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Living with grief: After losing his wife and father, Arkansas State Coach Blake Anderson endured the toughest year of his life

by George Stoia | August 19, 2020 at 7:16 a.m.
Wendy Anderson, shown walking with her husband onto the eld at Lincoln, Neb., before an Arkansas State game in 2017, died a year ago today after a lengthy battle with breast cancer. “I doubt I’ll ever not think about her,” Blake Anderson said. “I don’t want to ever not think about her because she was my best friend for 27 years.” (AP file photo)

A teary-eyed and vulnerable Blake Anderson found it hard to put into words what the past 365 days have felt like. The 51-year-old Arkansas State University football coach simply said it was the toughest year of his life.

Today marks the anniversary of his wife Wendy's death at age 49 from breast cancer, a story that has been well-documented locally and nationally. In May, his father died at age 75 after battling emphysema for several years.

"I miss them," said Anderson, his voice quaking as his eyes swelled with tears while peering over Centennial Bank Stadium's field last week. "I miss the conversations, the laughs, the stories, the tears, the heart-to-hearts."

Those closest to Anderson, especially his players, learned a lot from him in the past year.

How to handle adversity when nothing goes your way. How to lift others up when it feels like the world is tearing you down. How to stay devoted to your passion when it's a constant reminder of who or what you've lost. And how to be vulnerable when everyone expects you to be guarded.

Anderson experienced grief unlike any he'd faced before.

"It was a year full of tears," said Anderson's mom, Donna. "And prayer was our only hope."

He coped with the loss of two of his best friends in his wife and father, leaning on family, friends, players and coaches as he navigated crippling heartache.

And through it all, Anderson stayed true to himself and his beliefs. He's a man of deep-rooted Christian faith, and he's not afraid to share that. That faith never wavered.

It intensified.

Photo by Terrance Armstard
Arkansas State football Coach Blake Anderson mourned the loss of his wife and father over the past year. Through his grief, he said, he stayed true to his faith. “I had to choose that I’m going to be grateful for the things I have and not spend my time wallowing in pity for the things I’ve lost,” he said. “And at the end of the day, my dad and Wendy are in a better place.” (Democrat-Gazette le photo)

"I tell my players all the time: Attitude is a choice," Anderson said. "I had to choose that I'm going to be grateful for the things I have and not spend my time wallowing in pity for the things I've lost. And at the end of the day, my dad and Wendy are in a better place.

"I know that. I believe that. And that's what my life is about."

Aug. 19, 2019: 'It was heartbreaking'

In the days and weeks after Wendy's death, Coleton often found his dad lying face down in his bed crying.

Anderson had become a shell of himself. He sat in his house. He felt empty. He thought about Wendy and the time they spent together. While she was sick, they often laid in their bed and watched her favorite shows -- "The West Wing", "Game of Thrones" and "Law and Order".

Now, he came home to what felt like nothing.

"It was hard to watch as his son," said Coleton, 26, their oldest child. "Before, he's always been 'Coach' to everybody and tries to be tough all the time, not really showing when he's hurting. ... I think out of the whole thing that was the hardest part for me, to watch him be sad like that."

The day after Wendy died, Omar Bayless found it hard to catch a football for the first time in his life. His vision blurred as tears streamed down the former ASU wideout's face during practice.

"It was heartbreaking," said Bayless, now a member of the Carolina Panthers. "I just couldn't get my mind off it. I was just feeling this certain type of way where I just couldn't gather myself no matter what I did. It just stayed on my mind all practice."

Bayless wasn't alone. It was described as the "quietest" practice any of the players and coaches had been a part of, with guys silently wiping away tears the whole two hours.

"I knew if I caught a couple players in the eye, I wasn't going to make it through it," said Kyle Cefalo, one of Anderson's closest friends and the ASU wide receivers and special-teams co-coordinator. "I remember we had a break period, and I walked away from everyone and I just lost it."

In the months leading up to her death, Wendy had long conversations with her husband about what to do once she was gone. She was worried about their children, Coleton, Callie and Cason.

"Promise me you won't just bury your head back into work," she told him.

Anderson agreed, and he stepped away from the team the morning of Aug. 19. Hours later, she died with Anderson in bed by her side.

Defensive coordinator David Duggan was named the interim head coach, with Arkansas State just 12 days from its season opener against SMU.

The team tried to go about its daily routine, but Duggan found it hard to fill the void Anderson left behind, often struggling to put the right words together at team meetings.

"She was such an intricate part of this team. She was 'Momma Wendy,' " an emotional Duggan said. "So the message was it's OK to hurt. It is. Because you should be hurting."

Eight days before the SMU game, every player and coach attended Wendy's funeral.

Hundreds of people showed up to Central Baptist Church in Jonesboro, including then-University of Arkansas coach Chad Morris, SMU Coach Sonny Dykes, Texas Tech Coach Matt Wells and former North Carolina coach Larry Fedora. The Rev. Archie Mason delivered the eulogy and played an old video of Wendy speaking about the importance of keeping one's faith in times of anguish.

"For me, that has been my mission," Wendy said in the video. "To teach people to be disciples."

The video was recorded two weeks before she was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2017.

"I think it really touched those football players," said Mason's wife, Angie, who was one of Wendy's closest friends. "They knew her anyway, but to see that, to give the importance of life, I think it was totally different but exactly what needed to be done."

Emotions were high for ASU's home opener days later. The players felt an immense pressure to win for Wendy. Anderson told them not to think like that and win for themselves, not for him or his wife.

ASU lost 37-30.

"It just felt like a big part of us was missing, like something was taken away from us," senior center Jacob Still said. "That SMU game hurt because we all really wanted to win for Coach Anderson and Mrs. Wendy and for the community and for everyone who's had her back through everything.

"I remember I just felt crushed after the game."

Anderson didn't watch the SMU game, instead taking his boys on a trip. He, Coleton and Cason drove 10 hours to Darlington, S.C., for the NASCAR Cup Series. The three got pit passes from a family friend and spent their weekend at the races.

Anderson rarely checked his phone, but occasionally received updates about the game.

After the races were over Saturday and they returned to the hotel, Coleton told his dad it was time to get back to work.

"Me, Callie and Cason will be OK," he said. "You have 100 kids who count on you daily as well. And you not being there throws them out of whack, too.

"So when you're ready to go back, we're ready for you to go back. We will be OK."

Sept. 7, 2019: 'Long flight home'

On Sept. 2, Anderson informed Arkansas State Athletic Director Terry Mohajir that he was considering returning to the team. His plan was to meet the team on the tarmac when they returned from the UNLV game five days later.

But on Sept. 4, Cefalo, Bayless and former wide receiver Kirk Merritt invited themselves to dinner.

The Andersons regularly would invite players over, and Bayless and Merritt had become two of the most frequent guests. That particular evening, Merritt gave Anderson a present -- a portrait of Wendy he had painted. The painting still sits on a shelf in Anderson's media room today.

After his players left, Anderson bought a plane ticket for Saturday morning to Las Vegas and planned to surprise the team before its game against UNLV.

He couldn't wait for the tarmac.

"I was saying one thing but doing the other," Anderson said. "I was saying fight through adversity. I was saying cling to each other, pull together through adversity, but I had kind of gone a little bit into a shell. And I had the right intentions, I was trying to take care of my kids. But I had a bigger responsibility than that."

Anderson called Mohajir on Saturday morning from Dallas while waiting for a connecting flight to tell him about his new plan. He arrived at the team hotel a few hours before the game, just as the team was going through their final meeting.

He knocked on the door and asked whether they had room for one more. The team exulted.

"It was a very authentic moment," Mohajir said. "It wasn't about game plans, it wasn't about strategy, it wasn't anything to do with football. It was about a group of dudes who loved their coach."

Still remembers his thoughts at that moment.

"UNLV is in for a long day today. There's no way we're losing this game."

Arkansas State had its largest margin of victory of the season against UNLV, winning 43-17.

As Anderson slowly walked off UNLV's field, he was overcome with emotion. He held it together in pregame and on the sidelines, but as soon as the game was over, he knew someone was missing.

"That was a wives' trip, so that probably made it a little bit harder on him. You could tell he was trying to focus on football," junior quarterback Logan Bonner said. "And there at the tunnel, at the end of the game, were all the wives and kids. You could tell he was hurting."

While he watched his assistants embrace their family members, Anderson felt empty again.

Win or lose, home or away, Wendy was the first person he spoke to post game, whether on the field or over the phone. She was who he wanted to celebrate with, but she also was the one who could help him find balance between life and football.

"Long flight home," a teary-eyed Anderson said. "Good emotions from being with the kids and being able to lift them up and see them play well and seeing smiles on their faces. But also the reality that we're going to have to do this without her from now on was very much in your face."

Dec. 19, 2019: 'I didn't have anything left'

Anderson was exhausted by season's end. It didn't help that he and Wendy's wedding anniversary, Dec. 19, 1992, came three days before Arkansas State's bowl game.

Football became his escape, but he admits he'd find himself looking for her in the stands or expecting her to walk into his office.

He'd sometimes call her, hoping she'd pick up. Today, he still has her on speed dial and listens to her last voice mail.

"I doubt I'll ever not think about her. I don't want to ever not think about her because she was my best friend for 27 years," Anderson said. "She was part of everything that I did. I didn't have my job without her, we did this together. We did life together."

Wendy forgot their anniversary "every five minutes," Anderson said. She wasn't one who cared much for big celebrations like their anniversary and holidays such as Valentine's Day. She liked to keep it simple, opting for quality time with Anderson and her children.

Still, Anderson thought about her a lot on their anniversary as his team prepared to face Florida International in the Camellia Bowl.

"At this point, I felt like I was just holding my breath trying to get to all zeroes on the scoreboard," Anderson said. "For me, it had gotten progressively heavier and heavier throughout the course of the season. I'm glad I came back and wouldn't change it, but just the weight of trying to finish the season and not just lose it was more than I anticipated."

Fans wore pink at every stadium visited. Every broadcast made it a point to share Wendy's story. He did dozens of interviews in which the same questions were asked. And he spoke at multiple coaching clinics detailing his personal battle with adversity.

"It was like a three-ring circus," said Angie Mason, one of Anderson's most trusted confidants. "Honoring her is one thing, but in some ways it was tough on Blake because he didn't want it to be, 'Go get this for Momma Wendy.' And yeah, the boys wanted to go do that, but he didn't make it all about that. As hard as it was, he was being a football coach.

"Every day he would say, 'I can make it one more day. I can make it one more day.' "

During the season, Anderson found it the hardest when he went home at night. He worried about his kids, who each handled it differently.

Callie, 22, wasn't home often, spending time with friends to keep her mind elsewhere. Cason, 18, put up a wall, staying strong on the outside but hurting on the inside. And Coleton, who was his mom's caretaker at home while Anderson was at work, tried his best not to break down when seeing his father take it the hardest.

"I think it would have been harder for dad if he saw the three of us struggling with it really hard. But I think as a whole we did a good job just pushing through it, where we at least didn't wear it on our face," Coleton said. "The house just felt empty for the longest time. She probably had the most personality of anyone in the house, so it kind of felt empty and quiet for a long time, and still does at times.

"And I don't think we'll ever feel that, her presence and personality, again."

At first, Anderson found it easiest to talk to people who didn't know Wendy. He couldn't bear to talk to her friends and sometimes even his family. He leaned on his players and coaches a lot, who often checked in on him. He buried himself in work in hopes of masking the pain.

"If I just sat there and didn't do something, I spent literally every night just bawling," Anderson said. "The right song, the right memory, the right conversation -- just a million things make you miss her and can just stop you in your tracks.

"I'm not sure how good I was at the job I was doing, but I was here. And I look back now and I felt like I had been trying to lift everybody up for the whole first six years here of my career, trying to make everybody else's job easier, I felt like they were trying to make mine easier."

The 2019 season is one few will forget around the program. It wasn't the most glamorous, finishing 8-5 and tied for the third-best record in the Sun Belt. But it was the most meaningful, playing with heavy hearts for a coach who never ceased to inspire them.

"We wanted to do everything we could. We wanted to win every game. We wanted to make him as comfortable and bring as much joy to his life as we can," Cefalo said.

Anderson and Arkansas State beat FIU 34-26 on Dec. 22. When the clock hit zero, Anderson felt relief instead of happiness. As he wandered through the crowd, a staff member told him Callie was looking for him.

Callie rarely comes on the field after games, he thought. But this one was different, and soon the two embraced in a tearful hug.

"I just broke down. I was done. I didn't have anything left," Anderson said. "I think I had been holding on to it all year the best I could to get to that point. I didn't want to break down. I wanted to be strong enough for the guys and that I could get us to that point.

"But really, at that point, I couldn't do it anymore."

May 22, 2020: 'I'm going to go hug Wendy'

Anderson receives phone calls every year gauging his interest in other coaching vacancies. Last year was no different.

In December, he interviewed for the Missouri job. In January, he was rumored to be a top candidate at Baylor.

"We went through the Missouri deal and we talked to some other programs. There were a lot of rumors about the Baylor deal," said Anderson, who is 47-29 in six seasons as a head coach at ASU. "The Missouri deal was chaos. And it was very close to going, and there was a part of me that thought, 'Maybe I do need a fresh start.' "

The intrigue of challenging himself in a Power 5 conference wasn't the only motive for exploring other opportunities. He also felt the personal weight of staying in Jonesboro, a place where he and Wendy had created lifelong memories.

"Can I stay here and do this when everything about Jonesboro reminds me of Wendy?" he'd think to himself. "The church we went to, driving by the hospice all the time, everywhere we ate, everywhere we did things. Can I do that and do a good job? Or am I going to be a basket case?"

Anderson eventually took his name out of the running for Missouri. He never interviewed with Baylor. The pieces just didn't fit, he said.

He decided it wasn't time to leave the place that means so much to him and his family.

"When God is ready to move me, he's going to move me. When the right opportunity presents itself, we're going to go," Anderson said. "I just prayed that God would put me right where I needed to be. And at the end of the day, I'm where God wanted me to be."

On May 22, Anderson put that in writing, agreeing to a three-year contract extension. The restructured contract kept his salary at $825,000, but added new bonuses, including an extra $50,000 if ASU wins the conference title.

The extension had been in the works for nearly a year. Mohajir and Anderson held off on finishing the deal while Wendy battled cancer. She also had a hand in the contract, helping put it together a couple of months before she died.

"She's part ownership of that contract and deservingly so," Mohajir said. "She helped build this."

Anderson said May 22 was near the top of most difficult days in the past year. Everything he and Wendy built had come to fruition.

"I didn't anticipate being emotional about it like I was ... but I remember signing it and really missing her because in my mind this is something that we did together," Anderson said. "It was just kind of a confirmation that we had done a good job."

A couple of days after signing his extension, Anderson drove to Hubbard, Texas, to see his ailing father, Scotty, for the final time.

His dad had been sick for some time, fighting emphysema for several years. He didn't talk much about his dad publicly. With everything going on with Wendy simultaneously, he didn't want people to make a big deal about it.

But Anderson's dad was someone he spoke to daily, often talking over the phone on his car ride to and from practice. His dad instilled his Christian values at a young age. They attended First Baptist Church in Hubbard every Sunday while his parents taught Bible study.

Wendy and Scotty also shared a close bond. The two had similar health issues, too, making it even harder on Anderson.

His wife would go on oxygen, then his dad would go on oxygen. His wife would have surgery, then his dad would have surgery. His wife would be put in the hospital, then his dad would be put in the hospital.

"I was watching," Anderson paused, holding back tears, "two of the closest people in my life battle the same thing at the same time."

Anderson said his father's death wasn't as hard as Wendy's. His dad, 75, had lived a long and meaningful life. And, in some ways, the coronavirus pandemic was a blessing in disguise, allowing him to see his father every other week for the last couple of months of his life.

When it came time to say goodbye, his father was at peace and ready to see an old friend.

"I'm ready to go," he told his son. "Y'all take care of your mom. I'm going to go hug Wendy."

Scotty Anderson died May 27, 2020, 282 days after Wendy. One can find two of the most important people in Anderson's life no more than 20 feet apart at Fairview Cemetery in Hubbard.

"There's just no way you can lose your wife and then in a short period of time after that lose your dad and in any way, in my mind, separate that," said Anderson's brother, Bryan. "It's just a catastrophic loss at that point.

"At some point, though, we have to tap into an inner-strength that is from somewhere else to get through a situation like that, and I feel like I saw that in him. He didn't want to get up and go to work the next day or the next day or the next day. But he was able to do that and find the strength within him."

Aug. 12, 2020: 'I am blessed'

Anderson sat in his office, dozens of pictures hanging above his head.

Pictures of former players in his pool, his kids at games, his parents back home, and his wife in the hospital and on the sidelines.

Toward the end of an hour-long and emotion-filled interview, he reflected on which day was hardest over the past 365.

"When Wendy and I finally had to have the conversation where she said, 'It's time,' " he said. "I think it was probably the hardest. Having the conversations about the kids later in life and ... there's no way to put into words what that feels like. The reality hits you like a ton of bricks."

Anderson said he doesn't miss Wendy any less than he did a year ago. The days leading up to the anniversary have been harder than expected, he said. But he's found a new energy in focusing on his children and the many blessings he has instead of the things he's lost. And he's actually met someone new, a woman from his church who similarly lost her mom.

"I talked to my kids, my family about it, and they were so supportive," Anderson said. "And Wendy and I talked about it well before she passed. It's funny, in typical Wendy fashion she said, 'I don't want you to be with anybody else, but I don't want you to spend your life alone. I want you to find someone who loves you, loves the kids and loves the Lord.' "

The hardest part, he said, is knowing Wendy won't be there to see the success on the field and in their family that she helped cultivate.

What keeps him going, though, is his belief in God.

"There's days I'm sad. There's days I'm happy. But I am blessed," Anderson said. "I'm just choosing to focus on the blessings and knowing that I'll get to see Wendy again and knowing that I'll get to see my dad again. I know I'll get to hug their necks because I know where I'm going to be when God decides to take me home, whether that's tomorrow or 50 more years from now."

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