Blake Anderson's return to coaching Arkansas State University on Saturday night in Las Vegas didn't come without plenty of deliberation.
Nor could it.
Anderson's wife, Wendy, died Aug. 19 after a battle with cancer, 12 days before the Red Wolves' season opener against SMU. Since then, and prior to Saturday, Anderson had been on a leave of absence from the team, as he mourned his devastating loss while taking care of his family.
His soul mate of 27 years is now gone, his three kids are without their mother, and the Red Wolves no longer have "Mama Wendy," who players and coaches say was as much an integral part of the football program as anyone.
"It's hard to describe," Anderson said Sunday. "You can prepare for it, and obviously with all we've been through with Wendy's illness, we obviously knew that she was deteriorating and that God was obviously taking her home. But just the reality without her -- we've been doing this together for 27 years, it's hard.
"It's going to be hard for a while. Everything we do, it's the first time doing it without her -- from a trip on the road to winning a game to losing a game to coming home to a house and she's not in. We're just gonna have to take it one day at a time, me and the kids. But I think being a part of what we do and what we've always done together with the team and with the players and with the staff is part of that process."
That process took a major step Saturday.
Anderson went to bed Friday night at midnight unsure if he should return to coach the next day. The Red Wolves were over 1,500 miles away in Las Vegas, preparing for their Week 2 matchup against UNLV.
Anderson struggled to sleep, and around 4 a.m., he awoke. Then he finally talked himself into coming back.
"I was torn as to whether or not I was going to show up or not. I didn't want to be a distraction," Anderson said. "I didn't want to, in any way, affect the way the guys had prepared. In the back of my mind, if there was any way it was potentially gonna be a negative, I didn't want to do it. I had to wrestle with that all week just to make sure that when I did show up, that it was gonna be in the right way, also be accepted the right way, the kids would respond in the right way -- and really fortunate that they did."
The scoreboard reflected that. ASU (1-1) claimed its first win of the season with a 43-17 romp over UNLV at Sam Boyd Stadium.
Hours beforehand, the plane carrying Anderson landed in Las Vegas. Prior to Saturday, he had bought a refundable flight, leaving the option open for him to easily cancel it had he awoken earlier that morning with a different feeling.
Anderson said he had informed the players and coaching staff that he planned on returning to the team Sunday after they had returned from the UNLV trip. But he had also privately indicated to ASU Athletic Director Terry Mohajir that he was contemplating coming back to coach Saturday night.
Once Anderson decided he wanted to go to Las Vegas, he alerted Mohajir, gathered his things and headed to Memphis for a 9 a.m. flight. After a brief layover in Dallas, Anderson landed in Las Vegas mid-afternoon, grabbed some food, then met up with Mohajir.
"Terry was able to kind of keep me secluded until it was time to go into the team meeting," said Anderson, who also met with interim coach and defensive coordinator David Duggan prior to that meeting.
"[David] was excited, relieved ... and completely supportive," Anderson said. "He did a great job keeping it to himself, too, so that the kids could enjoy it without knowing what was coming."
Anderson's reunion with his team at the pregame meeting inside the team hotel was captured on video, which ASU football's Twitter account tweeted out 1 1/2 hours prior to kickoff.
In the video, Duggan is shown reviewing the game plan with the team inside a massive ballroom, before Anderson enters from the back and shouts, "Coach, y'all got room for one more?" ASU players, who were completely unaware that Anderson was coming, went into a frenzy and mobbed him in the middle of the room. For the first time in nearly three weeks, their head coach was back with them.
Then, as he's done so many times the last five years with the Red Wolves, Anderson boarded the buses with his players and coaches and headed over to the stadium.
"The energy in the room was amazing," Anderson said. "Really my message to them was, 'Guys, I'm here for one reason -- I love you and I miss you and I wanted to be here to support you.' I could not be more proud of how they carried themselves the last couple months. It's been a lot for everybody -- it's not just been for me and my family. When you treat [the players] like family, it makes this difficult for them, too."
ASU jumped on UNLV early in the game Saturday night. Senior cornerback Jeremy Smith returned an interception for a touchdown to give ASU a 7-0 lead, which ballooned to 23-3 at halftime and ended in a 43-17 win.
"They played really hard," Anderson said. "I was really excited to watch how they played. They played a great game."
Anderson, despite not being at any daily team activities during his leave of absence, said he had still been watching film and communicating with ASU's coordinators. He missed the Red Wolves' season-opening 37-30 loss to SMU in Jonesboro on Aug. 31, but he still watched the game and sent his notes to his coordinators.
Asked how he felt Duggan, the staff and players had handled his absence the past few weeks, Anderson said, "Better than you can possibly imagine."
But that absence is finally over, and Anderson is now trying to move forward as best he can. He's returned to a position that can offer him solace and provide as close to a sense of normalcy he can find -- coaching the Red Wolves.
"At the end of the day," Anderson said, "I was really glad that I made the trip [to Las Vegas] and that I decided to do what I did."
Sports on 09/09/2019