Coaches are always in control.
The have authority over their players, and make decisions that affect their teams on a daily basis.
But what happens when a coach loses that control? What happens when there’s no chance to call time out and change what the future will bring?
The 2001-02 season was over for Pechone Stepps.
He had taken over as the head coach of the St. John’s women’s basketball team in the middle of January, a team that would finish 3-24 and wouldn’t earn a victory in the 11 games under his watch.
The University decided to bring in a new head coach, but retain Stepps as an assistant and the squad’s top recruiter.
It was May 24, and on that day the 28-year-old’s life would change forever.
From that day on, his first priority wouldn’t deal with basketball.
After May 24, Stepps first priority was simply to walk again.
On that day, Stepps and the rest of his family – mom, dad and two brothers – were driving in two separate cars from their home in Fort Scott, Kan., to his grandmother’s house in Marianna, Ark.
On a stretch of Interstate 540 just across the Arkansas border, the Silverado the three Stepps sons were riding in blew the tire on the front passenger’s side.
After one of his brother’s tried to change the tire, Stepps got under the car to see if he could fix the flat.
“Changing a tire wasn’t a major deal,” Stepps said. “On the road recruiting, I’d done it probably a thousand times.”
The driver of the oncoming Navigator had to have seen the Silverado alongside the road. It was barely 5 p.m., there was plenty of daylight and the hazard lights were blinking. But as the teen navigated toward the off-ramp, his perception must have been a bit off.
That happens when you drive drunk.
The driver slammed into the Silverado as Stepps lay underneath. His 6-4 frame was caught, and wherever the car went, he was dragged along with it.
Both vehicles ended up in a ditch.
Stepps ended up with a broken arm, a serious case of road rash – and no feeling below his waist.
“I remember getting up under the truck and I came to after it happened,” Stepps said. “My right arm was pretty much snapped and then I couldn’t move – I couldn’t feel my bottom half.”
He was transported to Washington Regional Medical Center in Fayetteville, where doctors performed numerous surgeries.
“They didn’t think I was going to make it through the night,” Stepps recalls. “I don’t really remember. I kind of lost a day in between.”
The broken arm, the cuts and the bruises were nothing compared to the spinal swelling, which occurred because he had fractured the C-7, T-1 vertebrae right on his shoulder blade, the cause of his paralysis below the waist.
“The higher up you hurt yourself, the more function you lose,” Stepps said. “So if I hurt C-3, C-4 [higher up in the neck] then I wouldn’t be able to move my arms.”
After close to three weeks in Washington Regional, he spent three months at the Craig Rehabilitation Hospital in Denver, the top rehabilitation center for victims of spinal cord injuries.
“Everything’s a struggle,” he says. “You take for granted getting up, tying your shoe, sitting up, doing something as simple as going to the restroom. The first day I learned to put on my tee-shirt, I needed a nap.”
Calls, cards and flowers came pouring in from around college basketball – Syracuse, Boston College, Louisville and both squads at Arkansas were just a handful of schools that gave their support.
“I kept the mailman pretty busy,” Stepps said with a laugh.
Now back at his parents’ home, Stepps is trying to live as normal a life as possible. He goes to rehab three times a week for two hours each session, hoping that someday he will be able to walk. Feeling in his legs has returned, be it ever so slightly.
He has even gotten back into coaching, heading up the boy’s team at Fort Scott Middle School.
Sometimes it takes his mind off the accident, because he’s back in his element – he’s back in control.
“You’re back doing something you love to do,” Stepps said. “The time just flies by. You don’t even think about time. You throw the clock out the window.”
Some day Stepps plans on coaching again at the Division I level. He got a taste of it at St. John’s, and he hasn’t had his fill.
And even though he was only on staff at St. John’s for a little over two seasons, he left an impact. An impact so big that this past Sunday night, at the Sly Fox Inn, a benefit was held to raise $20,000 so that an extra room for Stepps, who lives on the second floor, can be built on the first floor of his parent’s split-level home.
Coaches from around the Big East – like Virginia Tech’s Bonnie Hendrickson – all made contributions.
They know what it’s like to be in control.
Stepps now knows what it feels like not to be.
“To go from being on top of the world, being the youngest head coach in Division I and getting a chance to coach at a major university such as St. John’s,” Stepps said, “and then in a blink of an eye you’re sitting in a hospital. It crosses my mind a lot.
“I think God has a plan for everybody. It hurts that it happened, but I don’t question why God let it happen.”
If you would like to make a donation, send contributions to:
The Pechone Stepps Fund c/o Jessica Fraser
15 Acorn Hill Drive
Voorhees, NJ 08043
Jason Della Rosa is a senior journalism major who has a sinking feeling that SJU is headed for the NIT. Send comments to [email protected]