KALAMAZOO, Mich. -- The first time Bud Schimmelpfenneg, a longtime Eastern Michigan fan and booster, met one of the new additions to the women's basketball team he reached out to shake her hand.
Shannise Heady wanted none of it.
"Oh no, I'm not shaking hands," he recalled her telling him. "I'm a hugger."
There weren't any handshakes after the final buzzer brought an end to Wednesday's game between Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan, either. Just as players, coaches and staff from both teams locked arms for a moment of silence before the game and remained that way through the national anthem, jerseys alternating in a semi-circle that stretched almost all the way around the court, they eschewed handshakes for hugs when it was over. It wasn't a normal night. It won't be normal for Eastern Michigan for a long time. For these players, maybe ever.
I want everybody to know who Shannise was.
They aren't my words. They are the words Eastern Michigan coach Tory Verdi found after he stood at the lectern for eight full seconds of silence when introduced for a news conference following Wednesday's game. It was normally the time and place where a coach would be expected to summarize the basketball just played. Such statements are often banal and rarely enlightening. Not this time. Not as Verdi ran his hands along the wood in front of him and seemed to search for something, maybe words, maybe composure, maybe both. A game had been played. The scoreboard said one team scored more points. That team wasn't Eastern Michigan. That mattered not the slightest.
"Shannise was special," Verdi said. "She was a light. She was an unbelievable person. She was a comedian, a jokester. She brought a lot of light to our team. She was a winner. Whenever there was a dull moment, she would take it upon herself to change that mood, regardless of it. She was a competitor. She had so much love for life. She had a tremendous amount of zest for life."
It was a life that came to an end far too soon.
At approximately 1 a.m. local time on Sunday morning, some six or seven hours after the Eastern Michigan team returned home from a Saturday afternoon game at Toledo, Heady and a companion, Jordan Hopkins, were in a car in the Ypsilanti area. The car, driven by Heady, crossed the center line and collided with a vehicle in the oncoming lane. Both Heady and Hopkins died at the scene. Heady was 21 years old. Hopkins, also a student at Eastern Michigan, was 23. As reported by MLive.com, early indications were neither was wearing a seat belt at the time of the accident and that speed was a factor (the driver of the other car was taken to a hospital with non-life threatening injuries).
John Maniatis, Heady's former coach at Hillcrest High School in the Chicago area, couldn't understand what the player's dad was saying at first when the latter called him Sunday morning. Maniatis taught both Heady's mother and father at Hillcrest and knew her from the time she was a fifth-grader who came to the school's basketball camps. When he finally pieced together the words muffled by pain, it hardly made more sense. He had spoken to her only recently and the junior majoring in health care administration with a desire to go into nursing seemed finally at home on and off the court at Eastern Michigan, where she transferred from Seton Hall.
"It's just a tragedy [to lose] somebody that was going to go on and touch many, many people's lives," Maniatis said. "Especially with what she was majoring in and pushing for and reaching her dreams of getting into the health-care industry, she was going to touch many peoples' lives.
"It's beyond unfortunate that people are not going to be able to experience Shannise Heady."
Some of that, though far from all of it, had to do with basketball. After Verdi, his staff and school administrators informed the team of her death Sunday morning, after players spent much of that day with counselors and others doing their best to offer support, including the school's men's basketball team, after a night to sleep fitfully, players and coaches again gathered in the locker room for a meeting that replaced practice Monday. They had to decide whether to make the trip to Kalamazoo for Wednesday's game. Verdi said the decision was not at first unanimous, that a majority of players wanted to play but a few did not or were unsure.
Then they asked what Heady would want. And so they went.
There was emotion on display Wednesday night, faraway looks and fingers wiping at eyes when there was no sweat to wipe away. But in the moments just before the game there were also smiles and some laughs as Eastern Michigan ran through its final drills. In the locker room just beforehand, the team had put on two of the songs Heady loved, one by Beyoncé and one by ILoveMakonnen. They told themselves that she wouldn't want them to sulk.
"We put a couple of her favorite songs on and, you know, got excited," sophomore Janay Morton said. "And Shannise always say, 'Turn up,' so that's we did while we were in there."
Heady was not above exhibiting a measure of confidence in her own abilities -- Matiatis said part of the reason Heady initially went to Seton Hall was the hope that then-coach Anne Donovan's WNBA connections might help Heady extend her career professionally. But as a coach who sent more than 50 players to Division I programs, Maniatis said she was the most accomplished in school history for other reasons. A starter all four years, she played in two state championship games, made a third appearance in the semifinals and reached the quarterfinals when she was a freshman.
"Many of those people had huge stats and everything else, but this kid wasn't a huge stat person," Maniatis said. "I mean, it wasn't that she was consumed with 'I've got to be the highest scorer. I've got to lead the area in scoring. I want to see my name in the paper all the time.' She always deflected the contributions to others, to their successes. She was a person that was a giver.
"Her senior year when she was all-conference, all-area, all-state, honorable All-American, she only averaged 14.5 points per game, but her floor game was just beyond, just the things she brought to the table. That's why we had five people who averaged double digits her senior year, because of her and her unselfishness."
She liked people. She liked to mess with them, tease them and pester them. But she liked to help them, too. She did it on the basketball court. She wanted to do it in life.
Schimmelpfenneg and his wife, Carol, watched Wednesday's game from eight rows behind the Eastern Michigan bench, Carol lined up almost perfectly with the No. 32 jersey that Sera Ozelci, a junior from Turkey and one of Heady's closest friends on the team, carefully draped over one of the chairs on the bench during the game (Ozelci brought it with her when she went to the locker room at halftime and again when the game was over).
A retired nurse who worked at Ford, Carol was Heady's mentor in a program the team operates to pair players with people in the local community. After seeing a segment on the news program "60 Minutes" about the need for nurses in Veterans Affairs hospitals, she had been in Heady's ear about pursuing such a path. Heady was supposed to come to dinner Thursday, a day after the game at Western, and Carol was going to give her a copy of the segment.
"In all the years we've been associated with Eastern, we've never become this close so quickly," Carol said.
Like Maniatis and Verdi, the Schimmelpfennegs both slipped with some frequency into the present tense as they talked about Heady. Morton said it still feels like her teammate will come walking through the door again at some point. They all talked about that smile, the one that should have had decades left to gleam.
"My heart is broken for the family," Verdi said. "As a coach, and when you recruit these kids, I often tell the parents that it's my responsibility as a coach to return their children back to them better than when they were dropped off."
There isn't supposed to be a funeral.
This is the point at which sports stories are supposed to provide the happy ending. The games we play offer so many of them, some of them written in deeds during the course of a game, some redemption stories years in the making.
Here there is only a void. Here there was a basketball game played that meant little and fixed less. Except perhaps to those for whom it was the first step in a journey that some might never fully complete and which will surely come with steps both forward and backward. The shock and adrenaline will wear off, the whirlwind will settle and there will be more games to play. And the No. 32 jersey will still sit there on the bench, the laughter it held only echoes now.
I want everybody to know who Shannise was.
Again, they aren't my words.
They are the words of those who did know her. They are the words of those who know how much we all lost.