time, he felt a surging panic. "I was in shock," he says now.

After a week and a half of trying to save the leg, doctors told Brian it would have to be amputated. Pat canceled an interview he'd scheduled at Temple and put his coaching career on hold, dedicating the rest of the year to helping his brother. Brian told him, "I'm going to beat this thing."

Then reality set in. It took nearly four months for Brian to get a prosthetic leg. Insurance didn't cover all the costs. Zwaan, who had helped organize a fundraiser for Brian, noticed that he seemed depressed, hunched over his walker. So he offered the only remedy he could, given tight budgets and NCAA restrictions on the size of coaching staffs: an unpaid, unofficial, low-level job with the team. "As soon as you can," Zwaan told Brian, "you can come hang out with us."

In late October, after a practice, Zwaan stood next to Brian and told the team he'd be helping out. The players gave him an ovation. Zwaan tasked Brian with grunt work, but it was exactly what he needed. The challenge that has ruined the lives of so many coaches -- trying to find the winning edge -- helped rebuild Brian's. "It took my mind off things," he says.

Of course, there were reminders: pain, phantom sensations, watching players run. But his spirit was strong. In November the Philadelphia Daily News profiled the team's punter, Rich Bruno, who has Tourette's syndrome. Bruno downplayed his condition by saying, "It's not like I'm out there kicking with one leg." The next day, Brian approached Bruno with a smile and said, "What's up with that quote, man?"

West Chester ended up having its best season ever, going 13-1 before losing in the D2 semifinals. As he drove home with a few other coaches after the loss, Brian thought about how much life had changed, how he was at the end of one chapter and at the beginning of another. He is staying at West Chester until he can find a full-time coaching job, he hopes at a nearby college. With his brother's life back on track, Pat is restarting his own dream, applying for college and pro openings.

Both are grateful for the grace shown by their former coach. "I was just trying to get Brian out of the house," Zwaan says now. After a year of watching coaches suffer from the pressure of their jobs -- after a year of hearing mostly about what is lost in coaching -- his simple gesture was a beautiful reminder of what can be gained.

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Seth Wickersham | email

ESPN The Magazine senior writer
Seth Wickersham joined ESPN The Magazine after graduating from the University of Missouri. Although he primarily covers the NFL, his assignments also have taken him to the Athens Olympics, the World Series, the NCAA tournament and the NHL and NBA playoffs.

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