Town mourns loss of coaches

To Zane Harvey, center, coaching sports at Broken Bow High School was his life. Broken Bow High School

ROKEN BOW, Neb. -- Less than two blocks from Broken Bow High School sits a gray house with a couple of satellite dishes and a worn-out mailbox that says HUSKERS. It's a modest house, built for a teacher who's rarely home. It's all Zane Harvey ever needed. He lived 38 years and was never married. Broken Bow, friends say, was his wife and his life.

There are very few secrets in a town of 3,559, so the people of Broken Bow knew, for the most part, that Coach Harvey walked home for lunch every day, in a rainstorm or a blizzard, and that he spent hours at night on his computer breaking down football video. That he was a meat-and-potatoes man who never met a fruit or vegetable that he liked. Some of them even knew that one night, "Harv" was spotted at the Bonfire, which is sort a small-town version of Applebee's, with a woman. That was quite the buzz around school.

"He was as picky with girls as he was with food," said Ed Schaaf, Broken Bow's wrestling coach. "He just didn't take time for that. He was so involved in everything up here."

Harvey coached three sports, taught math and at some point taped roughly half the ankles in town. He was the school's head basketball coach by default. He said he'd do it until they hired another guy, but then a year passed and there was no other guy. So it was no surprise that Harvey was eager to slip back to being an assistant coach last year, and he even suggested a candidate to replace him: Anthony Blum.

In most places, it never would have worked, an old coach staying on and working side-by-side with the new guy. But this was Broken Bow. The two men seemed to have little in common. Blum was barely out of college, was known on occasion to break out into Justin Bieber songs during class and, with backpack in tow, looked more like a student manager than a head coach. Harvey was continuity and Christian rock. And they became fast friends.

Like in most rural towns in Nebraska, football is king in Broken Bow, and most other sports are just filler until fall camp. But Blum was going to change that. He was young, energetic and determined. And kids were drawn to him.

They flocked to his classroom and a gym with no air conditioning for voluntary summer workouts. On the night of May 31, he drew enough players to field five pickup teams. They ran up and down the court as the sun melted into the Sandhills, and Blum and Harvey ran right down the court with them.

Something was changing, and the whole town could feel it. Broken Bow was excited about basketball. They met the next morning, at 7:30 a.m. sharp, and headed to Kearney, Neb., for a camp. They played three games, ate at Sonic, then loaded into the school van to head home, Harvey at the wheel, Blum in the passenger seat.

An hour later, Broken Bow's coaches were gone.

n the late-afternoon hours of June 1, the van carrying 10 members of the Broken Bow boys' basketball team was hit head-on by a pickup truck on Highway 2, a picturesque stretch of road known as the Sandhills Journey Scenic Byway. Zane Harvey and Anthony Blum were killed, along with the driver of the pickup, Albert Sherbeck.

All eight students survived the crash that gutted the front of their 2009 Ford Econoline and summoned rescue teams from four different central Nebraska communities. Two of the players -- Chad Christensen and Scott Gates -- remain hospitalized. Preliminary autopsy reports from the Custer County attorney's office show that Sherbeck, a 70-year-old farmer, suffered from severe cardiovascular disease, which may have been a factor in the accident. Sherbeck was just a mile away from his home in Ansley, Neb. Harvey had just passed a gas station called Custer's Last Stop and a sign that said they were 16 miles from Broken Bow.

Some of the boys were asleep, iPods playing, when Sherbeck's truck crossed the center line and veered into the path of the van. Others remember what they believe to be Harvey's last words. He told them, "Hold on."

"I looked up out the front window, and that pickup was completely in our lane," said Hunter Campbell, a guard for the Indians. "I remember him trying to swerve, but there was not a lot of time.

"I remember smells. Right away, I saw smoke in the air. Mr. Harvey said to hold on, you know, and I think back on it, and I was clenched in the seat in front of me, hanging on to that seat for dear life. Honestly, that's what saved me."

A spokeswoman for the Nebraska State Patrol said Harvey and Blum were wearing their seat belts at the time of the crash. Campbell said he didn't know whether he was wearing his. But he does remember the team stopping at Sonic on the way out of Kearney for a quick meal to tide them over for the 70-minute drive.

The restaurant "messed up my order," he said, and it took five extra minutes to fix. Campbell thinks about that, and wonders if that hadn't happened, maybe things would be different.

"You can blame all this different stuff," he said. "But what happened happened. There's nothing you can change."

For much of the night, chaos crackled over cellphone towers. The teens were taken to three different hospitals in three different towns. Todd Reynolds was at a charity golf tournament two hours from Broken Bow when his wife called and said their son Austin had been in a head-on collision, and that's all she knew. The second call was worse. "All I know now," Lori Reynolds told him, "is that they're telling us the coaches are dead."

She went to the Broken Bow hospital and waited. Austin wasn't there. She called a friend at another hospital who just happened to see Austin getting wheeled in, and this is one of the many reasons the Reynolds are grateful to live in a small town, because in the toughest of times, people look out for each other."This is not my kid," the woman told a hospital staffer, "but you're going to tell me what the hell's wrong with him."

The woman was able to pry the information and relay to the Reynolds family that Austin was alive. He had a broken right femur and a broken left elbow. It was the longest two hours of Todd Reynolds' life.

"I think it will change my life forever," he said. "Once you find out your kid's alive, you're like, 'Wow, I don't think I can have a bad day from now on.'"

irginia Moon, the interim superintendent of the Broken Bow school district, was three-and-a-half hours away in Omaha when she received word of the crash. She was so distraught by the news that she left her briefcase and laptop in the driveway as she zoomed off for Broken Bow.

Moon is near the end of her career, so she does interim work and has a permanent home in Omaha. She stays in an apartment in Broken Bow. She calls it a special community. Like everyone in town, Moon had not known Blum for very long.

He taught accounting in that one school year. His classroom was near the lounge. And almost every day, Moon would walk in and listen to him teach.

"This was somebody who was born to be a teacher," Moon said. "You just saw it in how comfortable he was in front of a classroom and how the kids paid attention. It seemed to happen naturally for him. He had 'it.'"

Blum was barely 20 when he decided what he wanted to do with his life. He was coaching his little brother's eighth-grade baseball team in their hometown of Minden, Neb., and it was there Blum knew he was supposed to teach. It was in his blood, said his brother Gavin. Blum's mom teaches at Minden High; his dad coached Blum and his two little brothers when they were kids.

The Blum boys were known as the "Three Amigos" and did nearly everything together -- hard-core hoops in the driveway, four-man golf scrambles with their dad. It was a gamble for Broken Bow to hire a coach fresh out of college, and when Blum got the job, he wondered if the kids would take him seriously. But he didn't think about it for long.

"He just kind of poured his heart into it," Gavin said.

"He'd be the first guy to crack a joke when appropriate, but when it was time to play hard and be serious, he was really good at flipping the switch."

Blum was low-key and confident and fit in right away. He hung with the football coaches who have been trading wisecracks together for years. He became golfing buddies with the band director, who's been at the school for nearly four decades. His seamless transition was no easy task, said Mike Garner, the head football coach. At the risk of sounding arrogant -- only in small-town middle America do coaches worry about sounding arrogant -- it's different here, Garner said.

Coaches don't teach weightlifting classes and drive around in school-issued cars. They teach math and accounting and don't have enough office space to hold all their hats. The special-teams coach for the Broken Bow football team, a guy named Kurt Altig, spends Friday nights scurrying around on the sideline fixing broken helmets. The golf coach, which happened to be Harvey, used to rush home after tournaments so he could help with track meets.

They don't do it because they have to, Garner said. Blum was 24 years old, and he got it.

"You know, I have a daughter who will be a senior," Garner said. "And she asked me the other day, 'How can someone who's only here for a year make such a difference? How can somebody mean so much to us?'

"I told her, 'Some of you probably saw in Anthony someone you wanted to be. Someone who was enthusiastic and loved their job.'"

His first basketball camp last summer, Blum showed up in long sleeves and worked out in 90-degree heat. He liked to wear long sleeves so he'd sweat more, which got him hyped up. Garner looked at the kid running all around the floor, soaking wet, and wondered what was up with the new coach. The kids used to tease Blum about his clothes. One day, they all showed up for practice in long sleeves.

Blum never let his players get an easy shot off him in practice. When he lost his cool and got a technical in a game this past winter, he did the required running the next day in practice just like his players. They liked that.

The Indians went years without winning more than a handful of games every season. Blum knew that if they were ever going to get better, they'd have to see more competition. They'd have to become more confident. So he arranged for them to go to a number of camps this summer, a weekend in Lincoln in May, a day in Kearney in June.

Broken Bow won just five games in 2011-12, but the whole town could see big signs of improvement by the end of the season, so big that Todd Reynolds and some other parents quietly worried that they'd lose Blum to a larger school.

"We golfed about a month or two ago," said Jake Bogus, Blum's best friend. "He told me he had aspirations of maybe coaching at a [bigger] school someday. But he also told me he was very happy in Broken Bow. He said, 'I could see myself living here the rest of my life, and it wouldn't bother me.'"

t is an early June morning in central Nebraska, and Garner and a couple of assistant football coaches are sitting in Broken Bow's boardroom, which also doubles as a snacking place and a faculty hangout. On the grease board at the front of the room is a scribbled note that says, "Ideas for Memorial."

In a couple of hours, Ryan Hogue, the activities director, will drive a group of students 100 miles to Hildreth, Neb., for Blum's visitation. There are too many funerals, too many memorials, and Hogue is hurting.

He's one of the people who hired Blum, and he knew he had to keep a professional distance from his coaches, but it doesn't exactly work that way in Broken Bow. It can't.

"I mean, I'd never had anybody in one year …" Hogue said, his voice trailing off. "I can say a lot of friends are very close to me, but very few came as close to me personally like Anthony did. He's one of those kids that won you over."

He won Zane Harvey over. They golfed together, scouted together, and sometimes, Harvey would travel with Blum to watch his little brother play basketball. Harvey would eat meals with the whole Blum family. He was perfectly content being the loyal assistant, the mentor helping a young coach find his way. Harvey, Gavin Blum said, was always there to help.

The drive from Kearney was one they'd done many times before. The closest road trip for Broken Bow is roughly 50 minutes, Garner estimates. One extra stoplight, and maybe they're all home right now, cracking jokes about Harvey sending back food because it had mustard or lettuce on it.

Harvey was everywhere. He was everything to Broken Bow. In a weaker moment, the night of June 1, Garner couldn't fathom it, the thought of being on the sideline without Harvey, the idea of starting fall practice without him.

"Zane was closer to me, in a lot of ways, than my own brother is," he said. "Over the last 14 years I've spent a lot more time with him than I have my own brother. My wife is the elementary counselor, and she was down in Kearney at the hospital with the families. And when she finally got home, I just told her, 'I don't think I can do this anymore. I don't think I want to do this anymore.'

"But you've got to do it. You've just got to keep going on. Because that's such a huge part of who we are. And these kids need that."

When the coaches start to get upset contemplating life without Harvey, they think of what he'd say. Trust in the Lord. They think of Harvey's brother, who's a pastor in town. They know Zane would want them to do what he always tried to do, keep the kids together.

A few days after the crash, Harvey's house was covered in signs made by students. On his porch sat a golf ball covered in blue marker. I'm sure gonna miss you! But I know [you're] having the time of your life up in heaven.

They cannot begin to measure the gaping hole that two coaches, two teachers, have left. They have no idea how the kids will react this fall when they don't see Coach Harvey in the hallway or Coach Blum in his classroom.

Garner has a hard time thinking past tomorrow. There was a football camp scheduled last week in Kearney, and the Indians were looking forward to going, but Garner's initial thought was to scrap it. The idea of going back to Kearney, without his right hand, seemed too hard. Then he thought about it. The kids already had so much taken away from them. He couldn't take this, too.

So they left on a Monday morning, drove through the lush-green Nebraska landscape and headed off to play, because that's what they're supposed to do.