Billy Donovan's Secret Sorrow
The text arrived two days after Halloween, well before Billy Donovan got to the cemetery.
“Thinking of you,” it read.
For almost a decade, it’s never failed. Every year, on Nov. 2, Arkansas coach John Pelphrey –
along with Alabama’s Anthony Grant - have reached out to their former boss at Florida. A phone call, an e-mail, a card or text. Just something to remind Donovan how much they care. And how they can relate.
“No staff,” Grant says, “has ever experienced what we experienced. What happened with all of
us … I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”
Long before they were all head coaches in the SEC -- long before they became competitors --
Donovan, Pelphrey and Grant helped Florida blossom into one of the country’s most-dominating programs during the early and mid-2000s. Still, the moments the three of them remember the most -- the three precise dates that spurred one of the strongest, most unique bonds in all of sports -- have nothing to do with winning NCAA titles and conference championships.
Instead, they involve the loss of life, and the strengthening of friendship.
“The human body is amazing,” Pelphrey says. “We can all sense when those days are coming closer.”
November 2 for Donovan.
February 6 for Grant.
August 22 for Pelphrey.
“I let John know I was thinking about him at the end of the summer,” Donovan says now. “He wrote back and said, ‘Tough, tough day. It never gets easier.’”
“He’s right,” he says. “It doesn’t.”
November 2, 2000
When Billy Donovan arrived in the maternity ward at Shands Hospital in Gainesville, he noticed balloons. Lots of balloons.
In rooms throughout the facility, lives were changing forever as mothers delivered newborns.
Family members stood in the hallway and congregated in the waiting area, hugging and
celebrating. Some brought signs that read “It’s a boy!” or “It’s a girl!”
Donovan walked past all of them. His wife, Christine, would be delivering later that day, too.
But the circumstances would be much different.
The first sign of trouble arose the previous evening. For more than eight months, Christine had
carried the couple’s fourth child -- a baby girl -- without any complications. Multiple times
each week, Billy, then 35, would put his hand on his wife’s belly and marvel at the kicks and movement he felt from little Jacqueline Patricia.
Eight days before her Nov. 9 due date, though, Christine and Billy were laying in bed when
she told him she hadn’t felt the baby move in nearly 24 hours. Billy could sense his wife was concerned. When he awoke the following morning, he said Christine was “sheet white.”
“She was shaken,” Donovan says. “She was scared.”
Christine walked down the street to visit a neighbor who was a general practitioner. He said he detected a heartbeat but, because he didn’t have the proper stethoscope, he couldn’t determine if it was the baby’s or Christine’s.
Back at home, Billy was packing for a trip to Birmingham for SEC Media Day. Christine told
him that even though everything was probably fine, she wanted to be examined at the hospital and that she would call if there was any news.
For more than an hour, Billy sat at home by himself, waiting for the phone to ring. It never did.
He dialed his wife’s number. Christine said nothing when she answered Billy’s call, but he could hear her trembling.
“I lost the baby,” she finally whispered.
To this day, Donovan doesn’t know what was worse: The despair in Christine’s voice, or the pain -- both mental and physical -- he watched her endure when she was induced into labor that afternoon. Standing next to her hospital bed, Billy held Christine’s hand as she delivered their stillborn daughter.
“Hours earlier we were trick-or-treating with our kids,” Donovan says. “All of a sudden, our
lives had completely changed.”
Within seconds of the delivery, the cause of death was evident. The umbilical cord had looped around Jacqueline’s ankles so tightly that, upon being unwrapped, it left deep dents in her skin.
“The lifelines had all been cut off,” Billy says. “She had no air, no oxygen.”
As agonizing as the delivery had been, Billy asked a nurse to take some pictures of Jacqueline. He knew he wouldn’t look at them often, but he still wanted some sort of keepsake. He wanted, he says, “something visual.”
Once Christine was stabilized, Donovan left the hospital and headed home. He felt numb. Seven
months earlier, in just his fourth season, he had guided Florida to the NCAA title game for the first time in school history. Now he was wiping away tears as he drove home to tell his three children that they’d never meet their baby sister.
Donovan stopped at a red light.
“I’m sitting there,” Donovan says, “and I look over at this church, and there’s a sign on the marquee that says, ‘God is Good All of the Time.’ I kind of shook my head and thought, ‘What’s good about this?’
“But then I sat there a little longer, and I said to myself, ‘I’ve got an incredible wife, and right now I’m going home to three healthy kids.’ A lot of times, when bad things happen in your life, you fail to remember all the good things that are in your life, too.
“At that moment, a calm came over me, a peace that made me realize that, although this was a terrible loss, I was still very, very blessed.”
From that point forward, Donovan was determined not to let the situation get the best of him.
Earlier that afternoon, a counselor at the hospital told him that as many as 90 percent of couples who lose a child at birth end up divorced, a point that was reiterated by a former coach and mentor.
Donovan was playing for Rick Pitino at Providence when a state trooper stopped the Friars team bus on the way home from New York to inform Pitino that his infant son had died of respiratory issues.
“Rick called me when Jacqueline passed,” Donovan says. “He told me, ‘You cannot go back to work. You cannot go back to your team. Not yet. You need to stay home and make sure you’re with her. This can cause problems in your family. Don’t let it.’”
Donovan met with his players on Nov. 3 and told them he needed some time away and that he wasn’t sure when he’d return. He spent the next week at home with Christine, helping her around the house, talking with her, listening to her.
Rather than weaken, their relationship began to flourish. Eventually, Christine convinced her husband to return to work, where people weren’t quite sure how to act.
“Even when a wound heals, there is still a scar – and he will always have that scar,” says Dr. Nick Cassisi, Florida’s faculty rep at the time and one of Donovan’s closest friends. “What do you say to make it easy?”
Donovan told people about the inspirational message he saw on the sign at the church in the
hours after Jacqueline’s death. One of his staff members, Tim Maloney, took a picture of the marquee and gave it to his boss in a frame. Donovan looked at it often.
He thanked everyone at the university who offered support but, for the most part, he consumed himself in his work and bottled up his emotions. Administrators had difficulty understanding the extent to which Jacqueline’s death was affecting him, because Donovan rarely mentioned it.
“I sat in a hospital and listened to the doctor tell my wife and I that our child was dead,”
Donovan says. “He said we were still going to deliver our child at nine months, but it was going to be delivered dead. Who do you talk to for that? Who says, ‘Hey, I know what you’re going through’?”
For Donovan, there was one person who fit that description.
His office was right next door.
February 6, 1999
At 16-4 and fresh off a victory over fifth-ranked Kentucky, the Florida Gators couldn’t have been more excited to take the court against Ole Miss on a Saturday afternoon in Gainesville.
But as players filed into the O’Connell Center locker room before pre-game shoot-around, they noticed a familiar face was missing.
“Where’s Coach Grant?” the Gators asked Donovan. “Why isn’t Coach Grant here?”
Donovan told his team that his assistant was sick, but he knew that was far from the truth.
Eight-and-a-half months pregnant, Grant’s wife, Christina, had stopped by her husband’s office that morning and mentioned that there was a strange tightness in her belly. Much like Christine Donovan, Christina couldn’t feel any movement from their second child, Brandon Harrell.
The couple went to the hospital and, almost immediately, Christina was hooked up to all sorts of
monitors. These things happen all the time, the Grants thought. Such procedures, they figured, must certainly be routine.
That wasn’t the case.
“Our baby,” Grant says, “had no heartbeat.”
Doctors told Christina that a rupture in her placenta had caused Brandon’s death. Grant said no one ever explained why it happened or how, although they were reassured that Christina had done nothing wrong.
“When you’re young, you think it’s easy to have a baby,” says Grant, who was 29 at the time. “Your wife gets pregnant and you assume there aren’t going to be any issues. Then something happens like what happens to us, and your whole world changes.”
The rupture in her placenta caused Christina Grant to bleed internally. Within minutes of losing Brandon, Grant feared he would lose his wife during labor. Christina made it through the procedure, but remained in the hospital for nearly a week.
“God doesn’t make mistakes,” Grant says. “All things work for the good. All things happen for a reason. Maybe what I went through enabled me to help Billy.”
Indeed, nearly two years later, Grant was in his office when Donovan’s secretary notified staff members about Jacqueline’s death. Grant said he darted to his car, picked up his wife at the tennis court and drove straight to the hospital to offer support.
The two coaches had been together since 1994, when Donovan hired Grant -- who had just one year of college coaching experience -- to be his assistant at Marshall. Two years later, Donovan brought Grant with him to Florida, where he blossomed into one of the Gators’ lead recruiters.
And one of Donovan’s best friends.
Still, as tight as the two may have been before, the relationship was different now. It was stronger.
“Hopefully he felt I was there for him,” Grant says. “Sometimes just listening and being an ear … that can be comforting. Those were very painful times.”
There were more to come.
August 22, 2003
When he arrived at Billy Donovan’s house, shortly before 7 a.m., John Pelphrey was still wearing his hospital scrubs.
Donovan, Pelphrey recalls, was in the living room, and Christine had just returned from taking
the kids to school.
“My wife (Tracy) and I had watched the horror and pain that Billy and Anthony had experienced,” says Pelphrey, a Florida assistant from 1996-2002. “We couldn’t imagine going through something like that. But now we were right there with them.”
Pelphrey had just completed his first season as head coach at South Alabama, but he and Tracy wanted their third child -- a son named John Patrick -- to be delivered in Gainesville because they were comfortable with physicians who assisted in the complicated birth of their daughter,
Grace, nearly four years earlier.
During both pregnancies, Tracy dealt with a condition called isoimmunization, which is the development of antibodies against antigens from the same species.
“In other words,” Pelphrey says, “Tracy’s blood saw other blood as a foreign thing, so it went into protection mode.”
To make sure Grace was getting enough red blood cells while she was still in the womb,Pelphrey says doctors went through Tracy’s stomach to insert a needle into the vein of the umbilical cord.
“Then they literally pump in blood,” he says. “It’s like filling up a gas tank.”
Doctors had no choice but to use the same treatment with John Patrick, but this time the results weren’t as favorable. Pelphrey said severe bleeding occurred when doctors removed the needle from the umbilical cord, but the problem went undetected until a few hours later. By then, it was too late.
“The same procedure that saved Grace killed John Patrick,” Pelphrey says. “He bled out.”
A C-section was performed around 3 a.m. and, just like Grant, Pelphrey says he almost lost his wife on the operating table.
“She looked awful,” he says. “She looked dead. I literally thought I was going to lose both of them at the same time. Luckily, within a matter of minutes, they got her stabilized.”
Because it occurred in the middle of the night, Pelphrey didn’t call Donovan to tell him what had happened. But when he left the hospital around 6 a.m., he drove straight to his home. A day earlier he figured this would’ve been a celebratory moment. Instead, here he was, beginning the grieving process with one of his closest friends.
“I’ll never forget Christine coming in there and sitting on the bed with me and holding me,”Pelphrey says.
Shortly after John Patrick’s death, Pelphrey and Tracy pledged they would never ask ‘why.’
They vowed to stay strong in their faith and trust and believe that there was a reason for all of this, that God had a plan.
“I can tell you,” Pelphrey says, “that it wasn’t always easy.”
But it certainly helped to have friends like Donovan and Grant. Other than his own father, Pelphrey calls Donovan the most influential male in his life. His daughter’s full name is Anne Marie Grace Donovan Pelphrey. And his oldest son, Jackson, was born on the same day as Brian
Donovan, Billy’s youngest son.
“My wife and his wife were in the hospital at the same time,” Donovan says. “John and I drove up there right after my first SEC game (as Florida’s head coach) and they induced labor on both of them at the same time. We’ve been through a lot. We were together when life was brought into this world. And we’ve both experienced tragedy, too.”
Years later, the enormity of it all is still hard for Pelphrey to grasp.
“It’s amazing stuff, it really is,” he says. “I don’t know how something like this could happen to one staff, one family. People always say that lightning never strikes twice in the same place.
With us, it struck three times.”
Three months ago, as he stood in the buffet line at an event to raise funds for a new children’s
hospital, Billy Donovan was approached by a woman he never met.
“You don’t know me, but I lost a child, too,” she told Donovan. “What gets me through each day
is that I believe God thought my child was so precious and so important that he took her directly to Him. I bet God thought the same thing about your child.”
Donovan thanked the woman, walked back to his table and shared the story with his wife.
“She was really moved,” he says.
More and more, Donovan is involving himself with children’s charities and groups that help families who have endured the same types of hardships as he, Grant and Pelphrey experienced
Donovan didn’t realize it initially, but working with various groups has been therapeutic for a coach who for years kept many of his thoughts and feelings about Jacqueline’s death inside. Pelphrey left Gainesville in 2002 and Grant departed in 2006. For a while, Donovan didn’t know anyone nearby who could relate.
Just like that stranger in the buffet line, Donovan now continuously comes into contact withpeople who understand his pain. In some ways, friends say, Donovan’s charity work has been healing.
“By giving, he receives,” said Cassisi, the former Florida faculty rep. “By helping them, he’s also helping himself.”
One organization with which Donovan has worked closely is the Little Bits of Honey Memorial Fund. Started by Jenny Jacobs -- a friend of Christine’s -- the group’s mission is to raise money to help families with the $5,000-$8,000 burial costs for children who die unexpectedly.
Jacobs and her husband, Eddie, lost their son, Lazarus, to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome when
he was six months old.
Donovan has been a regular at the organization’s annual banquet and golf tournament. In the past, he’s even brought along former players such as Joakim Noah, Al Horford, Udonis Haslem and Chris Richard.
“He doesn’t do the typical speech-and-leave thing,” Jacobs says. “Everyone gets a picture with him. Everyone gets to spend time with him.”
Jacobs says Donovan always moves those in attendance to tears during his time on the microphone.
“Maybe he feels like it’s his one time to talk about his baby,” Jacobs says. “It’s a chance to give a voice to the pain and the heartache that is still there. We all move on. We learn how to live again and get up and dress ourselves again and be good parents to the kids who are still living. But in the end, a part of us died with our kids. That heartache will be a train we ride to the day we die.”
Donovan is also heavily involved with the Sebastian Ferrero Foundation, whose mission is to build a full service, state-of-the-art children’s hospital in Gainesville. Horst and Luisa Ferrero lost their 3-year-old son, Sebastian, in October of 2007 as a result of a medication overdose followed by a series of preventable medical errors.
Donovan films commercials and attends fundraisers for the charity, which is well on its way to making the nine-figure project a reality.
“It’s an unfortunate club to belong to, the club for parents who have lost a child,” Horst Ferrero said. “Only those who have gone through that experience can really understand how shocking it can be. Maybe that’s one of the reasons he became so passionately involved.”
In Fayetteville, Pelphrey and his wife have started “Pel’s Pals,” which raises money to provide financial support for women who have at-risk pregnancies. Pel’s Pals is also partnering up with
an abused and battered children’s shelter in Northwest Arkansas.
Now in just his second year at Alabama, Grant hasn’t been in Tuscaloosa long enough to form
any sort of organization. But nearly 12 years later, he’s found a way to draw inspiration from Brandon’s 1999 death.
“I consider myself a man of strong faith,” Grant says. “But at the time you think, ‘How can this be good?’ Years later, though, I look back on it and realize that my relationship with my wife
grew stronger because of what we went through. My appreciation for my oldest son and the children that came later is stronger than it would’ve been otherwise. Then, with Billy and John’s situations … all of it made us so much closer.”
Every year, on Feb. 6, Grant and his family buy a cake to celebrate Brandon’s birthday. Then
they step outside of their house, release a set of balloons and watch them dance toward the heavens.
“He’s still very much a part of our lives,” Grant says.
A few times each year, Billy Donovan and his family drive to the cemetery at Forest Meadows Funeral Home to visit Jacqueline. Christine almost always brings a rag and a bottle of Armor All.
Instead of cleaning just one headstone, she scrubs three.
Under the shade of a large pine tree, in graves about 50 yards away from the noise and traffic on NW 23rd Avenue, rest the children of three Division I head basketball coaches, three SEC competitors, three best friends forever bound by the most tragic of circumstances.
When Jacqueline died in 2000, Donovan suggested that Grant move his son, Brandon, from a
different part of the cemetery to an available grave just a few feet away. Three years later, it seemed right for Pelphrey to bury John Patrick in the same location.
“I’m not sure what term to use,” Pelphrey says, “but it’s certainly humbling when you walk out there and see all those headstones so close together.”
Grant says: “It’s special to have them all together like that. It’s very special.”
Because work has taken them away from Gainesville, Pelphrey and Grant don’t make it to the cemetery as often as they would like. Pelphrey drove an hour out of his way for a visit while he
was in Florida on a recruiting trip about a year ago. Grant is hoping to stop by when the Gators host Alabama on March 1.
But Donovan is still in Gainesville to pray for them all. He and his family sometimes form a circle around the headstones and clasp hands. With heads bowed, they ask God to watch over
little Jacqueline, John Patrick and Brandon.
And their families, too.
-- Billy Donovan is a spokesman for the Sebastian Ferrero Foundation, whose mission is to raise funds for a full-service, state-of-the art children’s hospital in Gainesville, Fla. Theorganization was started by Horst and Luisa Ferrero. Their 3-year-old son, Sebastian, died in October of 2007 because of a series of preventable medical errors including a medication overdose.
To learn more about the foundation or to donate, visit www.sebastianferrero.org.
-- In 2007, Arkansas coach John Pelphrey and his wife, Tracy, started Pel’s Pals in memory of their infant son, John Patrick, who died prematurely four years earlier. The main goal of Pel’s Pals isto raise money to provide financial support for mothers in Arkansas who have at-risk pregnancies.The foundation is also partnering up with an abused and battered children’s shelter in Northwest
Arkansas. To learn more about Pel’s Pals or to donate, visit www.pelspals.org.