CARBONDALE -- The five acres that surround Barry Hinson’s refurbished house on the outskirts of town are a work in progress.

Walking the land, he exudes joy when talking about converting a sand volleyball court into a garden.

Maybe most important to Hinson is a small playground, complete with monkey bars, swings, a gravel box and a picnic table. A sign welcomes you to Carter’s Park.

Carter is Hinson’s grandson, whose last visit changed a family forever. It changed a house. It changed Christmas. It changed a coach.

Niles Thomason, Hinson’s son-in-law and his daughter Tiffany’s husband, died Christmas Day after breaking the morning silence with screams for help. At a Carbondale hospital, maybe an hour later, Hinson and his daughter watched as resuscitation efforts failed.

Thomason died of a strep infection that caused his organs to shut down.

Separated by hundreds of miles from his daughter, Thomason’s parents and at times his wife, Angie, who visits Tiffany regularly, Hinson has two places of refuge: the basketball court and his yard.

“If I don’t stay busy, then I really struggle,” Hinson said before his team’s final home game Saturday. “I really have some tough times. I’ve already packed for the Missouri Valley Tournament. I do stuff every night.

“You talk to your daughter every day. ‘Did you meet with social security? Have you met with the realtor? Has the life insurance money come in?’ I have a lot of guilt. I can’t do anything. I can’t help his mom and dad. They have to deal with it every day. I feel an enormous amount of guilt.”

The events of Christmas Day left him reeling and in need of counseling. 

Hinson took a week off for the funeral and missed one game, which he acknowledges wasn’t enough time. His treatment of those around him tells him as much.

“I’ve done and said things this year I’ve never said before,” Hinson said. “I’ve erupted at players and staff and come back later and said ‘I’m sorry.’ The tone of my voice to players and staff members, it wasn’t me. I’m a volcano. I erupt but (previously) it would be over.”

During some recent incidents, he said, it wasn’t over. Hinson already had turned heads with comments he made about the team and players when video of his news conference at Murray State went viral. But he ultimately stood by everything he said that night except for his specific criticism of guard Marcus Fillyaw, to whom he apologized.

The explosive comments he made after Thomason’s death came from a different place. He was grieving and at the same time angry, at no one in particular. He unleashed on those around him, mainly coaches and players.

“I’ll never forget what the counselor said,” Hinson said. “She said all of this is natural and all of this is needed. But the most important thing you can do when you’re struggling is to tell people. You’ve got to tell them right then and there, and my staff has taken the brunt of that.”

Everything Just Froze

Thomason, who worked as a veterinarian, had complained of feeling sick the weekend before Christmas and suffered a leg injury as well. He joined the Hinson family in Carbondale on Dec. 23 and on Christmas Eve went to an urgent care center, where he was diagnosed with a pulled muscle and given pain medicine.

Thomason was able to spend time watching TV with the family for about an hour that night but eventually decided to go upstairs and rest. After watching The Polar Express, Tiffany took Carter to say goodnight.

“They play this game where Carter says, ‘Guess what? I love you,’” Angie said. “I heard him playing that game with Niles.”

But on Christmas he awoke, screaming in pain. Unable to walk, he had crawled to the doorway of his room. His injured leg was twice the size of the other and turning blue. Hinson called 911 three times before an ambulance arrived 20 minutes later.

As he left the house, Thomason said he had lost his vision.

At the hospital, Hinson and his daughter were offered access to a private area but declined. A while later they were coaxed into the room and shocked to be told resuscitation efforts had started. They were taken to the room where Thomason was being frantically treated.

“They’re giving CPR and it’s 20 minutes,” Hinson said. “And then they asked what time it was. We’ve seen enough movies. I could tell the last five minutes. You’ve got people changing in and out and they keep looking at you, and their body language is, ‘We’ve got no shot.’ You could just tell.

“This is a dad moment and there’s no manual for dad moments like this -- when they walk up to your daughter and say her husband has died. Everything just froze.”

Hinson told Tiffany he would call Thomason’s parents in Tulsa, Okla., but she insisted on doing so.

Carter had gone to a family friend’s house to play with other kids. By mid-afternoon Tiffany suggested he open his presents and have his Christmas.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Thomason had been sitting, albeit in pain, in the living room and laughing with Hinson, Carter climbing all over his lap. He was a hands-on father, who woke to dress his son every morning. One day a week, Angie said, they enjoyed a day together when Thomason was off work. An Eagle Scout, he loved the outdoors and would take Carter on excursions.

Angie learned the extent of her son-in-law’s impact on his community when a brewery in Eagle held a memorial in his honor. About 300 people attended, including friends and patients who took their animals to his clinic. And many of them brought along pets who had benefited from his work.

“There were kids in the bar and dogs and cats,” Angie said. “Niles’ mom was there and I think it was healing for her a little to hear people talk about how he had saved this dog or cat. It was a good thing.”

Dad Hospitalized

Tiffany never cried around Carter. And Hinson did his best to use that approach with his team.

He talked to the players about what happened and then bottled his emotions in what is an otherwise expressive persona. He couldn’t sleep and began seeing a counselor, who told him to express his feelings when they were raw.

Until recent weeks, Hinson said he woke every morning at 6:30 and heard his son-in-law screaming for help. When a player became sick on a recent flight, teammates started hollering at the back of the plane, prompting Hinson to break down sobbing in his seat.

Hinson met three times with his coaches to tell them he was having a bad day and needed help. On a recent road trip he was unable to sleep the night before a game and skipped breakfast with the team. On other occasions, his temper went unchecked.

“The first game he came back he wasn’t himself and you could tell,” senior guard Desmar Jackson said. “After that he was definitely more emotional and you could see it on his face.”

Adding to the stress, few people knew, was that Hinson’s father spent several days in a Springfield, Mo., hospital with heart issues before Christmas.

Barry Hinson was concerned that reports on ESPN and CNN of his rant at Murray State might have prompted his father’s latest incident.

“I called to let him know about it,” Hinson said. “My dad said, ‘We already know.’ I think my mom and dad enjoyed it more than anything.”

Robert Hinson was released from the hospital on Christmas Day but not before Thomason had died. A doctor was present when he was told about Thomason’s passing.

In the weeks that followed, Hinson’s support team was out in force. Among those who checked on him regularly were his assistants, Kansas coach Bill Self and SIU Athletics Director Mario Moccia.

“I told him, ‘If you ever feel you need a little more time, no one is going to think bad of you,’” Moccia said. “I told him, ‘Take whatever time you need to make sure you’re energized and have a clear head about things.’”

Hinson recalls two conversations with Moccia about the possibility of taking off more time. But he couldn’t do it.

Said Hinson: “Mario said, ‘Then you’re going to have to change some things because you’re not the person you need to be.’”

The 52-year-old coach knows he has changed.

“I’m not the coach I was to start the season, and I won’t be the same coach ever again,” he said. “I’ll be a different coach the rest of my life.”

STU DURANDO writes for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which is a Lee Enterprises sister paper of The Southern Illiniosan.

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