MORGANTOWN — It is, of course, every family’s nightmare. It’s that phone call that comes straight from hell.
There’s no way to prepare for it, no way to believe it.
It happened this past week to the family of Tyler Skaggs, 27, a major league pitcher for the Los Angeles Angels, found dead in his hotel room in Arlington, Texas.
No foul play, no suicide, authorities said. They are awaiting an autopsy report.
A mother had lost a son. A wife had lost a husband. A team had lost a teammate. So sudden, so young. He was two weeks from his 28th birthday and seven months past his wedding day.
Something like this happens far too often and, we tend to forget that it touches far more people than we might expect, for an athlete has two families — those of blood and marriage and those who share their lives with him or her as teammates.
Don Nehlen has gotten that kind of call. The Hall of Fame former West Virginia football coach admits it is something that shakes you from within and reverberates throughout the team ... touching each and every person.
“Especially if you had the kid for four or five years, they literally become your son,” Nehlen said the other day. “You live and die with them, and they live and die with you, because most coaches, who are worth their soul, build a great bond with that player.
“When a young kid dies, it’s just heartbreaking. You know the parents well and it’s just a traumatic deal.”
Nehlen remembers the morning he got the call that Danny VanEtten, a 19-year-old freshman lineman, had been killed when the sports utility vehicle he was driving went out of control after its tire blew out on the way back from spring break in 1997.
Suntanned and happy, it was 1:25 a.m. when the vehicle went out of control, traveling about 350 feet before overturning and throwing VanEtten from the vehicle.
As horrible as it was, it could have been worse, for also in the car were Carlos Osegueda, a freshman receiver from Miami; Matt Wilson, a freshman lineman from East Sparta, Ohio; and Khori Ivy, a freshman from Boca Raton, Florida. All three were treated for only minor injuries.
Another passenger, Dina Karwoski of Beaver, Pennsylvania, was also treated and released from the hospital.
Trauma set in throughout the football team.
“It’s really hard on the other guys. When you are 22 or 21, you kind of think you are invincible. When one of their buddies die it’s a traumatic deal. It affects the team,” Nehlen said. “We forgot about football for a while.”
Shelly Poe, now at Auburn, became a Hall of Fame sports information director during her time at WVU. She remembers how she often was involved when such tragedies occurred, and there certainly were more than just VanEtten.
Poe had to go through dealing with the horrible one-car accident that nearly killed Lawrence Pollard and Wilfred Kirkaldy. It wound up costing Kirkaldy his legs, while Pollard managed to recover enough to play, but never was the same.
“I still remember what I was doing when I got that call,” Poe said.
And then another football player, Caleb Cooper, saw his playing career cut short before it started when he was involved in a fatal car accident that claimed the life of his father on the way to the Victory Awards Dinner after his senior season at Wyoming East.
“We were fortunate,” she said. “We do have caring people. The state police were always very sensitive and would call the coaches or the office people and tell them there was a wreck and it didn’t look good so they didn’t hear it on the radio.
“That way you could get the team together and kind of process it. That’s most important. You could grieve together.”
They would hold a memorial service, visit with the families, offer whatever help or compassion was necessary.
“When you sign a young person to your team, you sign their family, too,” Poe said. “I know Danny VanEtten’s mom came here in what would have been his senior year and took part in some of the activities with the other parents.”
A team has to handle such matters and have an understanding that it has a lasting effect on everyone.
“Your real concern is No. 1, what happened to these people you love, but No. 2 is how is it going to affect all these other people,” she said. “It’s not your role to make a statement. That belongs to the family ... but how does it affect them; there are people in this age group who may not have ever gone through something like this before.”
Back when Poe was at WVU, the sports information office could handle the flow of public information. Today, with social media, it is different; such things can get out without verification.
“Years ago we were very conscious about injuries, like in practice if someone went down with something that looked bad,” she said. “You don’t want someone running to put it on the radio so the family hears it even before it has been assessed.”
And just because a player has graduated, it doesn’t take him out of the family.
Rick Gilliam was a mammoth offensive lineman for the Mountaineers. He played out his career, started a family and had moved on to his life’s calling when one night he went to bed and did not get up.
He was 29. His daughter was 9 months old.
“To have Tanner Russell call me to tell me Rick Gilliam was dead,” Poe said was among the harder things she has ever had to deal with.
Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.