The last time I ran into Eric Driskell was several months ago at a QuikTrip not far from Blue Valley High, where he taught and coached. The sun wasn’t up. He was off to school; I was catching a flight.
It had been more than four years since our youngest had finished school there. Hundreds had passed through the halls since then. But our kids’ names rolled off his tongue as if he’d seen them the day before.
How was Anna, whom he had coached in track. Still running? And what was up with Nate, our oldest, who played football when Driskell was an assistant coach?
I poured my coffee and headed to the counter as he walked out. Before reaching the door, Driskell turned and asked, “How’s Ben? What’s he up to?”
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Ben is our middle. He graduated in 2009. In the predawn fog, with a day’s worth of activity on his mind, Eric asked about a biology student he never coached, with a smile.
And Ben, who played soccer, remembered him fondly. “He always congratulated me or knew how I played,” Ben told me.
Driskell died Wednesday. The last three days of his life were spent on life support for the purpose of organ donation. On Sunday, he had suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm.
He was 43.
A celebration of life for Driskell will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Church of Resurrection in Leawood.
You might have seen photographs of students gathered on the football field or families in church seeking comfort. Rest assured they’re not all kids or the families of kids who played for or were taught by Driskell.
Some of the latest posts on his Twitter account congratulate athletes who signed letters of intent and students who performed in the school’s musical. He related to everybody at Blue Valley and made a point to know the students, even those he didn’t coach or teach. Anna said he would stand outside his classroom before school and between classes, talking to students. He wanted to know their names.
There was the year the girls’ track team had a good showing at the state meet … but one of the biggest memories of that season was Driskell’s demonstration of how to pick up a snapping turtle that had wandered onto the track and return it to the pond.
Nate remembered the last time he talked to Driskell, also a few months ago. After catching up, they chatted about things other than football, which is a big deal at the school. Since he became head coach in 2010, Driskell’s teams won two state titles. In December, he was named Kansas Coach of the Year by the Chiefs.
His Blue Valley roots run deep. Driskell played for the school’s first state-title team in 1991 and continued his career at Baker University. He returned to Blue Valley as an assistant coach under Steve Rampy before taking over when Rampy joined the staff at Pittsburg State. The program remained among the state’s best.
Ben remembered the time he and a friend cooked up a project putting headphones on plants to see if they would grow differently based on the type of music they “heard.”
“He was an extremely positive guy who supported you, even your dumb ideas, if you gave 100 percent,” Ben said.
None of my kids were asked for their memories. When told of the news, they responded with affection and shared these stories on their own.
Many, many more similar stories are being shared this week, helping those who knew Driskell cope with the news that has devastated the school and community. Even Kari Driskell, Eric’s wife, has been taken aback by the response, as she posted on her social-media accounts on Tuesday.
“I cannot imagine the positive impact and reach my husband has had on so many lives in 43 years,” she wrote. “The texts, messages, posts, tweets, videos, prayers and pictures are overwhelming. Please continue to pray for us, especially our children, while we are in the most difficult of times.”
A GoFundMe page has been established for Driskell’s medical expenses. I recognize some of the names. They’re athletes and students, families and friends, whose lives were touched by a wonderful coach, inspiring teacher and gracious man.