BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Unimaginable.
A message of legacy that has been distributed to more than 25,000 students in the past four years, was brought to Fort Madison High School Tuesday morning. And the deliverer of the message was one of Fort Madison’s own. Former Head Basketball Coach Mark Bigler spoke with the entire student body about the tragedy of a drunk driving accident that took his grandson. But without anger, resentment, or hate, Bigler spread a message of legacy and courage in the face of something that even four years later carries a weight that is palpable throughout a gymnasium that is usually a mecca of celebration and excitement.
On July 28, 2012 Dana Allen Schoen, then 38, plowed his pick-up truck into the SUV that was carrying Mark’s son Brad, his daughter-in-law Heather, her grandmother and five month old Drake Bigler, Mark’s grandson. They were traveling on a county road in Minnesota. Brad and Heather have two other children who were riding in a different vehicle. One of the first times, according to Bigler, that that happened because they always wanted to ride with their parents.
Schoen’s blood alcohol level was .351 which is four times the legal limit in Minnesota.
The accident took the life of Drake, and severely injured Brad, and Heather’s grandmother Sharon Shuler. Heather escaped injury as the driver. Schoen’s pickup sheared off the passenger side of the vehicle and left it on the side of the road.
A reality that typically results in rage and contempt, and one would be naive to think those emotions didn’t seep into the minds of the Bigler family, is now met with hope and direction.
Bigler told the students that courage and legacy need to be a part of their lives going forward.
“You have to have the courage to take someone’s keys… the courage to be the one not drinking… the courage to plan something else that’s the center of the fun,” Bigler said. “It takes courage to be the leader. You probably will be made fun of as a leader in that situation. It’s called leadership… It’s called respect.”
Bigler said his family’s tragedy has become a national message for courage and leadership. ESPN’s primetime magazine E:60 did a segment on Brad’s family and their path through heartbreak and tragedy. Included in the piece were the details surrounding Brad’s mother’s death in a kayaking accident in Minnesota. Brad was kayaking with her when she hit some rapids and capsized. Brad tried to rescue her but she was trapped under a nest of tree limbs.
The NCAA and the NFL have also had Brad speak to different groups and Mark has been speaking with students in Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Brad, a former FMHS athletic standout, is the head basketball coach at Southwest Minnesota State University.
“Well I think of all groups, I’ve never had a bad audience,” Mark said. “Most of these students can identify with a personal experience with a family member, but then it comes to the alcohol, and we’re not naive here, but if we can impact one person. That’s worth it.”
Mark told the students that he didn’t harbor resentment for Schoen.
“I feel sorry for him, I don’t wish him bad. He made a huge tragic mistake. But it was the third time…the first time he killed someone, the third time he was arrested.”
“What will your legacy be as a leader. What difference can you make,” he asked the Bloodhounds sitting quietly, but fully engaged. “Do you have the courage, not just for Drake, but for someone you love, your friends, your family.”
He told the students they are going to face these very situations very soon and as adults. He said social drinking isn’t a bad thing but it the decisions you make afterwards. It effects lives…it effects your health.
“Are you gonna be like Dana – one that drinks too much – or the others who didn’t take the keys because they didn’t want to start a fight. It’s about courage,” he said.
One high school student asked Mark after the presentation if Schoen was still in prison. Bigler said he got a 4.5 years prison sentence and was out after a year and a half.
“But we’re not looking for punishment like that,” Bigler said.
Another student, Cason Barker approached Bigler after the presentation and said the message struck very close to him because his mother was taken the same way.
“I can actually relate to this situation, my mom passed away in 2012…” Barker said and then had trouble finishing as emotions overtook him. Bigler stepped in and embraced him and told him that his mother would want him to be successful and want him to live a happy life.
Barker said his mother was taken when a drunk driver collided with the vehicle he was in traveling to his grandmother’s home in Missouri.