That one foggy morning changed their lives forever

By Donna Stephens Originally Published December 2, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated November 30, 2012 at 12:03 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Two Rivers High School football coach Josh Harrison, right, and senior student and two-way lineman Elijah Jones share a unique bond. A few years ago, while driving his pickup on a foggy morning, the coach struck Jones. The negative consequences that could have come from that day have long since been outweighed by the positive relationship the two developed.

After Feb. 3, 2008, life would never be the same for Two Rivers football coach Josh Harrison.

On that day, he lived through a nightmare after he hit a pedestrian as he drove his Dodge Ram pickup toward the bus yard for what was then the Ola School District.

He didn’t know until after he felt the thump that he’d hit something on that foggy morning.

He didn’t know until he reached the victim that it was one of his football players — eighth-grader Elijah Jones.

Harrison didn’t know until several long minutes later that he hadn’t killed the boy.

• • •

That winter, Harrison, then 29 and head basketball and baseball coach and assistant football coach at Ola, had been meeting his quarterback for 5:30 a.m. workouts at the field house. After the workout that day, Harrison ran home and got in his truck to drive to the bus shop to start his morning route.

“I live on top of a hill above the field house, and I was going down the hill,” he remembered. “It was foggy that morning. About 6:40, I came down the hill and hit Elijah. He was walking to school. I never saw him; it was like he dropped out of the sky.

“I knew I hit something, but it was foggy, and I didn’t know what it was. I hit the brakes and saw a body flying in front of me. I knew it was a kid. I slammed on the brakes, and as soon as I got out of the truck, I dialed 911. His body rolled down the hill.”

Like all coaches in Arkansas, Harrison was trained in CPR. When he reached Jones, he saw no signs of life. The boy was bleeding from the nose.

“I just remember screaming at the phone, ‘Send help!’” Harrison recalled. “I heard some people behind me. A former player of mine whose dad drove [for] the ambulance service called his dad, and when I turned around, Elijah was standing up. I was in awe.”

The ambulance arrived and took Jones to the hospital in Danville. When Harrison got there, the doctor assured him the boy would be OK.

“I sat around the hospital for a while, and his mother came out of the room hysterical,” he remembered. “She said he had broken vertebrae, and they were going to have to MedFlight him to Little Rock. I broke down at that point. I’m a grown man, and I thought I’d severely hurt one of my players.”

• • •

As it turned out, Jones spent one night at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. He had three fractured vertebrae and a lacerated spleen and spent a few days out of school while recuperating in a wheelchair.

Nearly five years later, he recently completed his high school football career, having grown to become a 6-foot-2, 260-pound two-way tackle and team captain.

“He has become our best offensive lineman,” Harrison said. “When we ran, we ran behind him. It was no secret. Everybody knew it.

“He’s the biggest, strongest kid, a super kid, a yes-sir, no-sir kind of kid. But the moral of the story is as an educator, especially a young one, you never think anything like that should happen.

“I don’t know why it happened or how it happened, but afterward, you care about your kids differently. It’s not about winning. It’s about teaching life lessons.”

Too often today, Harrison said, coaches’ main objective is winning.

“In my opinion, they don’t need to be coaching, especially at the high school level,” he said of those with that frame of mind. “You never know what can happen day to day. People call me and ask me, ‘Why don’t you try to find another job? You can’t win there.’ I tell them this is where I belong. My calling is here. I don’t feel like I’m just their coach.”

• • •

Jones doesn’t remember much about the accident. He said he usually got to school early, but that day, he was unprepared for an Algebra 1 test, and his teacher had told him if he would get to school by 7 a.m., she would work with him before the test.

And then he woke up in the hospital.

While he said he wasn’t sure he’d call any of the experience miraculous, he does remember that during the whole ordeal, he wasn’t worried about anything.

And even though he was young, he said the experience had changed him.

“I try to appreciate things more,” he said. “I work harder.”

He appreciates Harrison’s position and hopes the guilt the coach has felt will eventually disappear.

“It’s kind of a bond,” he said. “The guy thought he killed me. It was as much my fault as it was his. It was foggy. I guess he could’ve been paying attention more, but I shouldn’t have been in the road.”

Since the accident, the two haven’t talked about the morning that bonded them forever.

“We had respect for each other,” Harrison said. “He’s our best offensive lineman, and I’m his head coach. After he got out of the hospital, that was one of those things we didn’t talk about.”

• • •

Harrison graduated from Ola in 1997 and returned to his alma mater to coach in 2005, before the school merged with Perry-Casa, Plainview-Rover and Fouche Valley to become Two Rivers.

Jones wasn’t a star athlete as an eighth-grader, so the coach didn’t know a lot about him, but Harrison knew his father and other relatives.

Kim Bradford, Jones’ mother, received a call that morning from a friend telling her, “Don’t freak out, but Josh accidentally hit Elijah, so it’s kind of important that you get here.”

On her way to the scene, Bradford told her friend, “Put hands on him and start praying.”

Her son had road rash — no skin on his chin, feet, knees or elbows.

“He kept saying, ‘I’m so sorry about your truck. I’ve got a test; I’ve got to get to school,’” she remembered.

Bradford said she was never angry with Harrison.

“It was just the perfect storm,” she said. “Honestly, it wasn’t even a concern. I said, ‘Look, you didn’t do this on purpose. God gave me my kid. I’m not going to blame you.’”

On the night of the accident, Harrison’s basketball team was scheduled to play Mountain Pine, a team it had handily lost to in their previous meeting.

“I didn’t want to show my face,” Harrison said. “It really hit me hard.”

His principal offered to take his place on the bench that night, and Harrison received a phone call from the triumphant locker room after his team avenged the earlier loss.

“They said, ‘Coach, we did it for you,’” Harrison remembered. “I came back to school the next day.”

It took some time before he was ready to drive again, but Bradford finally convinced him to pick up her son so that they could drive together.

“He came to the house and checked on him, took him fishing a few times, hung out some, and they kind of buddied up to each other,” she said. “He takes a lot of our football boys fishing.

“Football changed after that. It was no longer near the importance it was before. We were very blessed. It could’ve gone a very different way. I think Josh handled it real good.”

• • •

This fall, Two Rivers moved up to Class 3A. The Gators struggled to a 3-7 overall mark, including 1-6 in the 5-3A, where they competed against such teams as Glen Rose and Fountain Lake. At press time, those two were still alive in the Class 3A state semifinals.

Harrison said they learned that numbers weren’t the problem in the higher classification, but strength and size were.

“This was the best team I’ve had in my four years, but moving up, even the bottom half of the conference — those guys could win a 2A conference,” he said. “We competed well. We lost four games in the fourth quarter.”

Harrison admits he was harder on Jones — who has a 3.37 grade-point average and plans to attend the University of Central Arkansas as a premed student — than most of his peers.

“I expected more out of him,” the coach said. “We seem to have an understanding. He’s our biggest, strongest kid. We had our rough times this year as far as me getting onto him, but that’s just part of it.

“We’ll be marked forever. Sometimes you have kids come through and you never see them again, but I’m going to follow him until my time’s over with. Wherever he goes, whatever he does, coach Harrison will always remember him.”

Harrison said he has often wondered why the accident occurred, and he relives it every day. The memory keeps things in perspective.

“Some coaches, all they care about is winning,” he said. “That’s false.”

Jones, the oldest of three children, said he likes to consider his coach as sort of an older brother.

And he’s continuing to learn from him. Nearly five years after the accident, Jones is more aware than most of the potential for disaster every day.

“I don’t text and drive — ever,” he said. “I’ve heard too many stories about people getting hurt, and it just doesn’t seem worth it.

“And if I ever have to cross the street, I look both ways — twice.”

None Donna Stephens can be reached at .

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