A Son's Legacy of Courage and Passion

Kids aren’t supposed to die playing games. Not in high school. Not my son.

By Brian Haugen, Niceville, Florida

As appeared in

My cell phone buzzed. I glanced at the screen. My wife, Kathy. Taylor, our 15-year-old son, must have scored a touchdown in his first game as wide receiver for the Niceville High School Eagles.

It was the 2008 Kickoff Classic, a late-August preseason matchup. Still, for T, it was huge. People here in the Florida Panhandle turn out for two things: football and church.

I hated not being there. The only game of T’s that I’d ever missed. But I let the call go to voice mail. I was up to my neck in problems, 100 miles away in Mobile, Alabama. A National Guard Reservist, I was helping oversee preparations for Hurricane Gustav.

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If there’s one thing I know, it’s how to respond to a crisis. Even my job, as a financial advisor, was all about managing risk.

My phone buzzed again. Wow. T must really be doing great. In my mind I could see him going up for a catch, coming down with the ball in the end zone. Another call. And another. Finally, I picked up. A friend on the other end.

“T’s been hurt and he’s at the hospital,” he said. “You need to come home.”

I hung up and requested permission to leave. I called Kathy. She was crying so hard I could barely understand her. “Just hurry. Please.”

Kathy and I had talked about the risks of our only child playing football, especially with recent revelations about concussions and brain damage. But there was nothing T loved more on this earth. He carried a football everywhere he went. He even slept with it.

Besides, T was a tough kid. When he’d broken his wrist, it was days before he mentioned the pain. I couldn’t imagine his injury today was that serious. I just hoped he wouldn’t have to sit out the season.

Someone from the hospital staff met me at the ER. “Your son has multiple lacerations of the liver,” he said. “He’s in surgery now.” I would have collapsed had the staffer not held me up. I’d served in Afghanistan. Seen terrible injuries. I knew a damaged liver could be fatal.

Dear God, don’t let my son die, I prayed. God was a father himself. He would understand how urgent this was. But by morning T was dead. A freak accident. Going up for a pass he’d been hit from both sides. His abdomen was unprotected.

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“We almost never see this kind of injury in athletics, more in high-speed car accidents,” the surgeon said.

I felt like I was sleepwalking through the weeks that followed. Some days I didn’t get out of bed. T’s English teacher gave us an essay T had written. We used it as a eulogy at his funeral. “A motto for me is plain and simple,” he wrote. “Never give up. Don’t ever quit.”

That was T. Always pushing himself. He wasn’t a natural athlete. What he lacked in talent he made up for in passion and persistence. He was always the last to leave practice. Then he’d come home and I’d throw passes while he ran routes until it was too dark to see.

“You have to put yourself in position to make the catch,” I’d said, telling him that advice would serve him well later in life. Now he’d never have a chance to live out his life, his dreams of going to the University of Florida, playing football for the Gators like his hero, Tim Tebow, their Heisman-winning quarterback.

Sometimes, I’d go into his room and sit, look at the walls he’d painted Gator orange and blue, his Tebow posters, his trophies, and I’d miss my son with an ache so deep I didn’t think it would ever go away.

Kathy and I barely spoke. What was there to say? Our family ritual, watching football on TV together, seemed empty without T. It felt wrong to try to live a normal life. There was no one I wanted to see. Nothing I wanted to do.