Columnist Kirk Wessler talks to Bradley University soccer coach Jim DeRose about moving on after the death of redshirt freshman Danny Dahlquist and the arrest of three of Dahlquist's teammates in the fatal fire in which Dahlquist perished.
When will it be OK to feel normal again?
Jim DeRose wants to know. The Bradley University soccer coach is accustomed to having answers, and mostly right ones. For 11 years, he has led the Braves, and they have followed, winning three Missouri Valley Conference championships. He has been tough and demanding, compassionate but ever sure. A rock.
But now the rock is cracked.
Twelve days ago, redshirt freshman Danny Dahlquist died in a house fire in West Peoria. Eleven days ago, three other team members — David Crady, Ryan Johnson and Nick Mentgen — and a friend, Daniel Cox, were charged with aggravated arson, for allegedly firing Roman candles into Dahlquist’s bedroom in what prosecutors have called a prank gone bad.
And Jim DeRose weeps.
"It’s been as bad as you think it could be," DeRose says.
It is DeRose’s nature to talk fast. But when he does that now, he stops himself and stammers. He knows what he wants to say, but he’s less confident the words will come out right. So he stops and restarts, slower this time, and then his eyes mist over and his voice thins, and he pauses to collect himself. To breathe.
He feels the need to purge his soul for something he said last November. It was so important then. So trivial now.
Bradley had been five seconds away from winning the Missouri Valley tournament and advancing to the NCAA playoffs. But Creighton had poked in a goal with 4.4 seconds left in regulation, then scored another just barely five minutes into overtime to snatch the spoils of victory.
"Devastating," DeRose had said then.
It was one of those words coaches, players, fans and media throw around without thinking.
"Now," DeRose says, "I realize what devastated is."
Danny Dahlquist was 7 years old when he attended the first camp DeRose ran as soccer coach at Bradley. DeRose watched him grow, watched him run around the field at Becker Park and later at the Morton soccer complex, the places the Braves called home before they moved into their own Shea Stadium. DeRose became close friends with Danny’s father, Craig, an associate athletics director at Bradley. They would sit in the office and talk about their kids and their dreams.
Danny’s dream was to play soccer for Bradley. Frankly, a Division III program would have been more in line with his talent. But not with his heart. In the end, Danny decided he loved Bradley so much, so respected DeRose, that he would rather be a career practice player there — if that’s what it came to — than a regular somewhere else.
That’s not to say he would settle for an obscure role. Nobody outhustled or outworked "DQ," as he was known to his friends. Then last spring, on an exhibition trip to Omaha, DeRose put him in for the final nine minutes against a strong Tulsa team.
"He played great," DeRose says. "I just remember how happy he was, and how happy I was that he played …" The coach’s voice vanishes. He inhales and forces out the last word: " … well."
When a team is faced with tragedy, especially the loss of a teammate, it is the coach’s responsibility to be strong. To provide the direction. To support and comfort, and to rally the spirits. The players rely on his signal that it’s OK to move forward, that playing their game is still a worthwhile endeavor, that they can do so without forgetting what they’ve lost.
But in this case, DeRose has needed his players as much as they need him. Perhaps even more. For he finds himself as uncertain as they are.
When is the time? And how will any of them know?
DeRose has been awed by how members of the Dahlquist family have carried themselves, with grace and love and acceptance and compassion for the young men charged with causing their son’s death. He has immersed himself in his team, trying to be strong and plotting their course. He gets up early in the morning and returns home late at night after a day of meetings and practices, having been surrounded all day by coaches and players and colleagues, and having done the best he can to spend time with his own wife and children.
But there inevitably comes a time when DeRose is alone and, he says, "the worst place to be is in your own head."
So he walks alone through the dark streets of his neighborhood at midnight. Crying. Then "rocking up." Thinking. Resolving.
Everything is different now. Nothing can ever be quite the same.
DeRose is determined to learn from this, as hopefully everyone with even the slightest attachment to this tragedy will be. He will be better, as a coach, as a man, as a husband and father.
But how? And when?
"At some time," DeRose says, "it will be OK to smile, to play. It will be OK for them to go with a heavy hand (on the field) and tackle and let the ref make the call."
It will be OK, he says, to go on living.
"But I want to know," DeRose says, "I want to know in my mind when it will be OK to do these things."
He walks alone in the dark, praying for an answer.
KIRK WESSLER is executive sports editor/columnist with the Journal Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (309) 686-3216.