Stow family strong in face of tragedy

LOS ANGELES -- Mornings are the easiest.

By now, their route from their hotel in downtown Los Angeles to County-USC Medical Center is familiar.

They come as a group, piling into whichever cars are available. Hopeful, in the mornings, that something good might have happened and something other than the calendar might have changed.

For two and a half weeks, the Stow family has been faithfully making this drive. Over, optimistically, in the mornings. Back, patiently, at nights.

They remain strong. But they remain crushed, too.

Because for two and a half weeks Bryan Stow has been in a medically induced coma, recovering from a beating in the parking lot at Dodger Stadium so severe that doctors told the family that nine out of 10 people wouldn't have survived the initial surgery to reduce swelling in his brain.

"It's just really hard to see him there, talking to him and he's not talking back," Stow's mother Ann said in a wide-ranging interview Sunday morning. "I can only do a little bit of that at a time.

"Did you ever see that movie 'Groundhog Day'? It's like that. The same thing every day.

"I brought a book to read, but I just haven't been able to read it yet. I just sit there and stare at the same page, because my mind is always on Bryan."

The days have felt interminably long.

Life before the senseless attack seems like a lifetime ago.

And yet even within these staid, sad walls, there is hope.

"From the beginning, the doctors have been very honest with us," Stow's sister, Erin Collins, said. "They've always said his chances of ever waking up out of that coma are slim. We're holding on to those slim chances.

"We just have to have faith, pray and hope and remember how strong Bryan is. He's stubborn and he's got a lot of willpower. We just keep telling him, 'Hey Bryan, you can do this. You can do this.' "

For the past two and a half weeks, the Stow family has grieved alongside people they have never met, and who have never met Bryan.

They did not ask for the attention, but they did not fight it either. It simply found them.

No, it simply embraced them.

"I don't think we all realized just how much people cared, or how big this thing had gotten until the Monday afterwards when Rosa [Saca, the hospital's spokeswoman] came up to us and told us how many media requests had been coming in," said John Stow, Bryan's cousin.

"But you know, even then, I don't think I realized until I went back home [to Santa Cruz] and saw how much people were doing for Bryan, how much they cared."

After a week by his cousin's side, John Stow, 39, went back home for a few days last week.

But really, how do you go home after something like this?

"Bryan and I always hung out," he said. "We'd watch Giants games, football games, then head over to Malone's [a restaurant in Santa Cruz], have a few beers and do some karaoke.

"Bryan loved karaoke. He'd always sing Bon Jovi or 'Eye of the Tiger.' "

They've been friends since childhood. Brothers more than cousins.

But since the attack, all John can do, all anyone can do is just be there and try to help.

"When I was down here [in L.A.] I tried to be as strong as I could for the family," he said. "Because it's been so tough and they were hurting so bad. I didn't have time to really grieve the whole time I was down here."

Still, he had to go back. For a few days at least. To check on his kids. To sleep. To see his father, who is recovering from a double lung transplant at Stanford University Hospital.

Life has changed forever, but it hasn't stopped.

On his way to the hospital, he got a call from his sister.

"I'm literally two blocks from Stanford, going to see my dad, and I get pulled over by a highway patrolman for talking on my phone," he said, shaking his head at the memory.

"He says to me, 'Do you know why I pulled you over?' I'm like 'Yeah, I'm sorry, I just got back from L.A.' The cop says, 'We got the same rules as L.A., pal.'

"I didn't say a word. I just handed him my license and started reaching for my registration and insurance."

When he looked up, the patrolman had removed his glasses and the glove on his right hand.

He leaned in to ask: "Stow? Are you related to Bryan Stow?"

"I just lost it," John said. "I literally cried for 10 minutes. Like I was a little boy. Everything I'd been holding in, this knot that had been sitting on top of my stomach for days, all of a sudden I could breathe a little easier."

The cop put his hand on John Stow's shoulder and handed him back his license.

There were tears in his eyes, too.

A lot of things make the days go by easier. Old stories, new friends, laughter, love.

Because of the seriousness of Bryan's condition, contact must be limited to 10-minute visits, two people at a time.

There is only one rule: No crying in Bryan's room.

"A lot of people have reached out to us," Erin said. "One lady in particular told us she was in a coma for a month and it was hard for her when people were in there crying."

Instead they just talk to him. Tell him to keep fighting and try to give him a sense of just how many people have become absorbed and invested in his story.

"I always go into his room and go, 'Bryan, who knew you had this many friends?'" his sister Bonnie Stow joked.

"He'd be so upset he's missing this. He'd love all this attention."

His two children, Tyler, 12, and Tabitha, 8, have remained in Santa Cruz.

"They're doing OK," said their mother, Bryan's ex-wife, Jackie Kain. "They're worried about their dad. I've been very honest with them and told them that his injuries are bad.

"But they still have their innocence about them. They still fight with each other. They still want to go out and play. So that's a breath of fresh air for me, because I don't want it to be like everybody crying around them."

Their biggest fear is that their father, who called them every day on the way to school and took them to the beach on weekends, won't remember them when he wakes up.

"That was really hard," Kain said. "But I just told the kids, that means that we just get to relive our life again."

The details of the night all their lives were shattered have come into focus by now.

The brutality of the attack, the heroism of the two bystanders who helped to pull the assailants off of Stow before they killed him.

Why it happened will never make sense, though.

"The first thing we heard Bryan was in a fight," Erin Collins said. "And our first thought was, Bryan doesn't fight.

"When we heard what really happened it was shocking. Who does that? To somebody from behind? And then run away. It's not a fight. He was attacked."

Like everyone involved and connected with this story, heartbreak and anger are intimately and forever connected.

There is no way to feel sadness without shock, or pain without rage.

It's why John Stow went back to Dodger Stadium three days after the attack.

"I just had to go there and see what it was all about, to feel what Bryan went through," he said. "I went to Lot 2, where he was attacked, and there's no lighting. There's nobody around. The only people we saw in the stadium were directing traffic.

"I tried to watch the game, because I love baseball. But I just couldn't get into it. Not yet."

His voice was calm as he talked. Peaceful, even.

"You know, I just believe there has to be a purpose to tragedies like this," he said. "To see what happened to Bryan and to see what's happening now, it's just incredible to think Bryan could actually bring about that kind of change in people.

"I see what's happening, and I wish I could explain it. All I can really say is that people are really good. Just on a human level. They look at this as just the ugliest kind of attack on another human being and they want to make a change. They want to make a difference."

Ramona Shelburne is a reporter and columnist for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow her on Twitter. ESPN's Shelley Smith contributed to this report