Perhaps Paul Mierkiewicz’s greatest strength in his now three years as McPherson College head football coach has been developing his team into a tight-knit family.
His family is hurting right now. And that pain won’t go away anytime soon.
Over the summer, the Bulldogs were devastated by the news of the passing of star defensive back and team leader Braden Bush, who was preparing to enter his fourth and final year. Bush died unexpectedly after suffering an asthma attack.
It was clear at Thursday’s KCAC Media Day at Wichita just how much the loss of Bush has affected Mierkiewicz. He spoke to his fellow coaches and the gathered media at length about a player who was expected to be like a second coach on the field.
“It’s been a tough summer for our football program,” Mierkiewicz said. “It really forces you to look at what you’re doing and how you’re doing things and why. We’re lucky as coaches on every team you’ve got one guy who just forces you to want to be a better coach. And he was that guy for me.”
Bush, easily one of the team’s most popular players with his hard play and infectious smile, had been a two-year standout and had a memorable game against Kansas Wesleyan two years ago when he picked off three passes, returning one of them for a touchdown. He was expected to contend for first-team KCAC honors this year.
“Outside of being a great football player, (he was an) unbelievable leader, teammate, great kid,” Mierkiewicz said. “We’re going to report next Thursday and for the first time as a family we’re going to have a team meeting and he’s not going to be with us. That’s going to be a difficult thing to go through.”
Mierkiewicz has a closeness with his players unlike few coaches I have seen.
“Coaches are about relationships,” he said. “I’m the most competitive guy you’re going to find. I want to win. But when the day is done, it’s not about winning and losing. It’s about relationships... what we get out of coaching is taking young men from the recruiting process all the way through graduation... you go through the recruiting process and you get to know a family and you encourage the young man and that family to trust you.
“They choose your institution, they come in as first-year players, they don’t know what they’re doing... it’s hard to have a relationship, you just can’t make all that happen. Then they become sophomores and that trust continues to grow. Going into that junior year it’s even bigger and it’s a stronger relationship. It’s a bigger bond and it’s not a friendship. But when they become seniors and graduate, you become friends. Some of my best friends played for me. And if you’re a coach, I don’t care what sport it’s in, you go through Senior Day and you’re not emotional, it’s the wrong gig for you.
“The thing that just stays with me the most and hurts me the most about this situation from a personal standpoint is that I’ll never have that relationship with Braden.”
Mierkiewicz said the team would be tighter more than ever as it tries to carry on Bush’s legacy and what he meant to the team.
Mierkiewicz’s fellow KCAC coaches paid their respects to Bush and the Bulldog family, sending their prayers during Media Day. That’s the beauty of a conference like the KCAC, when a tragedy occurs at a school, it affects all schools. Many of the KCAC coaches talk with each other during the week and have formed strong relationships. Those relationships have helped Mierkiewicz deal with a situation few coaches ever have to go through.
The Bulldogs will be honoring Bush this season and you can be guaranteed they’ll be playing every game for him.