Life drives home perspective for BU coach
He was the eldest of seven children in a devout Catholic family. In high school, his team won a state championship, and he proudly wore the number 29 on his jersey. And when he died on the 12th day of the month, just 19 years old, it tore a hole in the heart of everyone who loved him.
Robin Raleigh was 17 when Hodgkin's disease took her big brother, John. She was the family rebel, the one with the penchant for breaking rules and getting into trouble. John was the straight arrow, the baseball star who looked after her, implored her to straighten up and fly right. She just didn't listen until he was gone.
'After John died, I didn't do anything bad again,' Robin says, 24 years later. 'I couldn't.'
We often say tragedy happens for a reason. We say that to find comfort and refuge from the pain, yes — but also because perhaps it's true. Robin's life changed forever that sad, April day; changed and prepared her for the future in ways she never could have imagined.
Robin Raleigh DeRose is the wife of Bradley soccer coach Jim DeRose, whose team will play Ohio State today in the NCAA quarterfinals. And just in case you don't know the whole story, here is a recap of what matters.
Danny Dahlquist was the eldest of seven children in a devout Catholic family. At Notre Dame High School, his soccer team won an Illinois state championship. Then he went to Bradley, where he proudly wore the number 29 on his jersey. And when he died in a house fire on the 12th day of August this year, just 19 years old, it tore a hole in the heart of everyone who loved him.
What transpired over the following days and weeks and months on the soccer field is a compelling sports story of considerable magnitude.
The Braves, barely able to practice before their first game Aug. 31, slowly learned to put one step in front of the other again. They cobbled together some wins, got better as the season progressed and managed to claim a share of their third consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championship.
Then things suddenly got crazy. The Braves won their first MVC tournament title, beating perennial national power Creighton on its home turf for the first time. Then they beat DePaul for the first NCAA tournament win in Bradley history. Next came a win at fourth-seeded, seven-time national champion Indiana, on penalty kicks. Then the Miracle in Maryland: two goals in the final three minutes to tie and the game-winner in sudden-death overtime to beat the 2005 NCAA champion Terrapins and advance to the quarterfinals.
That's the sports story.
This is one chapter of the life story.
Coaching through sorrow
Jim DeRose, the very definition of a Type A personality, could barely bring himself to speak. He would fight to get through the days, planning and conducting practices, struggling to find ways to reach and lead his young players, Danny's friends and teammates. At night, he would slump into a chair at home and then, unable to sleep, leave the house and walk the streets alone in the dark.
'He was so quiet, so sad,' Robin says. 'He didn't know where to go, who to talk to.'
Jim never has been good with grief situations, she says. Not even with make-believe ones. He avoids tear-jerker movies. If a sad storyline comes onto the television, he will change the channel.
But now, he was face to face with the worst kind of tragedy. A kid he had known all his 11 years here as a coach, a kid who had attended his summer camps, a kid who was living his dream of playing for DeRose and the Bradley Braves, a kid who was the son of a close friend and co-worker, had died in the middle of a summer night. This was real. There was no channel to change, no off-button to push.
DeRose is a good man. A family man. But, like so many coaches — especially the successful ones — he is an obsessed man. And obsessed men are prone to lose their way.
Twelve-hour days are not enough if your rival is working 14. So you work 15, and that's not enough, either. There's always something you might miss in the scouting report, or a recruit who might slip away. So you work 16 hours, and you tell yourself the wife and kids will understand, and you'll make it up to them sometime, somehow.
But you don't.
Robin didn't know how Jim would come through this ordeal, let alone the season. She couldn't calculate a plan to help him. All she had were the instincts that came from having lived through her brother's death and come out different and better in the years that followed. So she would simply be there for her husband, and somehow she would know what he needed and when.
Slowly, Jim began to come around.
But then came the unexpected.
Assuming the Bradley season would be over by now, the DeRoses had planned to drive to Virginia last weekend, to attend the wedding of Bryan Namoff, a former BU all-American. After this long and most trying season, it would be a nice chance for family time, with 15-year-old daughter Raleigh and 10-year-old son J.R. But when the Braves upset Indiana 11 days ago, Robin assumed that trip was toast. After all, there was a big game to prepare for, and the team needed him.
Then Jim said, 'Let's drive to Maryland.'
'A year ago,' Robin says, 'he would have been with the team. He never would have said, ‘Hey, Rob, let's get in the car and drive to the game.' '
But that's what they did. The team chartered a flight. The DeRoses packed the car and drove. They talked and joked and laughed. They played 'Best of the '80s' music on CDs and sang along. Then in the back seats, the kids watched a DVD of 'Miracle,' the movie depiction of the U.S. hockey team's gold-medal triumph at the 1980 Winter Olympics.
'Dad, this could be your team,' J.R. said.
'Right,' Jim responded. 'Look, we're just happy to be where we are.'
Then came the game. The 2-0 halftime deficit. The rally to tie. The header to win.
'Dad!' J.R. said, beaming in the postgame jubilation. 'I told you!'
Jim is beaming, too. Oh yes, he still fights the tears. He'll tell you the same thing as every person involved with the Bradley program: They would give back every victory this season — all 16 and the five ties, too — just to have Danny alive and in their midst again.
And yet, Danny is in their midst. Some will tell you he's the angel guiding their shots on goal, keeping opponents at bay. But when you see the smiles, you know his impact is way greater than any win.
Where once perspective was a noble concept, taught and preached with the best intentions, now it's being lived. Life is full of joy and sorrow, and we cannot force joy any more than we can stop sorrow. But we can learn where the real joy is found and embrace it, and in so doing we can manage the sorrow and live on, better than we were before.
'Time is precious,' Robin Raleigh DeRose says.
She has known that and tried to live that way for 24 years. Her husband knows that now; really knows it. He will never be the same. He is already better.
'He's soaking in the enjoyment of every moment,' Robin says. 'This whole thing, it's Danny's way of saying it's OK to smile.'
KIRK WESSLER is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Contact him at email@example.com, or (309) 686-3216.