by Jeff Smith
October 5, 2018 was a typical, hum-drum evening. I was driving home alone after assistant coaching with Wheaton College’s women’s volleyball team at a tournament at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater. Interstate 90 was congested with Friday night traffic as I sped past Marengo.
But the evening took a turn for the worse from there. The skies opened up and pounded the stream of traffic with an intense thunderstorm. The rain shower was so heavy that visibility became limited, and most vehicles began slowing down in response.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, and that’s probably a blessing. I still recall my Ford Focus was rear-ended, sending the car spinning 360 degrees. Frantically I tried regaining control of the vehicle but in a matter of seconds was struck again and began spinning even more.
That’s all I can remember. The rest of the details I had to learn from reading the cops’ interviews with witnesses in the police report. To paraphrase the report, my car ended up getting totaled by four different vehicles in a span of about 10 seconds. The last vehicle to strike me was a large pickup truck that rear-ended me. The force of the last collision was so strong that it shattered my car’s back windshield and ejected me out of the car, through the opening where the back windshield once was in place and catapulted me to the shoulder of the highway.
A couple of witnesses apparently pulled to the side of the road, called 911 and attended to me while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. The ambulance whisked me off to a hospital ER in Elgin, where I regained consciousness after being unconscious since the ejection from the car.
My injuries were serious enough to warrant three days in ICU but by God’s grace were not life threatening: some broken ribs, a severe concussion, whiplash to my neck, compressed vertebrae in my back, a sprained ankle, banged-up knees and various lacerations and cuts around my face and body. Today I’m 80 to 90 percent recovered from the accident and am able to do most of the activities that I enjoyed before October 5.
The fact I wasn’t run over or struck by a car after getting thrown out of my vehicle on a slick highway during a rainstorm, and I didn’t die or suffer permanent damage from the ejection or landing on the interstate pavement, is truly a miracle. It has been a difficult road to recovery, and to this day when I’m driving on a highway and a strong storm erupts I struggle to fight back old feelings of fear, but God took incredible care of me. He even met every one of our financial needs from an overwhelming debt of medical bills. He is good, and I don’t deserve His goodness.
As a club director and coach I also learned one lesson in particular from this near-death experience. I find myself caring and feeling even more deeply about every athlete I work with. I still am very competitive and passionate about winning; I still take pride that my 1,001 career wins puts me among a very small and rare group of coaches in any sport, including volleyball, and I still expect every athlete to give her best effort, her best attitude and her best self to every practice and game.
But what has changed is that I now derive even more gratification from seeing athletes achieve smaller accomplishments. As an example, I substitute coached one of our teams at a tournament in March. One of the team’s middle hitters had never gotten to serve in a match that season. When I learned this, I made sure that she got the chance to serve in three of our matches that weekend. Watching her not only deliver her first-ever serve in play but earn an ace on that serve and then seeing her joy at the moment was tremendously satisfying. Ironically that same player went on to play sand volleyball this summer and has grown substantially in her all-around skills. Sometimes all it takes is having someone believe in us.
I still was highly motivated to help lead that team to victory that weekend. But I’m not sure that the pre-accident me would have allowed that middle hitter to serve. I would have wanted to line up our top servers who would give us the best opportunity to win that day.
That same weekend, the team I was substitute coaching advanced to the finals of its tournament before we lost 23-25, 24-26 in a hard-fought match by both teams. On match point one of our back-row players shanked a pass that ended the match. She felt terrible and looked over at me despondently after committing the error. My pre-accident self would have just ignored her mistake and said nothing about it.
After the match I ended up giving that player one of my post-match awards for all the great plays she made in the back row throughout the match. I know what it feels like to fail and wanted her to focus on all the positives she contributed that day and not on the match-point mistake.
At Serve City camps this summer I also found myself working more than usual with the kids who were struggling to learn or master a skill. I still trained the higher-skilled athletes but gravitated more to reaching out to those who needed extra help. Everyone deserves our best version of us, don’t they?
Now more than ever I want our summer camps to be events where each player gets the best possible coaching. I’ve seen far too many camps where the camp coaches go through the motions and give the players mediocre, watered-down teaching and run a slow, boring camp marked by long hitting lines and few touches on the ball. That won’t happen at a Serve City camp.
The accident has especially influenced how I see my daughters. Watching my older daughter coach her first team last winter and spring was more gratifying than any victory I’ve ever experienced, and when I got to watch my younger daughter play for College of DuPage in a spring tournament in Indiana I soaked up every serve, pass and attack by her. After the car accident last October, I’m fortunate just to be able to see her play and get to cheer her on. Now I don’t want to miss a single point of her matches or of Jessica’s matches at Judson University.
I was given a new lease on life in October. I didn’t deserve it; it was a gift. Now that I have a second chance at life, I want to seize every opportunity that comes my way as a husband, a father, a friend, a family member, a club director and every other role I’m called to fulfill.
Jeff Smith is Serve City club director.