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Mahler: For Golf Coach, Plenty of Reason for Thanks

As you listen to Rich Parker describe the events last month on Interstate 91 around Windsor, Conn., you realize just how many ways this thing could have gone bad. And believe me, there were many ways.

But the subtle change in his voice as he tells the story — a mixture of awe, reverence and a touch of humility perhaps — let’s you know that there was, in fact, despite the chance for disaster, a happy and safe ending.

So you’ll have to excuse Parker if he seems a little distracted these days. Coming within inches of losing your life will do that to people. That’s why when Parker and his family sit down to their holiday meal today, he will have a little something extra to be thankful for. And something to think about.

“It’s changed my life,” says Parker. “No question about it.”

The Dartmouth College golf team was heading home that Oct. 14 afternoon, having completed a somewhat disappointing performance at the Big 5 Invitational in Philadelphia. It was quiet in the van as evening fell, the coach and his five players mostly caught up in their own thoughts as they sped their way back to Hanover.

Suddenly, an image caught Parker’s attention. He couldn’t make sense of the picture his eyes were sending his brain. Was that really a tire he saw heading in his direction?

Yes, out of the corner of his eye, Parker caught sight of a round, rubber missile heading his way — bouncing across the median with bad intentions.

“It was almost like a dream,” says Parker. “It was dark, I really wasn’t sure... I couldn’t see it, but for some reason I thought that if I turned toward it, got under it ... just hoping it would miss us.”

It didn’t miss.

The tire exploded out of the sky, smashing into the roof of the vehicle, caving in the top of the van. The front window was shattered. Glass was everywhere.

“It was like a bomb went off,” said Parker. “I had never heard anything like it.”

Parker immediately went into survival mode. He kept a tight grip on the steering wheel, making sure he made no sudden, wild turns, keeping the van straight in its lane while looking for a safe place to pull off the road.

A quick mental inventory told him he was OK. But what about the players in his charge?

“I can’t see anybody. I have no idea what might have happened to the guys.

“So I started the roll call.”

Parker’s voice cut through the shocked silence. James Pleat, sitting up front beside Parker, was the first to respond. He was cut and bruised, but OK. Just a moment before the impact, Pleat had bent down to change the music selection. That one small motion bent him away from the roof as it collapsed into the cabin — saving him from critical injury.

Then Parker tried to check on the player sitting directly behind him.

“Charlie.” No response.

“CHARLIE!” Still no response.

“CHARLIE CAI!”

Finally, the response: “I’m OK.”

In fact, with the exception of the cuts and bruising, all the other passengers — Joe Maziar, Dylan Rusk and Harry Boling — were OK, considering.

Once Parker was able to pull off the road, everyone quickly got out of the van, silently shaking the glass out of their hair and eyes. Then, just as they did before every match during the golf season, the team got together in a circle for an impromptu cheer.

Except this one was a little different; a little more personal.

“As loud as we could, we said, ‘1-2-3, Thank You Lord,’ ” related Parker. “Like I told the kids: We had a tee time with God, but he didn’t show up.”

Throughout the ordeal, however, there were still moments of levity. For instance:

As they pulled off the road, a truck pulled up and stopped right behind them. A guardian angel, perhaps, offering assistance? Nope. Just some guy who ran out of gas at the same moment and place on the highway.

Ten minutes after their near-death experience, one of the golfers was on the phone with a friend. “He said something about a tire and the car, and the next second he was talking about how tough the (golf) course was,” Parker said with a laugh. “It was like not even a big part of the conversation.”

Later, after stopping at a motel to get cleaned up, the Dartmouth group went over to Burger King to eat. “I didn’t have the stomach for food, but they just were starved,” Parker recalled. “Then I look, and out in the parking lot one of the kids had a golf club out and was taking some practice swings.

“What are you going to do? They’re just 18-, 19-year-old kids. At that point, all you can do is sit back and laugh.”

But these days, Parker is doing anything but laughing. He can’t get the scene out of his mind. At night, he either sees the accident over and over making sleep impossible, or he falls asleep from exhaustion, only to wake in the middle of the night and relive the accident all over again.

“It’s beyond life-changing for me,” Parker said. “I get the part about me. I just don’t know why those kids had to be involved.

“I’m looking at it like God has a new path for me. My life has changed, but not for the worse. I just see the world differently now.”

Interestingly, while most of the players involved had similar feelings regarding a meaningful if not religious experience, freshman Harry Boling was the exception. In discussing the accident with his coach, Boling originally explained that he did not see the hand of God in things.

“I underscored the severity of the collision because I feel that it can be dangerous to linger in the hypotheticals of ‘what could have been’ or worse ‘what SHOULD have been’ ”, Boling wrote to Parker in an email. “Whether or not the tire was a sign from God or just a freak occurrence, I just don’t know. We will all interpret it differently, but I think the most important thing it does is, as you said, it puts golf and everything else into perspective.”

It’s that “everything else” part that, no doubt, will be on Parker’s mind during Thanksgiving — and beyond. For a professional athlete who has accepted the gifts of his athletic success with nary a second thought, the accident has shaken his core beliefs — in other words, everything he once took for granted.

“I think about this everyday. I told the kids that this is something that will stay with us the rest of our lives. It certainly will for me.

“This has put me on notice. And I’m thankful as hell.”

Don Mahler can be reached at dmahler@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.