Coaches display grace under life-saving pressure

Healdsburg football coach Tom Kirkpatrick, right, and running backs coach Peter Thomas run practice on Tuesday. (PD/Crista Jeremiason)

The Press Democrat

Sometimes the life-forming lessons athletes learn aren’t on a football field. Sometimes athletes learn how to handle pressure without ever being in uniform, by just sitting on a school bus, when the bus driver has a heart attack and slumps over the steering wheel, unconscious, with the bus going 55 mph down a freeway, with 34 members of the Healdsburg High School football team aboard.

“The driver is going to see his next Thanksgiving, that’s the best part,” said Peter Thomas, the running backs coach for Healdsburg.
At 5:30 p.m. Friday, the Healdsburg team bus was headed south on Highway 101, having just passed the Mendocino Ave. on-ramp. The team was going to Petaluma, to play that night at Casa Grande. The bus was in the far right lane.

“The last thing I remember,” said bus driver Carl Gianni, “was getting on the 101 freeway at Dry Creek Road.”

Tom Kirkpatrick, the team’s head coach, was sitting in the front row, right side. He was sitting alone, as his habit. There are no lights in the bus. But in the dark he looked to his left and saw Gianni slumped over the steering wheel, his right arm dangling at his side.

“For a second there,” Kirkpatrick said, “I thought he was reaching down to pick up something.”
That thought only lasted a second.
“Hey, pay attention!” Kirkpatrick yelled.

Before the command even left his mouth, Kirkpatrick had leapt from his seat and placed both of his hands on the steering wheel. As if on cue, Thomas reached over Gianni, placed his right hand under the man’s right arm, across Gianni’s chest, pulling Gianni off the steering wheel, while placing his left hand on the steering wheel.

Gianni’s right foot was still on the gas. Kirkpatrick released his right hand and started to try to find the driver’s right leg, to knock it off the gas pedal. Kirkpatrick was fishing in the dark. The bus, still traveling 55 mph, now was starting to drift to the left. By the time he pushed Gianni’s right foot off the gas pedal, the bus was straddling two lanes.

As in one coordinated motion, Thomas released his left-hand grip on the steering wheel and pulled Gianni out of the seat with both arms while Kirkpatrick seamlessly slid into the driver’s seat. Kirkpatrick then started to search for the brake pedal and the gear shift, in hopes of bringing the bus to a stop.

“But it was an automatic,” Kirkpatrick said. And he couldn’t find the brake pedal.
The coach was left with only one decision.
“Let the bus grind to a halt,” he said. “We had to ride it out, let it slow down by itself.”
While he constantly shifted his sight to the left- and right-side mirrors, he was thankful at what he saw.

“Fortunately no one was alongside us,” Kirkpatrick said. “We caught a break.”
Thomas had placed Gianni on the floor of the bus. All CIF coaches are required to pass a CPR course. In the 23 years that he had been a football coach at Healdsburg, Thomas never had to apply his training. Even in the dark, Thomas could tell Gianni wasn’t breathing. He placed a finger on the side of Gianni’s neck.

“I thought I felt a heartbeat,” Thomas said. “I wasn’t sure.”
Thomas put his mouth on Gianni’s and pumped in two hard breaths.
“He blew air right back at me,” Thomas said. Gianni then entered what Thomas described as a “deep snore. And then he was gasping for air.”

And then Gianni stopped breathing. Thomas gave Gianni two more breaths. The driver started breathing again. His eyes were half-open, clearly in a glassy, dazed state, as Thomas remembered.

“I told him, ‘Everything is going to be OK. Everybody’s coming,’” said Thomas, 59, who earns his living as a lumber salesman.

In the dark, Thomas started to receive some illumination. Defensive coordinator Bob Besancon provided light from his cell phone. Soon another two cell phone lights appeared, from Healdsburg players.

Back in the bus, about at the mid-point, team captain and running back Carson Seanor gathered his team. The word now had spread. The driver was in a severe way.

“A moment of silence,” Seanor said to his teammates.
“We prayed” is what he said later, when asked to elaborate.

Gianni again stopped breathing. Thomas pumped another two breaths into the man’s mouth. Gianni began the breathe again.
The bus, guided by Kirkpatrick, finally stopped, having traveled about a half-mile, Kirkpatrick guessed.

“I pulled off the freeway but now the right side of the bus was right against a wall,” Kirkpatrick said. By cell-phone light, Kirkpatrick touched the gas and moved 50 yards farther to allow — in order of arrival — personnel from the fire department, ambulance and CHP to enter the bus. A player had called 911 on his cell.

“From start to finish,” Kirkpatrick said, “it lasted maybe five minutes. But everything seemed to move in slow motion.”
The players, according to Seanor and Gary Randolph, an offensive and defensive lineman, were in shock.
“I was napping when it first happened,” Seanor said. “When I awoke, I first thought a car had crashed in front of us. Then, when we started to slow down, I moved toward the middle of the bus like the rest of the guys. I was nervous we were going to get rear-ended because everyone was going so fast on the freeway. We heard the guy had a tough time breathing. I didn’t think we were going to play the game.”

But Healdsburg did. Just two hours after Gianni collapsed, the Greyhounds played at Casa Grande and lost, 27-6. No one from Healdsburg said the incident affected their performance. Sure, Healdsburg played the game to win but the players know there are larger issues.

“Coach (Kirkpatrick) told us it was a game and told us to go out there and have fun,” Seanor said. “It certainly put everything in perspective.”

It certainly did for Gianni. Tuesday evening he was still at Sutter Hospital. On the mend, Gianni said doctors told him he would be released in two more days, pending the results of a few more tests. But Gianni didn’t have to wait two more days to say what he wanted to say.

“You know, you hear all the time about policemen and firefighters being heroes,” said Gianni, 59, a Geyersville resident who has been a school bus driver for four years. “And they are, they really are. But that’s what they get paid to do. But these are two high school football coaches. They just didn’t save me, they saved a busload of kids. They saved our most precious cargo, our youth. So to me, they are heroes. They did exactly what they were supposed to and they did it perfectly.”

Word of what happened Friday spread quickly through Healdsburg. By this week the actions of Kirkpatrick and Thomas had been included on the schools’ website. Handshakes, compliments, all manner of adulation, have been directed their way. For their part, Kirkpatrick and Thomas shrug.

Not that they are unappreciative. But they are at Healdsburg — it’s 31 years from Kirkpatrick, 23 for Thomas — for the kids, not for themselves. It’s always been about the football team, never about the coaches. It always sounds like a cliché — I’m here for the kids — until you meet coaches like Kirkpatrick and Thomas. It’s always been about the kids and never more so than Friday night.
“We reacted in a way that we thought we would react (if a situation came up),” said Kirkpatrick, 58.

Did all those years and all those games help Kirkpatrick act under control last Friday?
“Without a doubt,” he said.

Quick yet calm, deliberate yet decisive, Thomas and Kirkpatrick impressed their players for keeping their heads when it would having so easy to get confused and testy. Never, ever, would the pair claim to be lifesavers. Even when pressed with those words Tuesday — “you saved lives” — both lowered their heads and barely nodded. Almost as if they were embarrassed, Shucks. Gosh. Oh, OK, if you say. But please don’t tell anybody. THAT kind of humility.

“As a coach,” Kirkpatrick said, “you want to help the kids grow up to be good people. You would want to show them how to react under pressure.”
Once, that meant calling the right play on fourth down with three seconds left. Now, whether they want the compliment or not, both Kirkpatrick and Thomas have shown they can handle even more critical situations.

“Someday,” Gianni said, “I’d like to buy both of them a beverage.”

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