by Nate Olson
A good college football coach isn’t only focused on winning and losing. He understands and accepts the fact that when parents drop their sons off for the first day of fall camp, they trust him and the staff to mold the young man and prepare him for the rest of his life. That gets lost in all of hype of win/loss predictions and conference championship and bowl expectations. The fans don’t realize it, but that aspect is a real part of playing collegiate athletics in most programs.
Behind the scenes, coaches and other support staff are tending to players’ needs such as struggling in algebra, breaking up with a girlfriend or worse –a loss of a family member or friend. When former Arkansas offensive lineman Frank Ragnow unexpectedly lost his father, former Hogs Coach Bret Bielema flew back to Minnesota to comfort him. No doubt, Ragnow will remember that moment more than any win or pancake block.
Unfortunately, grieving was a part of this year’s Arkansas State football season. Sure, beating Florida International in the Camellia Bowl, the ninth straight ASU bowl appearance, is a memory that will stick out, but the 2019 season will always be stamped with the loss of ‘Mama Wendy.’ That is Wendy Anderson, as in the late wife of Red Wolves coach Blake Anderson. On Aug. 19, less than two weeks before the season opener, Wendy Anderson succumbed to a lengthy battle with breast cancer.
It left ASU Coach Blake Anderson with a dilemma. He was obviously heartbroken and needed to be with his three children, but the Red Wolves had high expectations for the season and not having him at the helm may disrupt what could be a hallmark year.
Blake Anderson was not on the sidelines of the season opener when ASU lost 37-30 to an SMU team that spent part of the season nationally ranked. He wasn’t at practice the next week in preparation for the road game at UNLV, either. However, on game day he showed up in a meeting room in Las Vegas and coached that night. The Red Wolves hammered the Runnin’ Rebels 43-17.
Video of the team’s reaction went viral. It was obvious how much the Red Wolves adore their coach, and he them. An unforgettable, heartwarming moment that captures what is right about collegiate athletics.
The rest of the season was a roller-coaster of ups and downs. A week later, Georgia blanked ASU 55-0, but Bulldogs fans paid tribute to Wendy. ASU’s defense was riddled with injuries and uncharacteristically dropped back-to-back Sun Belt Conference losses to Georgia State and Louisiana-Lafayette, respectively. ASU then rattled off four straight SBC wins, but then there was the regular-season finale at South Alabama. Lowly USA pulled off the 34-30 upset.
Before the season I made a post targeted at ASU fans on how Blake Anderson’s loss was a lot bigger than football and to remember that during the season. Several told me that, A-State fans understood. Then, after the USA loss, some took to social media calling for him to be fired.
No doubt, Anderson was frustrated and hurt by that loss. Still, ASU had a bowl game with FIU to prepare for, and they did. ASU hung on for the 34-26 win to push the team’s record to 8-5.
Following the win, Blake Anderson was expectedly emotional.
“They literally got me through a season – through the toughest part of my life,” Anderson, who was close to tears, told ESPN on the soaked field.
When Blake Anderson made it to the media room of the Cramton Bowl, he was hoarse.
“It’s been an unbelievable ride, in every way, shape or form,” Blake Anderson said. “It’s a special group of guys, got me through a lot and got each other through a lot, too. It’s going to be a season that we’ll never forget.”
Wendy Anderson was mentioned several times during the presser by her husband and players, many of whom were very close with her, including star receiver Omar Bayless.
“You put in the hard work, and everything else will take care of itself,” Bayless, the SBC Player of the Year, told the media. “The main thing I did throughout the year was just put God first, and I also learned how to overcome adversity.”
Coaches hope that football will teach their teams the toughness and perseverance they need to navigate the twists and turns of life long after the final whistle blows.. The hot fall camp practices, close losses and wins and other on-field obstacles will serve them well they hope.
This team, A-State fans and the entire state could learn an important lesson from how Anderson handled this season. He dealt with the toughest setback in his life and kept pressing on, living to preserve his late wife’s memory and being an example for his family – immediate and football.
“I’ll be honest with you — I’m not really sure how [Coach Anderson] held his composure together like that [this season],” said ASU senior cornerback Darreon Jackson, who grabbed back-to-back interceptions to seal the win. “He rarely broke down, but we could tell he was hurting. Everything we did, we tried to keep him in mind.”
(Photo Credit: Travis Clayton | Arkansas State)