Coach remembered on anniversary of Columbine tragedy

Amber Wade described Dave Sanders' coaching style as "quiet thunder."

And she should know. In her four years at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in the late 1990s when she was Amber Burgess, Wade was coached by Sanders every season, every year. He was the Rebels' assistant softball coach in the fall, head girls' basketball coach in the winter and assistant girls' track coach in the spring.

"Quick to listen; slow to speak," Wade said.

Yet Sanders' most lasting impact in his 25 years as a business teacher and coach at the high school located about a 20-minute drive southwest of Denver came on a day when he didn't hold his voice and was quick to assert his authority.

On April 20, 1999, Sanders was in the faculty lounge during lunch when word came of gunfire on campus. He headed straight to the nearby first-floor commons area, where an estimated 500 to 600 students were eating lunch. He immediately told them to leave and how and where to seek shelter.

Sanders then raced upstairs to do the same for those students in the library above the commons and in second-floor classrooms. In the hallway, he encountered Eric Harris, one of the two Columbine students in the midst of a deadly shooting rampage. Sanders was turning away from him when he was shot in the back, neck and torso.

In the midst of chaos and confusion and fear that day 10 years ago, Sanders died from a loss of blood after students tried for hours to get him help.

The previous day, Sanders had come by to visit Wade in that same commons area during lunch to say hello and subtly remind her that she still had not turned in her basketball uniform.

When the shots rang out that fateful Tuesday, Wade was attending her grandmother's funeral. When she learned what was happening at Columbine, of the shootings in the parking lot and the cafeteria and the library, she said her first thought was of Sanders.

"His office was near the cafeteria," she said. "He would be among the first to try to stop them and get students to safety."

William "Dave" Sanders was 47 years old and left behind a wife, four children and five grandchildren. He was the only school staffer to be killed, along with 12 students, before Harris and Dylan Klebold apparently killed themselves. At least 24 other people were injured that day.

Frank DeAngelis, Columbine's principal since 1995, said of Sanders, "He saved many a life that day."

Dave Sanders joined the Columbine faculty in the fall of 1974, a year after the school opened and soon after he graduated from Chadron State College. The college located in the Pine Ridge region of northwest Nebraska is known for its education program. Sanders played on the basketball team and perfected an accurate outside jumper.

At a time when the Vince Lombardi method of coaching through intimidation was still very popular, Sanders preferred something of a soft sell.

Rick Bath and Sanders teamed to coach Columbine's softball and girls' basketball teams starting in the mid-1980s, Bath running the softball program and Sanders the girls' basketball team while they assisted each other. Bath readily admitted the two of them played off their contrasting styles.

"He was the quiet one; I was the loud one," Bath said. "He was forever trying to get me to calm down a little bit in softball. I was forever trying to get him to raise his hackles a little bit in basketball.

"It was just a good setup. When he had that look, everybody knew it was time you stopped messing around."

Their yin-and-yang act didn't end with each school year. Sanders and Bath spent many summers working basketball camps and open batting cage sessions and softball tournaments.

"I probably spent more time with him than I spent with my wife," Bath said with a laugh.

DeAngelis was Columbine's baseball coach earlier in his 30 years at the school and had Sanders as an assistant.

"I learned a lot from Dave," he said. "He took me under his wing. He cared about the kids. He knew the fundamentals of the sport. If he said anything, the kids knew he was upset that they messed up.

"Then he'd put his arm around the kid."

In Wade's freshman year, the 1995 softball team reached the Class 5A state final before losing to Arvada West (Arvada, Colo.). That same school year, the girls' basketball team surprisingly qualified for the Sweet 16 played in Denver's McNichols Sports Arena, home then of the NBA's Nuggets. The girls wore T-shirts that read "Cinderella Story" and had a good ol' time even though they were drubbed by the top seed, a team from Heritage High School (Littleton) that included Lisa Hosac (headed to Virginia) and Keirsten Walters (to UConn).

As the years and the seasons passed, Wade formed a bond with Sanders. In track, she competed in the discus, the long jump and the triple jump; Sanders coached the jumpers. In softball, where she was a catcher/shortstop, he was the first-base coach.

He'd also coached Wade's older brothers. Sanders, she recalled, often observed that "girls were far more gross than boys. Spit more. Cursed more."

Sanders and Wade shared the same birthday, Oct. 22. And it was on Oct. 22, 1998, when she played her final high school softball game, at the state tournament in Grand Junction. Columbine trailed Bear Creek (Lakewood) by a run, and Wade batted in the final inning with a runner at first and two out. Wade said she faced a steady helping of outside pitches and finally lined one up the middle … directly at the second baseman, playing in a defensive shift. The runner was forced at second, and Wade crossed the bag at first in tears.

Sanders immediately told her, "Let's go for a walk."

The two headed quietly toward the right-field foul pole. Sanders said they'd had too much fun over four years for her to be so disappointed. She had a great college career ahead of her. He gave her a hug, and she finally stopped crying.

Bath, like Wade, was off campus when the shootings took place. He and a colleague had headed out for what they planned as a quick trip to a nearby convenience store to buy some scratch tickets as the lunch period began at 11:05 a.m. When they tried to return, the school had been locked down. And there was talk that Dave Sanders had been shot.

Bath contacted Sanders' wife, Linda, who hadn't heard from her husband. He checked with friends in the medical field; Sanders wasn't among the Columbine people admitted to area hospitals.

It wasn't until the following afternoon, Bath said, when Linda Sanders was officially informed of her husband's death.

Kevin Land, Columbine's athletic director then, was the president of the state ADs association and was speaking at a conference north of Denver that Tuesday.

"Such a traumatic thing like that happens, and you're away from the building," Land said. "It was a very difficult thing."

Columbine students didn't return to class for a week. And when they did, school took place at nearby rival Chatfield (Littleton) for the remainder of the 1998-99 school year. Chatfield shortened its days, and Columbine personnel and students came in from lunchtime until 5:30 p.m.

For the rest of Bath's coaching career, he avoided going inside Chatfield's building.

Land met with the coaches of the ongoing spring sports and decided to go ahead and finish their seasons in an effort to restore as much routine as possible. Among those voicing their disapproval of that decision were people who had concluded Harris and Klebold sought revenge against the school's jocks.

According to reports, one of the shooters in the library yelled, "All jocks stand up!" Among the fatalities were Lauren Townsend, captain of the volleyball team; Matt Kechter, a lineman on the football team; Isaiah Shoels, who had wrestled and played football despite being born with a heart defect.

Brian Anderson, a football player who was wounded early on, told authorities that he thought Harris fired at him because he was wearing a white hat, a practice of many Columbine athletes.

Land doesn't believe athletes were singled out.

"They were two distorted individuals; they shot at a lot of kids that day," Land said. "One of the main areas was the library. If you were going after athletes, you would have waited until the athletic practice period and gone into the locker room."

Wade, bound then for the University of Nebraska to play softball, doesn't remember taking any tests the rest of that school year.

"The outpouring from the world was amazing," she said. "There were two tents full of mail. We wrote a lot of thank-you cards."

Wade was among the speakers at an outdoor memorial the following Sunday attended by about 70,000 people, including former Vice President Al Gore. She asked any Columbine students present to help her conclude her remarks.

"We are …" Wade said, looking out at the gathering. And they shouted back, "Columbine!"

In the fall of 1999, Columbine's softball field was renamed Dave Sanders Memorial Softball Field. A scholarship was established in his honor.

Land asked Bath whether he would take over Sanders' basketball team for 1999-2000. He had been a head girls' basketball coach before coming to Columbine. But he just couldn't.

"That whole last part of the year, where we went to Chatfield High School, it was just a blur," Bath said. "I remember taking a whole bunch of comp days and just not doing anything. Just sitting around the house."

He remained at Columbine for only a few more years. "Until everything was under control," Bath said. He retired a few years ago and, at age 58, runs a small tavern with his wife.

The Columbine Rebels won the 1999 state football championship, their first. Each player wore a No. 70 patch, the uniform number of Matt Kechter. They've won three more titles since.

With the upcoming 10th anniversary of the tragedy, principal DeAngelis' secretary has scheduled regular interview times for him in recent weeks. The school has hosted film crews from across the country and from England, Germany and Chile.

Wade said she struggled with survivor guilt for a long time, a common thought being, "That should have been me." There was talk soon after that there might be more shooters, and she feared they would come to her home. She was frightened by noises such as a car backfiring or the newspaper being thrown into the yard in the dark of early morning.

She starred for Nebraska's softball team for four years. After graduation, Wade got into banking but quickly determined she wasn't corporate. She now is a firefighter in Lincoln, Neb., and in December 2007, she married Cornhuskers assistant strength coach Chad Wade.

She thinks of Sanders often, especially at this time of the year. About girls being grosser and the trip to McNichols and that final softball game.

And of something that happened at Sanders' funeral.

Bath was among the speakers and had plenty of stories to tell. One was about a softball player who would remain nameless. The player was heartbroken over how her career ended, and Bath described how Sanders employed a hug and a walk up the right-field line.

"It hit me like a brick wall," Wade said. "I lost it."

Jeff Miller is a freelance writer in Texas and can be reached at miller.jeff55@gmail.com.