As the Coyotes prepare for upcoming gridiron battles, Mike Freidel is waging a different battle.
Freidel, the assistant head football coach and defensive coordinator, suffered extensive head, facial and other injuries following a June 19 accident. While working at his summer job on a Wyoming ranch, Freidel was fixing a tire which exploded in front of him.
Freidel suffered head trauma, injuries to his left eye and arm, and a collapsed lung, according to his brother, Doug Freidel. Mike has undergone surgery to determine the extent of his head injuries, Doug added.
Mike was originally hospitalized at the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper, WY, but he has been transferred to the Select Specialty Hospital on the Avera McKennan Hospital campus in Sioux Falls, Doug said.
"Mike is in a special rehab unit in the hospital. It's a facility that specializes in dealing with brain injuries, and they have been rehabbing him intensely," Doug said.
While Mike is far from recovered, the efforts have shown progress, Doug said.
"Following the accident, Mike was in a persistent comatose state. He wasn't coming out if it as fast as they would have liked," Doug said. "But now, Mike has gone from a comatose state to a semi-comatose state, which means he is reacting more to stimuli. He is following (his wife) Joni's voice with his eyes. He is moving and squeezing hands when asked to do it."
Transferring Mike to Sioux Falls was a medical decision which brought the added benefit of bringing him close to home, Doug said. The Freidels and their five children live in Vermillion. Joni works in admissions at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, where Mike previously coached football.
"Obviously, it's easier for Joni and the kids to have Mike closer to home. They are very pleased to be back in the area, among family and friends," Doug said. "Mike has numerous close friends and the football players who stop by to say hi. It's easier on everyone concerned that he is at a local hospital."
However, the Sioux Falls transfer represents the next phase and not the final treatment, Doug said.
"At McKennan, they will do what they can for a couple of months, then it's another step down the road for the next 45 to 60 days," Doug said. "They could be doing long-term rehab in Minneapolis or Colorado. It could be six months to a year to rehab him. We hope Mike's rehab continues to go as well as it has at McKennan and he comes out of his coma."
Progress is measured daily, and the long-term future remains uncertain, Doug said.
"With the severity of this injury, it's day to day. The tough part is still ahead of us, the unknown of how long his recovery will take place," Doug said. "There is the hope that he will still be the same Mike Freidel. It's on our minds and in our prayers."
"I can't reiterate enough that this is a marathon and not a sprint," Doug added.
With fall approaching and Mike now closer to home, Joni and the children are once again living together as a family and preparing for the start of the school year. After the accident, the Freidels' sons lived with the family of USD head football coach Ed Meierkort.
Doug said he isn't surprised the Meierkorts opened up their home to the boys.
"Ed is a very close personal friend, not just with Mike but with the entire family," Doug said. "I wouldn't expect anything less from Ed than to step up and help."
That kind of support surrounds the family throughout the area, Doug said. "Joni is a strong woman and a wonderful mother. Now, she has got a safety net – she is much more comfortable being back now in Sioux Falls and Vermillion," he said.
That backing includes spiritual support. Prayer services were held for Mike at both USD and Augustana, and the Freidels' strong religious faith has sustained them through the trying times, Doug said.
"In the end, everything in life is not in our hands but in God's hands. Mike came so close to death – a bigger power is in play," Doug said.
In the midst of their struggles, the Freidels realize they are not alone, Doug said.
"It's amazing how many people have called. We are very grateful," he said. "Mike personally touched a lot of people. The entire family touched a lot of lives through athletics."
Mike played sports at Armour, and he was named a Little All-American playing football at Dakota State University in Madison. He has coached for 26 years, starting at DSU as a graduate assistant. He went on to coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall, Minn., followed by stints at Augustana and USD.
The coaching fraternity has responded to the Freidels' needs, providing both financial and moral support. The South Dakota Football Coaches Association (SDFCA) presented $1,000 to the Mike Freidel Fund during the recent South Dakota All Star Games in Aberdeen.
The contribution was a spontaneous gesture of friendship and concern, said Avon football coach Tom Culver, who serves as SDFCA president. The coaches were gathered for their summer clinic and state convention during the All-Star Games.
"During a meeting, we talked about what we can do to raise money for Mike Freidel. Our secretary, Virg Polak of Watertown, was the instigator," Culver said. "We decided to throw together a raffle. We raised $1,000, and this was all done in the course of two days."
The idea of helping the Freidels wasn't a hard sell, Culver said. "All the high school coaches know Mike well. He has been to our schools to recruit, and he has spoken twice to our winter clinics. This presented an opportunity to help," he said.
Polak presented the surprise gift to USD assistant coach Todd Hoffner, who was making a presentation at the coaches' clinic, Culver said.
"It's impressive and shows what those guys will do for each other," Culver said. "We're not the highest paid in the nation. In fact, we're at the opposite end, but people are more than willing to help out. I think it speaks to the generosity of people."
Culver said he was struck by the life lessons taught by Freidel's injuries.
"I told my wife, it makes you think how unimportant sports are," Culver said. "There are life lessons learned (from athletics), but in the big scheme, it's not that important."
The SDFCA generosity shows the strong bonds which have tightened even more during the current ordeal, Doug Freidel said.
"Mike recruited South Dakota forever. He personally knows every one of the football coaches in South Dakota, so (the SDFCA gesture) doesn't surprise me," Doug said.
Mike previously recovered from a near-fatal car accident, and he will now draw on the same reserve of strength, Doug said.
"Mike had some very serious injuries after the car accident two or three years ago, and now, he has got this challenge to face," Doug said of the current injuries. "But he is a strong man with a strong will and strong character. If there is anyone who can recover from this kind of situation, it will be Mike. He is a survivor."