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Nov 30, 2007

Bradley playing in memory of Dahlquist

Coaches are problem solvers. They make halftime adjustments, tinker with lineups, and use their training and experience through so many game situations to help guide their decisions.

But what happens when there's no blueprint? No handbook, no previous experience to draw from.

That's what the Bradley Braves and head coach Jim DeRose faced this summer with the tragic death of Danny Dahlquist, a redshirt freshman who walked on to the team because he so desperately wanted to play for the Braves and represent the school where both of his parents are employed.

"Danny was the hardest working player on the team -- in the weight room, on the field, in the classroom," DeRose says. "He wanted to be a Bradley Brave more than any player I've ever coached."

A coach, who always has the answer and the right thing to say, is left to figure it out along with his team along with professional specialists to provide direction.

"Most of the things you learn are the things you don't know that you don't know," DeRose admits. "In the early days when we were talking to the professionals, they told me 'Coach, you can go 18-0 and have the most unsuccessful season with damage to these boys and not letting them heal, or 0-18 and have your best season ever and allow them to heal.' So we were acutely aware of how delicate the situation was."

Coach DeRose decided early on that soccer was a way for the team to escape. For two hours, they could concentrate on set pieces and 7 vs. 7 because missing Danny the rest of the time was inevitable. Things weren't always rosy and the players weren't out there giggling in that time -- but it was okay for them to go play for a few hours. They endured.

While the coaches and players used soccer as an escape, a funny thing happened ... wins started piling up. The Braves captured yet another Missouri Valley Conference regular season title. Somewhere along the way, it was okay to laugh. They enjoyed.

Remembering Danny

In one of the most dramatic scenes in Hoosiers, as the team is about to take to the court for the state championship, coach Norman Dale asks them if there is anything the team would like to say. One by one, the players spoke of who they wanted to win the game for. Go out and win for them.

This is what most of us envision in a pregame speech, or something even more dramatic and direct, such as "Win one for the Gipper." But that's Hollywood.

In real life, in Peoria, Ill., the Braves weren't "playing for Danny." They didn't pretend that a 20-win season or a conference championship would somehow make Danny rest more peacefully. Instead, they used Danny's memory -- how hard he worked, how much he loved Bradley, how much he loved soccer -- and the strength that his family has shown in the wake of his passing, as inspiration, not motivation.

"If anything, Danny's memory reminds us that we are lucky enough to be alive and have the physical ability to play soccer," senior goalkeeper Mike Haynes says. "Danny's family comes to every one of our games and make all the trips, and it's great to see how happy they are when we do well and win games. It's so humbling, though, because you'd obviously trade it all to have Danny back."

Team unity

One might look at the Bradley Braves and point to the tragedy as to what brought the team together. What it did, though, was show the team's pre-existing strength. Had the team not already been close, bonded, united, it might not have been able to navigate the months that followed as successfully, on the field or off. It didn't make the young men strong but showed their strength.

"They've really been playing for one another, they want to keep the season going," DeRose says.

So, on Wednesday night, when Bradley defeated Indiana on penalties and advanced to the Sweet 16 for the first time in school history, the season did in fact keep going. Players rushed out on to the field and hugged and celebrated with genuine joy, a feeling that seemed unfathomable just several months ago.

It demonstrated everything that we love about sports -- manual not included.

Adam Zundell is a contributor to ESPN.com. His 2005 story on Jason Garey, "The Kid Can Play," won first place in the College Division in the NSCAA's annual writing contest. He can be reached at azundell@yahoo.com.