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Rebel rally

Memories take the court as Columbine girls adjust to a new game plan

By Holly Kurtz
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff

 

The Columbine High varsity girls are playing basketball for two coaches.

There's the man bouncing up and down the sidelines like he's playing five positions at once. His name is Dean Roberts.

Then there's the other coach.

The coach in the girls' heads. They can't see him, but they know he's there.

His name was William "Dave" Sanders, and he will be honored Monday with the ESPN ESPY Arthur Ashe Award for Courage. He died a hero in the school shooting that rocked a nation.

This is the season the girls dedicated to his memory.

And this is the story of the man who took Sanders' place and agreed to be their guide.

- It was an ordinary Tuesday in April.

Sophomore Courtney Mohr had stopped by Sanders' office.

The 47-year-old business teacher had been her basketball coach since freshman year.

In his 25 years at Columbine High he had also coached cross-country, track, softball, soccer and baseball.

To Courtney, he was much more than a teacher or a coach. At home, she had her father: Chris Mohr. At school, she had another father: Sanders.

Sanders was the one who let her sneak out of business class to buy cookies and bagels, the one who tutored her until she brought her history grade up from F to B.

The one who made her smile.

That ordinary morning, they were both smiling. He was kidding her about her abysmal free-throw percentage. It was 30 percent.

She was kidding him about his hair. It was thinning.

He picked up a piece of paper, wadded it into a basketball and launched a three-pointer toward the trash can.

Airball!

That ordinary morning was April 20, 1999.

A few minutes later two boys in black trenchcoats burst through Columbine's doors and changed things forever.

Bullets flew and students fled, but Sanders never stopped coaching.

Coaching kids out of the cafeteria moments after the beginning of shooting that would leave 15 dead and more than 20 wounded. Coaching kids out of classrooms to safety.

Coaching the boys who stanched the flow of blood from his bullet wounds for more than three hours .

Coaching up until his final words:

"Tell my girls I love them."

- Dean Roberts loved Sterling.

More than five years earlier, he had decided to give up what looked to be a promising career in the oil business. He wanted to work with young people.

That was exactly what he was doing in the fall of 1998 in Sterling.

He was youth pastor at Sterling Church of the Nazarene. He was an assistant to Sterling High School's Darrel Parker, one of Colorado's finest girls basketball coaches.

He and his wife, Doniese, and their 11-year-old son, Darrin, had lived there a little more than a year. They were just settling in after skipping across the country to work with troubled teens at the Milton Hershey School in Pennsylvania and minister to youth in Phoenix.

Then they got the call.

Columbine Hills Church was in dire straits. It had too few members, too much debt.

They needed a savior.

To Roberts, life was a giant puzzle. Sometimes God added one piece. Sometimes he removed another. It wasn't until his work was done that you saw the pattern.

He agreed to be Columbine Hills' youth pastor.

The work turned out to be challenging and exciting. But Roberts could tell a puzzle piece was missing. He missed coaching.

He started to pray.

- Articles from the season. Programs from the funeral.

Even without the paper memories, Sanders' last season would always be outlined in yellow highlighter in Liz Carlston's memory.

She had never been as close to Sanders as Courtney had been.

But he coached the sport that had been part of her life since kindergarten. And the 1999 season had been special. The girls even had special nicknames for one another. "Mop" for Brittany Davies because that's what her uniform became when she fell during games. "The Tongue" for Tasha Nygard because she always stuck hers out at crucial moments.

Despite the glowing memories, the long summer days of 1999 made Liz wonder about the future of her senior year.

At 6-foot-2, she had once dreamed of taking her sport to the next level after high school. But she had decided players earned too little in the Women's NBA. And college ball would only distract her from her studies.

The coming season would be her last shot at athletic glory.

But it was starting to look like it might be over before it started.

So many varsity players had graduated. Those who were still at school wondered whether they could handle the emotional trauma of the season after Sanders' death.

A parent was coaching the team, such as it was, during summer league games.

Columbine had yet to hire a new coach.

- Columbine Athletic Director Kevin Land knew it would be impossible to replace a hero.

So he searched for a successor; 15 prospects applied

That was about average for a head coaching position at a 2,000-student school like Columbine. The field was seriously narrowed.

That was business as usual, too.

Roberts' application wasn't.

His basketball experience was impressive. He had coached at Sterling and other schools. He had helped with Columbine's summer basketball camps.

But what really stood out was his heart.

Land had seen him with kids. He knew he loved them. Many Columbine students attended his church. In the days and weeks after the April tragedy, Roberts had been there for them.

Land knew he could not pretend April 20 had never happened. He could not pretend this was not a special job, with extra special duties.

He knew he had a challenge.

What kind of man do you choose to succeed a hero?

When Roberts returned from a religious revival in mid-August, he had a message on his answering machine. Land and his committee of parents, teachers and administrators wanted him to come in for an interview.

Roberts could see the pattern of the puzzle.

- Coach Sanders attended coach Roberts' first Columbine girls' basketball team meeting in October.

Liz brought him. Life-sized. In oil.

An artist in Massachusetts had painted the portrait of Sanders. The girls planned to give it to Sanders' widow, Linda. Only first the artist wanted a photograph of them posing with his masterpiece.

Liz figured the meeting would be as good a time as any.

As soon as she walked in the door she realized she had made a mistake. She couldn't believe how awkward she felt.

Here was this new coach doing his best to help them move into the future. And here she was standing him up against the past. Later, she called Roberts to apologize.

He seemed unruffled.

"We have to take this season," he told her, "one step at a time."

Later, he told the girls:

"Nobody can ever replace coach Sanders. In no way have I ever tried. I went in knowing I had to be Dean Roberts and be the best Dean Roberts I could be."

- Courtney left Roberts' first basketball team meeting crying.

She was mad at her new coach. She was mad he wasn't Sanders.

For weeks she avoided the gymnasium. Finally, she told her parents she didn't want to play basketball that season. It was the talk that followed that changed her mind.

"Being mad at coach Roberts won't bring coach Sanders back," her mom and dad told her. "Coach Sanders will always be with you on the court. He will always be in your heart."

- He was there in more than their hearts.

He was there in the initials the team had embroidered on their uniforms. Uniforms he ordered and chose just before he died.

He was there in the angel pins. Pins they fastened to their jackets, dedicating the season in his name.

He was there in the commemorative plaque. The plaque coach Roberts nailed to the locker-room wall.

He was there at the team's first home game, against Thomas Jefferson.

That day, Dec. 3, was his widow Linda Sanders' first time back at Columbine since April 20.

She didn't have to tell them it was hard.

As soon as she walked into their locker room, she started to sob.

"I can't think of a better reason to come back to Columbine," she said through her tears, "except for David's team and you. He talked so much about you. I wanted to come back for a positive reason. I can't think of a better reason."

Then she repeated the phrase her husband was known for around Columbine -- "Let's go out and have some fun."

She meant to stay until the final buzzer, but at halftime she had to go. She could no longer see through her tears.

Twice more she tried to come to one of the girl's games, but she only got as far as the parking lot. She was crying again.

This is not what the girls need, she thought. She got back in the car and went home.

- Sometimes, Courtney felt like breaking down and going home, too.

A few times she did.

Sitting in the school cafeteria, she would think about her old coach, about how he sacrificed his life to save students there.

After a while, she'd have to leave school. But no matter what, she never missed practice.

Coach Sanders wouldn't want that. He'd want her to take her anger out on the court. The angrier she got, the better she played.

Wins felt great. Midway through the season there had been half a dozen.

Each was an epitaph, a eulogy for coach Sanders.

In this microwave-popcorn scented recreation room, coach Roberts is assigning his church youth group a verse to memorize.

"The cool thing about Bible club," he says, "is years down the road, Scripture will pop into your head."

He is speaking from experience.

Scripture rebounds through his head, no matter where he is.

When he was five his grandmother taught him Psalms 27:1: "The Lord is my light and my salvation-whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life of whom shall I be afraid."

When he made the decision to move to Littleton he thought of Proverbs 3:6: "Trust in the Lord with all your heart. Lean not on your own understanding but in all your ways acknowledge him and he will make your path straight."

When he got out on the court at Columbine he recalled Philippians 4:13:

"I can do all things through Christ. It strengthens me."

-

Liz has spent the past 10 months mustering all her strength to avoid getting angry.

Before the season started, she put away photographs of Sanders with last year's team. She told herself she had a new coach now. She had her memories. She couldn't relive last year.

But once she got back on the court, she realized that was easier said than done. This season was dedicated to Sanders. Losses made it feel like the team was letting him down. There have been more than a half-dozen.

It got harder and harder not to compare Sanders and Roberts.

Sanders knew all the other coaches in the league. He swapped game videos with them so they could study one another's plays.

Roberts put in evening after evening shuttling around town watching their opponents play.

But he was still learning.

Sanders left her game alone, left her to practice the way she'd been doing it since she first picked up a ball.

Roberts was always trying to change her, to improve her game.

One day at practice, it all came to a climax.

Liz noticed a teammate was wide open and went to cover her. Roberts said Liz should have made a shot instead. Liz said something she shouldn't have.

The verdict was swift.

Liz would warm the bench next game.

Coach Sanders had always taught her the importance of patience.

Once again, she felt like she had let him down.

Roberts wanted to do anything he could to avoid letting his team down.

He started the season poring over basketball books. He wrote to-do lists every day. He even dug out his college psychology text. The girls thought it was sweet. He was trying to understand their emotions.

Two days before Christmas vacation, a bomb threat closed Columbine High. One player called Roberts at home and asked what he was up to. Watching a video of one of your games, he replied.

It was 6:45 a.m.

It went beyond basketball.

Coach Roberts doted on his team as if the players were his long-lost daughters.

When the players forgot to schedule the traditional pre-game dinner at the home of one of the girls, he and his wife, a full-time Denver Seminary student, threw together an impromptu dinner for 12.

When one player was having trouble with her homework, Roberts stayed up past midnight to explain it.

He made name tags for their lockers. He brought coolers of bottled water to their games. He called girls at home to tell them what they had done well at practice.

- The comparisons continued, but they were more favorable.

Courtney started to notice the little things, the way coach Roberts wrote the girls personal notes before practice, the way he held a team Christmas party at his house.

"I really don't think," Courtney said one night at a team dinner, "they could have hired a better person."

Liz took a hard look inward. Maybe what she and Roberts had in common was the same thing that was driving them apart.

"We're both stubborn people," she said one recent evening. "I want to get my way. He wants to get his way."

She had always considered basketball a game of life. A game that taught you how to work together. How to get along.

She knew coach Roberts would never be coach Sanders.

But that didn't mean he didn't care.

If Courtney could turn back time, she would have sat out this season.

Basketball was supposed to be fun. It wasn't supposed to make you cry.

She thought of taking off next season, her senior year. But a few weeks ago, something changed. She realized she was ready.

At lunchtime before the game, she got into the car.

She drove for 25 minutes to the cemetery. With her was a rose, yellow for friendship. She laid it on Sanders' grave. Then she drove back to school.

Back to her coach.

Holly Kurtz is an education reporter for the News. Contact her at (303) 892-5082 or kurtzh@RockyMountainNews.com.

February 13, 2000