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Coach's last play was his greatest


December 11, 2019
By all measures, Phillip Bowsman was a success. He was an accomplished high school football coach who guided his players both on and off the field and was even called Dad by some. He was coaching the game at which he had excelled in high school and even played for Indiana University after graduating from Salem High School. He was married to his high school sweetheart with whom he had two children. He was a Christian and involved in his community.

It's no surprise then that his tragic and untimely death attracted attention throughout Indiana and nationwide. It had all the elements of a headline-worthy heartstrings-tugging story. The Bowsmans were as all-American as families come. Bowsman had been part of the West Washington Senators' football coaching staff for 19 years, more than a decade as head coach, and had been athletic director for seven years. He had led his 2019 team through a very successful season, culminating in a semi-state game.

Then, disaster struck.

After becoming ill on Wednesday, Nov. 20, it was ultimately determined he needed a pacemaker. Of course, the coach's first concern was the game on Nov. 22. He was told there was a 99% chance he would be fine. And, at first, it seemed he was. But, the symptoms he had originally experienced returned with a vengeance during the first quarter of the semi-state game against Indianapolis Lutheran at Lucas Oil Stadium.

Coach Bowsman had a stroke and a tear in his vertebral aorta. Surgery to relieve the pressure did little; doctors told his wife they'd never seen swelling in the cerebellum get that bad so fast. Tests determined Bowsman was brain dead.

This is where his story takes a turn that elevates the coach to an even higher status than he'd achieved as a coach and mentor. He wanted to be an organ donor, and his family chose to honor his wish.

It's important to know that final decision is up to your family. I saw a Facebook post that said 450 relatives of organ donors denied permission because they weren't sure what their loved one wanted.

On one level, I'm sure this decision was easy for Coach Bowsman's wife and family, but seeing it through had to take a toll. His wife, Beth, shared in a Facebook post that she had no idea organ donation was such a long process. The coach died on Monday, Nov. 25, but the surgery to harvest at least eight of his organs didn't take place until two days later.

It was preceded by an honor walk. All available hospital staff and anybody who wants to be there for the family line the hallway while the patient is taken to surgery. It is a sign of respect and admiration for someone choosing through their death to give life to others. There was a tremendous crowd on hand to pay tribute to Bowsman as he was taken into his final surgery.

There is no greater way to leave a legacy and make a difference in the world than to be an organ donor.

I've written thousands of stories throughout my career. Many impacted me greatly and will live in my memory forever. There is one story, however, that clearly stands out as No. 1.

I was in the hospital having just given birth to my first child when Diana England's son, Jacob, was killed in a car crash. He was just 16 years old. His family made the decision to donate his organs. I'm sure that had a much greater impact on me at that time because I had just become a mother myself.

The following summer, Diana called me. She told me the family wanted to meet Jacob's organ recipients and one had reached out. It was the man who had received Jacob's heart. It was an incredible honor to be invited to be present for this meeting. To record on film the moment this mother heard her son's heart beating again was a moment I'll never forget.

I have such admiration for Diana. Not only did she agree for her son to give life to others, she has actively promoted organ donation in the years since. Allowing the story of her family meeting Jacob's heart recipient was a part of this.

Coach Bowsman's story could have ended as a tragedy. The loss of a man in his prime who had so much living to do is very tragic and buckets of tears have been shed, some by people who didn't even know him.

However, because of Bowsman's decision to be an organ donor and his family's commitment to honoring it, this story ended differently. At least eight people have a renewed chance at life because of the coach.

Every day, an estimated 20 people die waiting for an organ that would save their lives, according to the American Transplant Foundation. There are currently almost 114,000 people on the waiting list.

The widespread attention Bowsman's story has had will undoubtedly prompt many people to become organ donors. I am convinced he will save many more lives outside of those who received his organs. We will never know the true impact he has had, but it will be great.

Coach's story has been shared not only across Indiana and Kentucky, but by People magazine and the New York Post among other national media outlets. Hundreds of football fields and basketball courts were lit in his memory during the weekend of his funeral. The Indianapolis Colts honored him during a game as well.

What could have been just a sad story became so much more.

I admired Coach Bowsman before, as I do so many of the coaches I've witnessed through the years. They truly change lives every day. Bowsman did that and more. His final play was by far his best and most important.

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Schuler Bauer
Barbara Shaw
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