BLACKSBURG — The Appalachian State football team bus was just a few miles from home late that October night in 2000, the team well worn from the drive and that day’s game at East Tennessee State.
On the road up ahead, they saw flames, like a bonfire.
Only it wasn’t. It was the team’s support van, which had been struck nearly head-on by a drunken driver. The speeding car had veered across the centerline on the mountain road just after midnight.
Propped up on the car’s hood, the van was a mess, smoke spewing through the air vents, the fire from the car underneath spreading quickly, threatening those inside.
The ones who had gotten out were scattered along the roadway, nursing broken ribs, ankles and arms, some tripping down a nearby embankment.
The van’s radio continued to play, an unnatural soundtrack amidst the wreckage.
Stacy Searels and two other Mountaineers assistant coaches disregarded their own safety, jumping off their bus and darting into the smoke to pull anybody they could out of the van.
“It was like a zombie movie,” said Searels, who was hired as Virginia Tech’s offensive line coach in January. “Just people falling everywhere.”
Eleven of the 13 Appalachian State staffers, mostly students, had gotten out of the wreck. But the van’s driver, assistant athletic trainer Tony Barnett, was stuck in his crumpled seat, pinned against the window. He was wedged in by a tangled seat belt and inflated airbag, his ankle shattered and an eye busted.
Searels’ student assistant on the offensive line, Jonathan Taylor, lay unconscious, his forehead split in a vertical five-inch gash that started just above his eyes as if he had been struck by an ax.
“When I saw him lying there, I said, ‘He’s dead,’ ” Searels said.
Searels ripped the van’s door open and dragged Taylor to safety, keeping his back to the searing heat and flames in case the car blew up, scenes from too many TV shows running through his head.
Meanwhile, the other two assistants, offensive coordinator Rob Best and tight ends coach Shawn Elliott, were in the van trying to work Barnett free. Searels ran back to help tear Barnett out of the fiery mess.
The driver of the car, who had just left his high school reunion, was long beyond help, killed by the crash and burned in the fire. Searels refused to allow himself even a glimpse.
It didn’t take long for those on hand to realize that the same fate could have befallen everyone in the van.
“Probably in the next five minutes, that whole van turned to charcoal,” Searels said.
* * *
Searels and Taylor had a special bond. Taylor, a 1989 graduate of Tunstall High School in Dry Fork, was a nontraditional student at Appalachian State, 28 years old when he went back to college after a stint in the Air Force and a job in Charlotte installing security systems. He wanted to coach football, though.
“I knew that was where my heart was at,” said Taylor, now 42 and an assistant coach at Union High in North Carolina’s Sampson County.
He enrolled at Appalachian State in 1999 and served as an equipment manager, hanging around the offensive line in his down time. Searels, an All-America offensive lineman for Auburn during his playing days, was then in his seventh year on Jerry Moore’s staff.
When a student assistant spot opened up the following year, Searels asked Taylor if he wanted the gig.
“He was my right-hand man,” Searels said.
Taylor did all sorts of grunt work, functioning as a graduate assistant.
The night of the crash, Appalachian State had rallied for a 30-13 win against East Tennessee State. Eager to get an immediate jump on preparation for the following week’s game against Southern Conference rival Furman once back in Boone, Taylor tried to catch some Z’s on the hour-plus drive home through the mountains.
Seated behind the driver, he dozed off, not wearing a seat belt. The crash launched him forward. He hit the edge of the door, splitting his forehead open, and broke his ankle and forearm.
He lost a lot of blood, so much that once he was airlifted back to the hospital in Johnson City, Tenn., doctors feared he wouldn’t live through the night. Back in Boone, the Mountaineers gathered as a team at the field house, where students led a few prayers.
“It was really an emotional moment,” Searels said. “It was really a life-changing deal.”
Prior to that, Searels took it upon himself to call Taylor’s family, reaching his uncle in Danville, Eddy Lloyd, at 1:30 a.m.
“I said to him, ‘What are we going to find when we get there? Is he going to be alive?’ ” Lloyd said. “And he just said, ‘You just need to hurry.’ ”
By the time Lloyd and Taylor’s family arrived in Johnson City a few hours later, Taylor was in a drug-induced coma to reduce brain swelling. Doctors said they would slowly bring him out of it.
Taylor still hadn’t responded to anything a couple of days later when Searels visited him in the hospital.
“Stacy came to see him, and he told him, ‘Jonathan, I want you to squeeze my hand,’ ” Lloyd said. “And my nephew did. And that was the first reaction they had from him at all. In a couple of days, he had regained consciousness.”
* * *
Taylor spent two weeks in the ICU, slowly healing while the team carried on. Searels wrapped up practice each day, then went to see Taylor in the hospital at night.
The Mountaineers, who would advance to the national semifinals that year, ended up coming from behind to beat sixth-ranked Furman 18-17 the Saturday after the wreck. Down on the field, Searels sought out a cellphone and called Taylor’s hospital room with a message: “We did it for you.”
The message was uplifting, although the reality of the rehabilitation Taylor faced hit home once he was transferred to a facility in Greensboro, N.C., after two weeks in Johnson City.
Taylor hoped he’d be able to get back to school and the football team quickly, but his injuries required more than a few Band-Aids.
“I kind of had what I call a little pity party,” Taylor said. “I felt a little sorry for myself and got upset. I got a little irritated about the situation at that point. But that night, I was sitting around and said, ‘I’m not going to have this pity party. What’s done is done, has happened. There’s nothing you can do about it.’ ”
Armed with a new attitude, Taylor launched himself into the rehab. He arrived on a Tuesday, told he was going to be at the facility for at least 10 days. By Friday, despite being 25 pounds lighter than when the crash occurred, he passed the requisite strength tests to go home.
The first Saturday of November, Taylor visited the team for the first time. Wheelchair bound, just to make things easier, he popped by the team meal before the VMI game. He was greeted like a brother.
“It just to me really reinforced a lot of the reasons I like sports,” Taylor said. “People talk about it and they throw the cliche out about family and use those images and those ideas, but a situation like that really proves to you that it is a family. …
“Even though you knew you weren’t up there to stay, it once again got those juices flowing and gave me more motivation: ‘Hey, I’ve got to get this thing, get back to where I need to be.’ ”
In January, Searels, Best and Elliott were given the NCAA Award of Valor, an honor presented to coaches, administrators or players who, when confronted with a situation involving personal danger, acted in a courageous or brave way to avert or minimize the disaster.
It’s not something the NCAA gives out every year, only when someone or a group is deserving. It’s been handed out only 15 times since 1974.
Searels balks at the acclaim, saying the real heroism that night was from the players who, in a role reversal, hurried off the bus to provide first aid to injured trainers and support staff, not far from the burning pile of the wreck.
“I really thought the heroes were these kids who were taking care of each other and the ones that really paid the price, Jonathan and Tony Barnett,” Searels said. “Those were the guys that faced the fire.”
Lloyd has a different perspective.
“The bottom line is for I guess for all of our family,” he said, “we just don’t think there’s anybody like Stacy because of what he did.”
* * *
Taylor has a slight limp, a scar on his forehead and occasional problems with short-term memory, but he still says the wreck was the best thing that ever happened to him.
“Because it showed me in my mind what type of person I am,” he said. “It showed me through my effort and determination and commitment what I can accomplish when I want to.”
Amazingly, Taylor returned to school the following semester, still on track to graduate in 2003 because he had attended so many summer classes. The problem was, Searels was gone, hired away by Cincinnati that offseason, his first full-time job at what was then the Division I level.
“If there’s any other kind of regrets that you have, that’s one,” Taylor said. “It kind of cost us maybe a little more on-field time that we’d have together.”
The two have remained close over the years, as Taylor embarked on his career in the high school ranks in South Carolina, Virginia and now North Carolina and Searels emerged as one of the premier offensive line coaches in the country, with stops at LSU, Georgia and Texas before coming to Virginia Tech.
Taylor beamed at the thought of Searels back in this part of the country. They last met in person at a coaching clinic in Georgia but Taylor made a point to get to the clinic Virginia Tech hosted in Blacksburg a few weekends ago.
He didn’t know he’d be able to go until the last second, when hotels were limited and rates were high. Without hesitating, Searels offered Taylor a bed in his home.
The two quickly got back into an old routine, breaking down O-line film in Searels’ office.
“It was like old times,” Taylor said.
Taylor is confident Searels, now 48, can straighten out the Hokies’ offensive line, seeing firsthand how he thrives with blue-collar athletes. He can be imposing, a towering figure constantly barking at players during practice and, when properly perturbed, flinging his hat, but that’s just his style.
“To be honest, it’s a good thing when Coach Searels gets on you, because it means he likes you,” Tech right guard Augie Conte said, “It means he has high expectations.”
“He taught me something a long time ago, and I’m still the same way,” Taylor said. “Those kids have got to understand that if they make a mistake, I’m going to be the first one on them. I’m going to be the first one correcting them, telling them what they did wrong.
“But when they get it right, you’re going to be the first one loving them up. And once they realize that, it’s amazing how these kids will respect you.”
The respect Taylor has for Searels was cemented long ago.
“He’s a better person than he is a coach,” Taylor said. “And he’s a great coach. Unbelievable coach. So that says a lot about him as a person.”