Hardin-Simmons feels control slip away after player’s death

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Hardin-Simmons senior receiver Taylor Huff was struck and killed by a car in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday.
Hardin-Simmons athletics photos

There is no real control over loss. Things slip away in the shadows -- moments, meanings, football games and good intentions.

Hours after Hardin-Simmons upset previously undefeated Texas Lutheran on the football field Saturday, Cowboys wide receiver Taylor Huff slipped away in the dark of early morning.

The Fort-Worth Star Telegram reported that Huff was walking on Ambler Avenue in Abilene, Texas, in the pre-dawn hours of Sunday when he was struck and killed by a vehicle. Huff, according to the report, was alone and died at the scene.

Sports are supposed to prepare players for life. Football players learn about preparation, overcoming adversity, working with teammates. Enough film watched, an extra hour in the weight room, a route run one more time in practice; these things suggest control.

By Sunday morning, Hardin-Simmons players and coaches had every reason to believe that they had already encountered and overcome tragedy.

Retired head coach Jimmie Keeling, who was hired to bring football back to Hardin-Simmons in 1989, was hospitalized Friday after a car wreck in Abilene left him with a fractured vertebrae and broken ribs. Current Cowboys coach Jesse Burleson, a 1999 graduate of HSU, played for Keeling. He served as a graduate assistant under Keeling, then returned to his alma mater as an assistant before assuming the head coaching position upon Keeling’s retirement in 2010.

“This is I my DNA,” said Burleson, whose wife, Lois, is also a Hardin-Simmons graduate. “It really is. It’s the same thing we’re trying to give to these kids. That they have now the same experiences I was able to have and some of the other coaches were able to have when they were here as players, you know with the success and the lessons learned.”

After Saturday’s emotional win over the Bulldogs, Burleson drove to Keeling’s house to present his former coach with the game ball. The Cowboys have a history of winning seasons that goes back 21 years. That streak will end this fall, but Saturday’s win over the Bulldogs offers at least an opportunity to finish at .500.

For Texas Lutheran, a team that was counting on an undefeated run through the rest of the season to earn a Pool B bid into the playoffs, the game could have spelled the end of the postseason aspirations because of TLU’s low strength of schedule. But it was a loss that came with a reminder of how much bigger things that perfect records have a habit of stealing away.

“We understand that football is really important,” Bulldogs coach Danny Padron said. “But it puts things in perspective when you’re talking about people losing their lives and a young man that just had his life cut short just makes you very much aware of, you know, a short, a shortness of time that we have. So everything is brought back into perspective. Football is important, but it’s just a game and now we’re talking about life and death.”

While Padron’s team began a five-hour bus ride back to Seguin, Texas, Saturday evening, Burleson left a Cowboys team in high spirits.

Huff, he said, was in the locker room the last time Burleson saw him

Hardin-Simmons' coach said watching Taylor Huff mature and grow during his time with the team is the reason coaches do what they do.

“He was happy as could be,” Burleson said. “We just had a big win, and our guys were, you know, excited and fired up and he was no exception. He was happy as could be.”

Football coaches should have some control; they make decisions and give instructions every day. But Burleson had no control over the things that happened after the Cowboys left the football field. He had no control over the death of a senior he personally recruited out of Sam Houston High School in Arlington, Texas. Burleson just received the phone call and absorbed the news early Sunday. And Burleson couldn’t control how that news was delivered to his team. By the time he gathered the players at 2:45 Sunday afternoon, most of them were already aware of the loss. Social media offers an instant outlet for loss. And while he would have liked to have delivered the news himself, he remains unsure what to say to his grieving team.

“There’s definitely not -- there’s nothing in the coaching manual or step-by-step guide on how to deal with something like this. It’s just, we, we as a staff and we as a family, we just let them know that, you know, this is a very difficult situation for anybody and there’s going to be different stages that you go through with shock and then searching for answers and there’s going to be times whenever they’re mad and then go through all those things hopefully into a place of recovery.

“And we try to explain those things to them, but most importantly to stick to our faith. That whenever we don’t understand why these things happen and we want answers for those things, but basically we just … God’s plan is much greater than we can ever possibly imagine. That’s really the only comfort that you can have or that you can give to those guys on those things.”

Keeling will recover.  The Cowboys will finish the season. Hardin-Simmons hosts Louisiana College on Saturday. The Cowboys returned to practice Tuesday; Burleson hopes the game and preparation will give his grieving team a chance to focus on something besides its loss.

“Everyone wants to win football games and all those things, but it’s, you know, that’s not really our purpose,” Burleson said. “At least not here at Hardin-Simmons. Our purpose is to help prepare these guys and hopefully really -- really teach them about real life, about being, you know, a man and a better husband and a better father someday and all those different things that really go into real life. It is difficult to try to, to try to prepare, but I also thing that it’s a positive to thing to where … our guys, can, you know, not forget about Taylor and what’s happened but maybe focus on something else for a little while to kind of lift their spirits up and to get them going again. And to hopefully keep pressing forward.”

The days between now and the end of the season are still in doubt. Huff’s funeral was scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday. Burleson said that his team will be going, although a memorial for the player had previously been planned for the same time.

Abilene police Sgt. Will Ford told the Fort-Worth Star Telegram that no charges were expected to be filed in Huff’s death.

Football season draws to a close. In these final weeks, many teams will see their losses accumulate into a disappointing end. For Hardin-Simmons, the team’s losses on the field may be the least disappointing of all. Taylor Huff, who started two games in 2011, finished his senior year with three catches for 34 yards. He saw action in eight games, including his final one, the win over Texas Lutheran. But the numbers start to slip away in the memories.

“He was a great teammate,” Burleson said. “Very unselfish. It wasn’t about him.

“To just watch him progress over the last couple of years, to watch him mature and grow, that’s why we do this. That’s why we coach. Just to see things like that. I think he was brought here for more -- for a much, much bigger purpose than to catch touchdown passes.”

Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference

--  Texas Lutheran’s undefeated streak came to an end Saturday against Hardin-Simmons.

The Cowboys were shootout winners, downing the visiting Bulldogs 73-44 on Saturday.

The Bulldogs 7-1, 3-0 SCAC) led 6-0 on a pair of Tyler Brandenburg field goals when Hardin Simmons junior Tevin Mitchell scored on a 5-yard run. The Cowboys (4-5, 2-3 ASC) never trailed again.

The Bulldogs dropped out of the Top 25. The regular season ends with a visit from Howard Payne on Saturday.

--  Trinity earned its first SCAC win with a 58-20 victory over visiting Southwestern.
It was the Tigers’ second win over Southwestern in the last month, but the first in conference play.

Desmond King rushed for 121 yards and two touchdowns on 17 carries for Trinity (5-4, 1-1). Stephen Smith completed 20 of 29 passes for 260 yards and three touchdowns, getting picked off twice. Cody Sandman caught four of passes for 140 yards and two touchdowns.

Connor Yorloff had three solo tackles, including a sack for an 11-yard loss, and a forced fumble. Linebacker Julian Turner returned a fumble to score in the final period.  

Matt Gillen caught seven passes, good for 129 yards and a score for Southwestern (0-9, 0-3), which led 13-6 early in the second quarter. Taylor Fann had nine solo tackles and was involved in 2.5 tackles for loss.

The Pirates finish their first season with a cross-country visit to Southern Virginia on Saturday.

Southern Athletic Association

--  Centre nearly played spoiler in the SAA on Saturday as undefeated No. 19 Millsaps just held on to a one-point victory, 28-27, in overtime.

The Colonels led 21-10 with 4:45 to play in the third quarter. Majors quarterback Zak Thrasher rushed for a touchdown and passed for the 2-point conversion, Millsaps recovered the onside kick by Beau Brady, and Brady connected on a 39-yard field goal attempt with 54 seconds remaining in regulation to send the contest into overtime.

Thrasher hit Matt Wahl from nine yards out for a touchdown in the extra period. Centre (6-3, 3-2) answered with a 3-yard scoring pass from Heath Haden to Greyson Janeway, but the 2-point attempt to win it all was fumbled away by Harry Meisner to end the game.

Zander Romano recovered the onside kick for the Majors. Romano also caught 11 passes for 152 receiving yards and a touchdown. Thrasher threw for 318 yards, completing 24 of 42 attempts with two scoring passes and two interceptions.

Millsaps (9-0, 5-0) outgained Centre 422 to 258 in total offense, but the Majors were also penalized seven times for 110 yards. Centre’s six penalties were worth 42 yards.

Zach Bell had two of the Majors’ six sacks. Bell has 12 this season. Jeff Milner also had a sack on Saturday, bringing his season total to 8.5. The two Majors defenders lead the conference in sacks.

Millsaps will close out the regular season at Rhodes this Saturday.

--  Dane Wilson rushed for 149 yards and two touchdowns on 22 carries as Rhodes downed host Hendrix, 55-36.

Less than two minutes into play, quarterback Blake Box connected with Mike Edel on a 21-yard scoring pass. The Lynx (7-2, 4-1) never trailed, pulling away in regulation. Box threw for four touchdowns, completing 15 of 23 attempts for 184 yards.

Freshman tight end Charles Schneider caught three of those throws to the end zone. Schneider finished the day with four catches covering 52 yards.

Hendrix receiver Casey Caton had five catches for 123 yards and a touchdown. Travus McMahon had nine catches for 84 yards for the Warriors (3-6, 1-4), who finish their first season of football against Sewanee at home.

--  Sewanee intercepted Berry quarterback Adam Sandin three times Saturday as the Tigers defeated the Vikings, 28-6.

Curtis Johnson threw for 86 yards and a touchdown for the Tigers. Johnson also rushed 21 times for 71 yards and a score. Cortez Brown had 14 carries for 73 yards and a touchdown, as well as one catch for a 17-yard touchdown.

Alex Kops had nine solo tackles for Sewanee (3-6, 2-3).

Sandin threw for 286 yards and a touchdown, completing 20 of 36 attempts Saturday. Chris Lilly reeled in eight catches for 165 yards for Berry (1-9, 0-6) as the Vikings end their first season of football.

Anthony Batey had 12 individual tackles for Berry. 

American Southwest Conference

--  No. 3 Mary Hardin-Baylor won its ninth straight, defeating visiting East Texas Baptist, 65-10.

Zach Anderson passed for 246 yards and three touchdowns, completing 20 of 25 attempts to 11 different receivers. Anderson also rushed 10 times for 98 yards and a score for the Crusaders (9-0, 5-0).

Silvio Diaz had two sacks of Mary Hardin-Baylor’s five sacks.

East Texas Baptist receiver Tyler Bates had seven catches for 107 yards and a score. Josh Warbington completed 20 of 31 passes for 235 yards with a touchdown and an interception.

The Crusaders travel to Mississippi College Saturday. The Tigers (2-7, 0-5) head to Sul Ross State.

--  Louisiana College scored three fourth quarter touchdowns to put away visiting Mississippi College, 42-28.

Saturday’s game was tied four times and well into the fourth quarter. Zach Favre caught a five yard touchdown pass from Jonathan Redd with 4:20 remaining in regulation as the Choctaws tied it up at 28-28 on the Hunter Estess kick.

Neither team had managed to score more -- or less -- than seven points in a quarter before the Wildcats (6-3, 4-1) racked up 21 in the fourth.

Freshman quarterback Easton Melancon and receiver Farron Jones connected for a 75 yard, go-ahead touchdown on third-and10 with 3:57 to play. Ryan Montague ran in a score from two yards out with nine seconds to play as Louisiana sealed the win.

Melancon threw for 299 yards and four touchdowns, going 18 of 24 with three interceptions. Montague had 21 carries for 107 yards and two rushing touchdowns, as well as two catches, one for a score.

Ladarius Gardner had eight catches, two for touchdowns, and 125 yards. Dominic Graham had eight solo tackles to lead the Louisiana defense.

Redd completed 29 of 45 passes for the Choctaws (4-5, 4-1), going 248 yards in the air for three touchdowns and an interception. Keith Williams led the receivers with nine catches for 92 yards and a score.

Louisiana College will travel to Hardin-Simmons this weekend.

--  Howard Payne scored on its first two possessions and went on to defeat Sul Ross State, 32-21, on Saturday.

Yellow Jackets (4-5, 2-4) quarterback Zachary Alvarado threw for 221 yards and two touchdowns, completing 18 of 26 throws. Alvarado also rushed ten times for 51 yards and a score.

Senior Tristian Fuentes had eight catches for 122 yards and both touchdowns.

Lobos quarterback Jerem Boatright was eight of 18 for 117 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Del Wilson caught five passes for 78 yards and two touchdowns for Sul Ross State (1-8, 1-4).