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September 6, 2003

Riding the bus back to normal

From: Kansas City Star, MO - Sep 6, 2003


The last time this football team climbed on a bus together, the trip ended at the bottom of a ravine with a beloved assistant coach killed.

That's what made this moment Friday afternoon so eerie.

Sirens grew louder as the police cars approached. No one heard. The Kansas School for the Deaf bus ride was full of commotion – sign language, cheerleaders braiding each other's hair, players sending e-mails on hand-held devices.

Finally, they spotted the police cars zipping past the bus. One, two, three of them. Just flying. The bus slowed to a crawl along Interstate 35 until it passed the wreckage. It looked fresh. Two mangled trucks, one upside down, in the median.

Students on the KSD bus pressed against the driver-side windows for a better view. Eyes bulged, sign language flowed. The bus passed the mess, slowly built back its speed, and the accident disappeared out of the back window.

How ironic.

Last October, the KSD bus slid and rolled down a grassy embankment on a Sunday morning along U.S. 40 near Wallace, Kan. It flipped at least once, landing on its top 20-some feet from the road. The charter bus carried 34 players, coaches and cheerleaders from a football game in Colorado Springs. Assistant coach Lory Kuschmider was killed.

As KSD opened a new football season with a 38-14 loss to Williamsburg on Friday night, coaches and players strived to keep their accident fading out the back window.

"We will remember, but we also need to move on," KSD football coach Steve Daniels said through an interpreter. "It will always be part of our history. But we will move on."

Daniels was sleeping when he felt the bus swerve last October. He jumped up and saw all the kids staring forward. He doesn't remember much else.

Assistant coach Kevin Milner, the head coach last year, does. Students were thrown out windows. Bodies and equipment bounced around the inside. Windows shattered. The roof collapsed, pinning kids under the luggage compartment. In some spots, the roof tore away. Kids climbed through windows to escape.

Milner suffered internal bruising and chipped a bone in his back. Kuschmider, a former head coach who worked at KSD for about 15 years, broke his neck when he was thrown from the bus. He was conscious after the wreck, but died in the ambulance.

"He asked for his son, Kyle (now a sophomore lineman)," said Kenneth Milner, Kevin's father and another assistant coach. "I checked and found out Kyle had hurt his hip. Then his older son, Chester (now a junior quarterback), came and took care of Lory. What were his last words? He wanted to know if everyone was OK, and I said, `yes.' "

The KSD athletes have been on buses since the accident. Greg Lewandowski, a senior wide receiver, remembers the first bus ride after the wreck. It was a basketball trip. Everyone was scared. Students looked around at each other every time they hit a bump.

Eventually, the school bus became routine. But students asked athletic director Earleene Hicks to book a school bus, not a charter bus, for a basketball trip to Minnesota last winter. It was a long, cramped, bumpy ride.

"After the trip to Minnesota they came back and said, `We changed our minds,' " Hicks said.

KSD has worn black bands on basketball and track uniforms. There have been memorials and dedications and tributes. There are no patches on the football uniforms this season, no talk of the accident at practices. Not needed.

"I feel like my dad is there at the practices," Chester said. "But I'm also moving on. He taught me everything about football. Sometimes I'll do something and remember that my dad taught me that a long time ago. ... I miss him as my father. He was always there to support me."

Chester ended a rough night Friday on a positive note, connecting with Michael Storm on a 45-yard touchdown pass in the fourth quarter. He said after the game that he never was depressed, only happy to be on the field again.

Before the game, Chester promised the first road trip for the football team would be the same. They'll talk football, not of the accident. The players signed to each other about cars from the moment they sat. They passed around a brochure featuring fancy hubcaps. They stared out the windows at slick rides.

Kevin Milner, sitting seven seats in front of Chester, signed instructions to him.

"If it's there, try to throw it. If not, run," he said.

Then they saw the accident. They sat for a minute after passing it, and Lewandowski broke the silence of sorts. He signed to a group of teammates that they need to see "American Wedding" this weekend. The talk of cars resumes.

The bus rolled to a stop in the Williamsburg High School parking lot. Players quickly filed off. Jeremy Stockman, a skinny sophomore, was the last player in line. He turned to offer a sign he knows you'll understand.

He gives you a thumbs-up.

Everything is all right at KSD.

© 2003 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.