Tragedy strikes coach’s family

Steven Key had rehearsed it over and over.

"It was the hardest thing each day having to get around the question," the Houston Baptist University assistant coach said.

July 9, 2010.

Key’s wife, Sherry, was on the verge of going home two months after the car wreck just outside of Baton Rouge, La., that instantly took their 8-year-old daughter Emma’s life and put Sherry in the hospital for severe brain trauma, a broken right pelvis and a broken left humerus.

Steven had spent nearly two months avoiding questions and keeping the truth from his wife.

"We were afraid if we told her one day, she wouldn’t be able to remember the next day," Key said.

"He didn’t want to tell her and then 10 minutes later have her not remember," said Houston Baptist head coach Ron Cottrell, who has worked with Key for the past two decades. "He wanted to wait until she was fully cognizant."

Finally the time had come.

"I must have gone over that speech every day for two months," Key said. "I kept praying every day."

Even though she suffered brain trauma, Sherry knew something was wrong. She hadn’t seen either of her daughters since May 15, when their Toyota Sequoia hydroplaned across the median into Interstate 10 westbound traffic and was hit by an 18-wheeler on the passenger side.

Steven Key was driving through intermittent rain that day with his entire family in the back seat en route to his brother’s ordination in New Orleans. His 2-year-old, Eiley, was directly behind him with Sherry in the middle and Emma in the third seat.

"One minute I was talking and the next thing I knew we were flying across the median into the other side," Key said. "I was trying to get the car into reverse to get out of the road, but before I could, an 18-wheeler hit us right in the passenger side."

Their vehicle traveled about 200 yards following the collision.

Key was able to get Eiley out, but both Sherry and Emma were pinned in the car.

"Emma didn’t suffer," Key said. "I know she didn’t feel any pain."

Eiley was discharged after two days with minor injuries, but Sherry spent the next three weeks in the Trauma and Neuro Critical Care unit of Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge — much of it in a heavily sedated state.

"The first few weeks were really hard, especially because we didn’t know what to expect and whether Sherry was going to get better," Key said. "But week by week, she continued to get better."

That was when the question kept coming.

"Where are Emma and Eiley?" she’d ask.

"We’d just tell her to worry about herself," Key said. "We’d let her know that everything’s under control. We knew that was best for her at the time."

Emma was buried while her mother remained in the hospital, struggling to regain her memory. Sherry didn’t recall celebrating her birthday on June 27. Emma would have turned 9 the day prior.

After 21 days in Baton Rouge, Sherry was transferred to the Institute for Rehabilitation and Research in Houston — the same hospital that former Buffalo Bills player Kevin Everett walked out of five months after spinal surgery.

She was cleared to begin walking on July 9, the day Steven prepared to finally share the truth with his wife about Emma.

"She knew something was wrong," Key said. "And that day was tough."

"She started crying," Steven Key recalled about breaking the news to his wife. "I don’t remember what I said, but I know it was right."

But 30 minutes after Sherry broke into tears, there was their 2½-year-old redhead Eiley running into the room to see her mother for the first time in nearly two months.

"It was almost like the trump card," Key said. "Sherry being able to hold Eiley took some of the edge off a little bit."

A little more than a week later, Sherry walked out of the hospital on her own, without even needing a cane, and returned home to Katy, Texas.

"It’s been tough. I won’t say it hasn’t," Key said. "There are plenty of times when she’d crawl into bed and cry. I could sit here and try to tell you how she feels, but I can’t.

"Emma was her best friend."

Sherry is down to just one session of therapy each week and has returned to her job as a director of technology at Continental Airlines, working one day per week from home and one in the office.

"She’s doing well,” Key said. "She’s hoping to be back full time in the next year."

Key’s life has been a whirlwind since the accident. He didn’t go out on the road for the all-important July recruiting period, opting to stay back and take care of his wife and daughter.

It finally hit him just a week or so ago when he was driving back from practice. The season is here as Houston Baptist, which transitioned into the Division I ranks three years ago, opened up at Oklahoma State on Saturday.

He just broke down and cried for 15 minutes.

"I’ve been so consumed with making sure everything’s taken care of that I don’t think I ever had a chance to grieve," Key said. "I was driving home and realized the season is starting.

"The little girl that meets me at the back of the gym after every game isn’t going to be there anymore. It’s going to be tough."

But Key will be reminded of Emma each and every day when he looks at any of his players. Cottrell and the staff decided to have the letter “E” stitched on each uniform in her memory.

"It’s tough, hard to see that ‘E’ all the time," Key said. "But I know what it stands for. It makes me proud."

There wasn’t a dry eye in the building last weekend during a moment of silence prior to the team’s exhibition.

"Sherry was in the stands with my wife crying," Cottrell said. "And both Steve and I were crying on the court. It was emotional."

Now Key, a deeply religious person who had a solid balance between family and his career, is able to deliver a message to his players — with firsthand evidence — about how every practice or game could be their last.

"Everything can be taken away in a moment," he said.

And a message for his colleagues, many of whom are consumed with the long hours and travel of their careers.

"We go so fast and don’t ever slow down," Key said. "Before you know it, it can all be gone. It’s easy to say until it really happens.

"Try and get home a little earlier and hug your kids. If they want to do a puzzle, go do a puzzle with them or watch them ride their tricycle. It changes how you look at things."

Key is still trying to come to grips with the fact that he won’t be able to take Emma on any more recruiting trips — as he did when the two of them went to Phoenix last January. That he won’t see her doing a jig in the kitchen when he Skypes with his family from the road.

"Emma was a great kid," her father said. "She had a huge heart and was such a giving and generous person. It’s tough without her, but we’ll get through it."

And Emma Claire Key’s memory will never fade.