Thursday, July 31, 2014

CARDER: Protecting more than memories

By DOUG CARDER, Dumping The Notebook | 9/18/2013

Drew shook his head as he looked down at the silver pile of scrap metal that once was a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse.

“How did I walk away from that, Dad?”

I had two answers for him: God’s grace and a seat belt.

Drew spotted a box of cherry-flavored Pop-Tarts among the wreckage and gingerly reached through a broken window to retrieve it.

“You mind if I take this?” he asked the man from Cutshaw Garage & Tow who had let us into the lot behind the Louisburg garage.

The man looked at Drew with a curious smile.

“Go ahead,” the man said. “The police are done with it. Take whatever’s yours.”

Drew took one last look at the twisted car.

“Let’s go,” he said.

As I drove Drew back to Louisburg High School, I wanted to ask him about the box of Pop-Tarts, but I decided it could wait. I’m sure he didn’t snag the box because he was hungry.

Auston McLellan, Louisburg’s senior football quarterback, was driving the Eclipse on the night of Aug. 17 when it crashed near the intersection of West 271st Street and Metcalf Road, on the outskirts of Louisburg about one mile from Auston’s home. Drew was seated next to Auston, his good friend and teammate, when Auston attempted to pass another vehicle and the Eclipse left the roadway and sheared off a utility pole before it rolled three times and came to rest on its top in a cornfield.

Drew wriggled his 6-foot-3-inch, 200-pound frame through the passenger-side window. He found Auston lying near the toppled utility pole and did what he could for his friend.

“I held his hand and could feel how strong he was,” Drew said. “Auston was a fighter.”

Auston died from his injuries early the next morning at a Kansas City-area hospital.

Drew was taken by ambulance to Overland Park Regional Medical Center, where he was treated and released that night.

When Jean and I arrived at the hospital, we were told Drew had a swollen right shoulder and neck, along with a swollen right wrist, but no broken bones and no head injuries. Other than some abrasions and bruises, he was fine. The doctor took us back to the intensive care room where Drew was lying in a bed. He had a horrible-looking bruise and abrasion on his collarbone that stretched down onto his chest.

“That’s the nicest-looking bruise I’ve ever seen,” I told Drew. “It tells me you were wearing your seat belt.”

Ottawa High School participates in a program called the Seatbelts are for Everyone [SAFE] initiative, which is spearheaded by the Ottawa Police Department and student members of the school’s SAFE committee. A spring 2012 survey of student drivers pulling into the school parking lot showed seat belt use among drivers and passengers was at 81 percent, up markedly from survey results of 61 percent in 2011.

But Dennis Butler, Ottawa police chief, told students last spring there was more work to be done.

While a seat belt rate of 81 percent is good, Butler told the student body, it still isn’t 100 percent.

I, too, would like to see the seat belt rate at 100 percent. My son is living proof that seat belts can save lives. I’m confident he would have been ejected from the spiraling Eclipse on that hot August night if he had not been wearing one.

For the record, Auston was wearing his seat belt, too, but the back of his seat broke free and he was ejected from the vehicle, an investigator with the Miami County Sheriff’s Office told me. He had stopped by our house to check on Drew and the two of them ended up talking about football for a few minutes.

I greatly appreciated a call from Chief Butler, who was checking up on Drew. The chief genuinely cares about people, and he wants everyone to be safe. Students and parents should take his advice about seat belts to heart.

About a week before the first football game against Spring Hill, Drew was cleared by the doctor to play his senior season.

Friday night’s homecoming game against the Ottawa Cyclones will be a bittersweet moment for our family. Drew is a homecoming king candidate, and he’ll be down in front of the home bleachers for the ceremony in almost the same spot where he spoke at Auston’s vigil and was a pallbearer — along with his other senior teammates — for Auston’s funeral just a short month ago.

I’m sure Drew’s mind will not be on homecoming Friday night, but on the Ottawa Cyclones. Every Friday night is a battle in the Frontier League.

Drew’s thoughts also will be on his fallen teammate and friend.

On Saturday morning, Drew plans to go fishing with Auston’s dad.

“Auston loved cherry Pop-Tarts,” Drew told me a couple of days after we inspected the wreckage. “He always kept a couple of boxes in his sports locker. I took that box of Pop-Tarts to the locker room and put them in his locker. They’re back where they belong.”

Doug Carder is The Herald’s senior writer. Email him at dcarder@ottawaherald.com

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