On a Friday in October, Anthony Orrick departed the football field as a winning coach for the first time in seven weeks. Before he made it home later that evening, his phone rang. A coach from a rival school — Blue Valley High’s Eric Driskell — was on the line.
“He was so much more excited for me and my staff than he was for winning his own game that night,” Orrick said. “That’s the kind of guy he was.”
Driskell, who twice guided Blue Valley to football state championships, died Wednesday, three days after a ruptured brain aneurysm. He was 43.
He is survived by his wife, Kari, and two daughters, Rachel and Laurel.
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“Even in his passing, he is still giving to others, giving the gift of life through organ donation,” Kari Driskell posted on social media in announcing her husband’s death. “Stories of his impact on your lives have been so uplifting in this difficult time.”
A celebration of life for Driskell will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Resurrection in Leawood.
Driskell had been on life support for the purpose of organ donation, according to Jayson Neil, a neurosurgeon at Research Medical Center, where Driskell was being treated. He arrived at the hospital Sunday with irreversible neurological damage after experiencing a severe headache and then collapsing at a restaurant while meeting with the Greater Kansas City Football Coaches Association.
“This is like a punch to the stomach,” said Steve Rampy, Driskell’s former football coach. “I had that feeling Sunday, and I haven’t gotten over that feeling. I don’t know that I will.”
Driskell’s death shocked and unnerved the football community and others across Kansas City, who commemorated his life over the past three days with prayer vigils, T-shirts and a hashtag on social media — #BVStrong.
They described Driskell as an optimistic, caring and upbeat personality who could infuse energy into a room merely by walking into it. Senior football player Grant Lahr said Driskell was “the best man I ever knew. It would be impossible not to love him.”
Rampy remembered Driskell this way: “He always had time for everybody. There was no situation too small for him. The kids in his classroom, the freshmen on the football field, his best players, the little kids out at his camp — he treated them all the same.”
Driskell took over the Blue Valley program in 2010 after a long tenure as an assistant under Rampy, and he won the Kansas Class 5A state championship in his first season. Driskell won another title in 2013. He previously won a championship as a player in 1991.
The Tigers finished second in Class 6A last fall, and Driskell was the Kansas City Chiefs’ selection for Kansas high school football coach of the year. Driskell also taught classes and was the head boys’ track and field coach at Blue Valley.
“It wasn’t about any of that for me — it was about the way he treated us,” senior running back Will Evans said. “He was a father figure to all of us. He doesn’t just tell you to go on the right path; he shows you the right path. And whatever way you go, he’s right there with you.”
Orrick, the head coach at Blue Valley Southwest, was one of several coaches who attended the meeting Sunday. He said Driskell was speaking with the group before he abruptly stopped talking.
Driskell also went into cardiopulmonary arrest at the restaurant, Neil said, and he received CPR there. The aneurysm caused a subarachnoid hemorrhage in Driskell’s brain.
“It’s a moment stuck in my mind,” Orrick said. “Time stood still.
“It’s a numb feeling when I think about it. It was heartbreaking.”
A common sentiment emerged in the stories people shared with The Star this week — Driskell made time for anyone. He was known to stand out in the hallways between classes and introduce himself to students he didn’t know.
Ryan Schartz, the former head football coach at Fort Osage who is now the school’s athletics director, said he struck a friendship with Driskell through the coaches association and through coaching clinics. Schartz “quickly realized he had a great football mind,” and sought regular advice from Driskell.
When quarterback Skylar Thompson rolled through Fort Osage — before he led the program to its first state championship — Schartz wanted to meet with Driskell.
“I was looking for some ways to get better in our passing game, and he was kind enough to spend the afternoon with me just talking ball,” Schartz said. “I called him often.”
The Blue Valley football team first gathered in the weight room Monday morning after learning Driskell had collapsed. They sat mostly silently around Driskell’s black chair, which had become a staple of the room.
But as the week progressed, the players shared stories of their favorite memories with their coach.
Senior Zack Willis recalled an instance in which he struggled so mightily to learn a new play during practice that he ripped off his helmet in frustration. Driskell — or “Coach D” as the players often called him — blew his whistle and motioned for Willis to walk toward him.
“I can’t get this play right,” Willis said.
“Well, I believe in you. I trust you,” Driskell said, as Willis remembered.
Two days later, Driskell called the play in a game, and Willis, an offensive lineman, executed his assignment without a hitch.
“The fact he trusted me to run it in a game, that meant something to me,” Willis said. “The trust he showed in all of us, that’s something that will never be replaced.”
Orrick, who graduated Blue Valley three years after Driskell, described the scene at the hospital late Sunday — a long line of players with their parents and family members stopping to say goodbye.
“He’s the guy who people gravitated towards,” Orrick said. “We used to call him ‘The Spoon’ because he always stirred the pot in a light-hearted way. He wanted to make you laugh or just make you smile.
“That’s the way he lived.”
On Saturday, Driskell re-tweeted a quote into his Twitter profile page. It was his final post.
“It is better to be a tiger for one day than a sheep for a thousand years.”