Family, friends rally behind injured coach

Family, friends rally behind injured coach
Mike Freidel has always been a tough competitor, whether it's tackling a sports opponent or riding a bull.

But now, The University of South Dakota assistant head football coach is facing a challenge unlike any other in his half-century of life.

Freidel remains in a coma following a June 19 accident at his off-season job on a Wyoming ranch. He suffered head trauma as well as injuries to his left eye and arm when, while working with a vehicle, a tire exploded and struck him in the head, according to USD officials.

Over the weekend, he was moved from the intensive care unit to an intermediate care floor at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, Wyo. His condition was upgraded Monday to serious but stable.

Freidel's wife, Joni, remains with him at Casper. The remainder of their family � Kelsey, a USD junior; twin boys, Jared and Jack, both juniors, and Kylen, a freshman, at Vermillion High School; and Hailey, a second grader � are back in South Dakota.

Along with Mike's upgraded medical status, the new week brought another sign of progress, according to his brother, Doug.

"We learned Sunday that Mike is off the ventilator and able to breath on his own for the first time since the accident," Doug said. "He has been taken off all the coma-inducing medication. He is still in a coma, but he is breathing on his own."

While the latest news brings hope, the Freidel family knows the road ahead remains long and uncertain, Doug said.

"When you are injured as severely as Mike, it's going to be a long recovery," he said. "We're there to give love and support to Joni and the kids and our prayers to Mike."

"We have supported each other as a family since Mike's accident," Doug added.

Joni Freidel is looking for a nursing-home setting so Mike can return closer to home for the long term, Doug said.

"This is a marathon, not a sprint," Doug said.

The Freidels have found support from an extended family � the coaches and athletes touched by Mike during his career.

Mike is in his third season as the assistant head coach and defensive coordinator for USD. He also serves as an assistant professor in the health, physical education and recreation department. Overall, he is in his 26th season as a collegiate coach.

After graduating from Armour, he earned Small College All-America honors playing football at Dakota State University in Madison. After college, he coached at DSU and at Southwest State University in Marshall, MN. He has coached for five seasons at USD and 16 years at Augustana College in Sioux Falls.

Mike has received tremendous support from other coaches and players, including the Coyotes he currently mentors, Doug said.

"USD has been very good to Mike and his family. The credit and class they have shown is very important," Doug said. "The family is very thankful. Mike works for such a great boss as (head coach) Ed Meierkort and a great organization like USD. Their support has been, and will remain, very instrumental in Mike's recovery process."

For Meierkort, Mike Freidel is more than a member of his coaching staff. They played college football against each other in the 1970s � Freidel as a senior at DSU, Meierkort as a freshman at Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell.

They teamed up on the sidelines when Freidel hired Meierkort at Southwest State. Meierkort later turned to his long-time friend when he became USD skipper and tabbed Freidel as his first staff member.

"I wouldn't be in football if Mike hadn't hired me," Meierkort said. "We have been friends a long time. This isn't a football thing � this is a long-term friendship."

Upon hearing of Freidel's accident, Meierkort said his first instinct was to head for Casper to be near his friend. But Meierkort soon realized he was needed in another way, and he and wife Terri are taking care of the three Freidel boys this summer. The two girls are living nearby, he said.

"We have business here (in Vermillion). Mike needs us for rallying the troops and taking care of the family when he is out in Casper," Meierkort said. "The first few days (after the accident), when things were really touch and go, the boys stayed at our house. They were not given a lot of information. Joni needed to be able to tell the kids truly what happened. Mike's sister and her husband took the kids out there for a week."

When the Freidel children returned from Casper, the Meierkort family pledged to help them as best they could. Meierkort said that feeling was reinforced at Friday's prayer service at the Newman Center on the USD campus.

"One of the things they said at the prayer service, we need to get the kids back to as normal a situation as teenagers can be," Meierkort said. "By staying with us, the boys are among their friends and teammates. They are participating in football camp and Legion baseball. They are comfortable with our family, and that helps."

In fact, Jared and Jack were played Legion baseball Tuesday night.

While last month's accident has changed his life, Mike Freidel has known adversity from an early age. His father, Bob, died in 1976, but his widow, Mary, forged a strong family bond among her nine children and more than 50 grandchildren.

"We had to deal with the death of our father at a young age," Doug said. "We don't feel sorry for ourselves. It's not our style. We don't expect pity, We're a strong family. We will adjust, comprehend as best we can and move on."

While last month's accident remains stunning, Mike Freidel was doing what he loved, Doug said.

"Mike was in cowboy country. He loves being around horses and cattle. He wanted to show that he could ride a bull. It all goes back to his competitive spirit," Doug Freidel said. "He has worked on the same ranch every summer for 30 years."

Meierkort likewise said his friend found a home on the range.

"Mike is a John Wayne freak � he's old school. The man rode bulls, and he has always been a cowboy. He even got his band started again with his brother, Pat," Meierkort said.

The USD football team has formed an even tighter bond in the absence of their beloved assistant coach, Meierkort said.

"We talked with the guys today. It's not a matter of ?if' Mike will be back, but when," he said. "The guys are handling it well. Football will be fine. Mike will be sorely missed, but this group is conditioned to deal with that kind of adversity."

The coaching staff has also accepted changes in their assignments, even if it could affect their career plans, Meierkort said.

"Mike is still with us. It's not like we are missing his influence over our program," the head coach said. "Mike is a tough person. He preaches tough and gets the team to play hard for us."

Now, Freidel has been called one more time to take on a daunting opponent, Meierkort said.

"These are baby steps. It's a long-term healing process," Meierkort said. "But if anybody is strong enough to beat this, Mike will."

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