Runner's lightning-strike death inspires team, father to new heights
It was a Sunday evening this past July in Spearfish, S.D., a town of 15,000 just down the road from Deadwood on the outskirts of the Black Hills National Forest.
Gage McSpadden was outside playing disc golf with a friend.
In most ways, McSpadden, a 21-year-old cross-country athlete who had come to Spearfish from Wyoming to go to Black Hills State University, was the son many parents would want their own child to become: a kid with a big smile and a bigger heart. Teammates called him “Sheriff” because he always wore a trucker hat that had that word emblazoned on it. He loved swing dancing and country music. He went rock climbing at Red Rock Canyon outside Las Vegas even though he was terrified of heights. He tutored students for free at the library. He was studying to be a special education teacher. He worked out local kids with disabilities through Special Olympics. Every year after Thanksgiving, he showed up at his cross-country coach’s house. No one asked him to do it, but since he knew his coach had arthritis, McSpadden always put up his coach’s Christmas lights for him – and after Christmas he came back and took them down, too.
On that day, Scott Walkinshaw, the Black Hill State cross-country coach, was out washing his car in the driveway. He saw lightning to the south. He thought back to a few days earlier, when he was watching a Weather Channel segment about the different ways someone could get hit by lightning. The coach pulled his car back into the garage.
If there is a fear that consumes a cross-country coach, it has nothing to do with getting hit by lightning. Instead, it is this: that a runner may get run over by a car. For Walkinshaw, this feeling has always been especially prominent. Whenever your team runs a cumulative 1,000 miles a week with cars whizzing past, that’s a fear. It’s amplified when your team runs single-file down winding dirt roads and trails in the Black Hills, always running toward traffic to keep the vehicles in sight. You never know what’s around the corner – or more important, what’s around the corner has no idea you’re coming toward them. If his team would go for a run on a narrow road, or if the skies were getting dark, Walkinshaw made a habit of following his runners in his car with his headlights on.
But getting hit by lightning? Hardly crossed his mind. Or anyone’s mind, really. It’s the ultimate of freak occurrences.
“It was a strange night,” Walkinshaw recalled. “There was no weather forecast. But to the west it was dark. That wasn’t (in the) forecast.”
A couple hours later a text popped up on his phone: That McSpadden and Evan Strand, a recent graduate, had been hit by lightning while playing disc golf, and that they were at a local hospital. The coach rushed to the hospital. Family and friends and Yellow Jackets cross country teammates were already outside the intensive care unit. McSpadden was LifeFlighted to Denver.
“I just thought we’d get news every day he was getting a little bit better,” the coach said. “I thought he’d get back and run the season.”
Instead, a couple days later, Walkinshaw was calling each of the upperclassmen on his team to tell them the bad news: Gage – The Sheriff, the guy people called the best teammate they’ve ever had – was being taken off life support.
It is one of the ultimate sporting clichés: Adversity strikes a team, and the team is brought closer because of it, eventually reaching heights that had been thought impossible.
But a cliché is a cliché for a reason: It happens. The storyline of adversity leading to achievement is such a pervasive part of America’s sporting culture that teams turn perceived slights into major insults all the time just to get motivation to conquer an obstacle. Insults become motivations. Tragedies become inspirations. Lives take on meaning.
This is the case with Gage McSpadden.
There were some 500 people at the funeral in McSpadden’s hometown of Rawlins, Wyoming, a five-hour drive from campus.
In just about every way imaginable, burying the younger of his two sons was the worst nightmare for McSpadden’s father, Tyler McSpadden.
As a cell site technician who works on cell phone towers in the middle of vast open spaces McSpadden had spent a career being worried about the possibility of getting hit by lightning. He knew some weather conditions could be dangerous. He also knew how remote the chance of getting struck by lightning was; in fact, not long before his son’s accident, Tyler and his son had had a conversation about how they would prefer to die. Gage told his dad he wanted to get hit by lightning. That was quick and painless.
“Gage, do you know how hard it is to get hit by lightning?” he’d told his son.
And then there was the other part, the burden Gage McSpadden’s father carried for much of his life. Tyler McSpadden was painfully shy, the exact opposite of his son. And not just your regular old introvert, either. An extreme introvert. It was a mental illness of sorts that affected everything in his life. When he went to his older son’s high school football games, he’d sit in the corner of the stands, far away from other parents. Gage would sit by his dad so he didn’t look so lonely. He was overweight, too, about 320 pounds; he hated being in photographs because he thought his presence would ruin them. The last time his sons were together, Tyler McSpadden declined to be in a family photo.
Gage McSpadden's funeral inspired his father, Tyler, to live life to the fullest in a way he never had before.
At the funeral, that stuck in his mind.
“As long as I can remember, I’ve always been afraid of what other people think,” Tyler McSpadden said. “ ‘Are they laughing at me?’ ‘Will they laugh at me if I go talk to them?’ And that’s nothing Gage ever worried about. He’d go do it the way he wanted to do it, and go have fun.”
And so at the funeral and the reception, Tyler McSpadden thought of the way his son lived. His youngest son was the life of the party. He remembered that Gage conquered his fear of heights by immersing himself in rock climbing. Instead of being angry when teammates taped him to a beer-pong table as an initiation ritual, Gage had laughed his head off.
And so Tyler McSpadden took his first step to find meaning in his son’s nonsensical tragedy: At the funeral and the reception, he went up to every single person he could and he spoke with them about his son.
“Gage lived,” his father said. “He was 21 years old. When he passed I was 47, and he’d lived 10 times more than I did in his 21 years. I don’t have the answers to life, but I knew right then that I’m going to change mine, and I’m going to live. If I live 80 years, I’m going to live them. I’m tired of hiding.”
As the hearse was leaving, Tyler McSpadden was sitting in his truck. A girl came up to him and knocked on his window. She told the father that his son was the only boy she dated in all of high school who had come inside to meet her dad when he picked her up.
After the funeral, Walkinshaw, the cross-country coach, drove back to campus on a Monday night. Two days later would begin the university’s cross-country camp, the place where McSpadden used to teach hurdling to aspiring track athletes and would demonstrate how to jump the steeplechase barrier.
“I went from being really excited about the season to not even wanting to start the season,” Walkinshaw said. “It was devastating to some kids. They were just in disbelief. At camp it was on everybody’s mind all the time. But I do think having everyone here together helped everyone deal with it.”
Gage McSpadden pushed his teammates to go harder before his death -- and especially after it.
And all season, Gage stuck there, in the back of the minds of Black Hills State’s cross-country athletes. On a long, exhausting, boring run, the thought popped into their heads: Push harder on this run because that’s what Gage would have done. They remembered how Gage talked of going for winter runs back home in Wyoming. The McSpaddens lived in the windiest part of the state, and if he had to do an 11-mile run when it was zero degrees out with 40-mph winds, the only concession he’d make was to ask his dad to drive him out in the country so he didn’t have to run into the wind the whole way. He never complained.
“You could feel it every day,” the coach said. “Every. Single. Day. Every workout. Every run. Every session in the weight room. People were going to do it every day to the best of their ability, and do it for Gage.”
This is not a Hollywood ending.
Black Hills State made nationals for the first time ever as a Division II school but did not suddenly go on to win a national title.
Humans did not become superhuman.
A miracle did not happen.
And a vibrant young man with a promising life was still dead decades before he should have been.
Yet the past five months since Gage McSpadden was struck by lightning have shown so many people in this overlooked corner of the Great Plains that one life lived well can impact exponentially more lives.
“So many guys have improved so much in one year’s time, there had to be a reason for it,” said Alec Baldwin, a fifth-year senior captain on the Black Hills State cross-country team. “This season was big. Making him proud. Doing what he thought we could do. We were running with a purpose. We were pushing our workouts harder. And it was pushing it for Gage.”
The school started a memorial scholarship fund. It needed to raise $10,000 to get an endowed scholarship in Gage’s name. Walkinshaw wasn’t sure the team could pull that off. A former cross-country All-American at the school started calling alums, and they raised $10,000 in 24 hours. They held a dance in McSpadden’s honor. They named an annual September fundraising race the Gage McSpadden “Sheriff” 5K Race/3K Walk. So far the scholarship fund is sitting at around $25,000.
The Black Hills State men's team made not only regionals -- which was a long-shot goal -- but nationals.
Later in September, the team won a top cross-country race in Minnesota that had nearly 400 runners. When the team was receiving its trophy, one runner walked off the stage and broke down. “Coach,” he told Walkinshaw, “there should be one more guy up here.”
The team got ranked nationally in Division II. Baldwin was named an All-American, improving from 53rd at nationals a year ago to ninth this season. The team finished 14th. At the funeral, Tyler McSpadden had told Walkinshaw this: “Gage said you guys were going to make it to regionals this year.” That was a far-fetched dream for a Division II school. But the team did, then did something it had never done: make nationals.
“I had wondered if we’d ever go to nationals as a team,” Walkinshaw said. “The feeling when we did was just unbelievable. There’s no question that what happened with Gage led to this.”
It was a phenomenal accomplishment for a team that had always been thought of as an underdog if it had even been thought of at all. The runners knew they’d accomplished Gage’s dream by making nationals. That was his biggest goal for his senior year. But they also knew the meaning of this tragedy was about so much more than one sports season.
“It definitely makes you look at the person you want to be – especially when it’s a guy like Gage, who had an effect on so many people,” said Baldwin, the All-American. “If that happens to me, do I want to be gone and forgotten? Or do I want to be remembered like Gage has been?”
For Tyler McSpadden, the death of his son made him step out of his cocoon. He didn’t care what other people thought of him anymore because his son never seemed to care. When he visited his older son, Clayton, this fall and watched him coach a high school football game, he made a point to go up to the quarterback to tell the young man how impressive his game was. A special thing happened after he did that: Parents came up to Tyler and told them how much they loved his older son as a coach.
He decided he wanted to run in the 5K race that is named after his son. Six months ago that would have sounded absurd. But in the past five months he has dropped from 320 pounds to 280 and hopes to run that 5K this September.
“How I am getting through it?” Tyler McSpadden said. “Every morning it’s so difficult. But I get up in the morning, and I think about the fact that Gage got up every morning and went and ran. That’s what I do. I get up, and I put one foot in front of another, and I get through my day.”
“I’m just trying to learn to live through my son, through what he did,” Tyler McSpadden said. “A lot of times I ask myself: ‘What would Gage do right now?’ And then I go do it.”
A few years ago, the McSpaddens went to California to visit family in the winter. The boys played in the ocean. Tyler McSpadden wouldn’t even take his shoes off. The water was cold. Gage McSpadden’s father didn’t want to get his feet wet. He didn’t want to live.
This Christmas, McSpadden and his wife are going to California again. McSpadden has a plan: One day – maybe even Christmas Day – he’s going to head to the Pacific, take off his shoes, walk down the beach and run into that water. He knows people will think he looks stupid, but this time, he doesn’t care.
He’s going to live.
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.