In the storm, Eric Wenzel shines

Playing lacrosse in torrential thunderstorms is no joyous task. Tuesday evening’s cold rain fell in sheets across Johnson Field, lit by the stadium lights, and New Haven’s nastiest precipitation pummeled the masked, hunched players as they grunted and swore.

But despite the weather’s onslaught, there was one man on the field who wore a smile.

Standing a half a head taller than most of the team, conspicuous in his canvas safari hat, Eric Wenzel ’04 was the fulcrum around which the play rotated. Positioned in the middle of field, he intermittently barked orders military style — “Move, move, move!” — between whistle blows.

Every few minutes, quickly, almost imperceptibly, he flashed a grin.

No amount of rain can squelch Wenzel’s enthusiasm. Besides rehab, there is little that can keep him from the field and the sport he loves.

Last January’s car accident threw all that into doubt.

One moment Wenzel was an All-American lacrosse goalie and varsity football fullback looking forward to his senior year when he would be one of the leaders of the teams. The next moment, he awoke from a doctor-induced two-month coma, barely able to speak or read, let alone throw a football. Four of his friends had lost their lives.

“Everything in life happens for a reason,” Wenzel said over a year later, a little doubt in his voice. “Maybe I had to go through this to realize I absolutely love coaching sports.”

It is incredibly difficult — perhaps impossible — to rationalize what happened to Wenzel and his friends last January 17, when their car struck a jackknifed tractor-trailer, killing driver Sean Fenton ’04 and passengers Kyle Burnat ’05, Andrew Dwyer ’05 and Nicholas Grass ’05.

In the days and weeks after the tragedy, relatives, friends and members of Yale community tried their best to somehow wrap their minds around the senseless losses.

But as in all cases, life had to go on. And, for those passengers who did not lose their lives in the accident but were seriously injured — Wenzel, Brett Smith ’06 and Zac Bradley ’06 — that meant not only dealing with grief, but confronting seemingly insurmountable obstacles to recovery. Smith, who suffered brain swelling, is still rehabilitating in Nebraska. Wenzel and Bradley have returned to Yale.

In Wenzel’s case, as in baseball pitcher Bradley’s, the desire to return to the playing field fired his determination to recover as quickly as possible.

Now, Wenzel is volunteering as assistant coach on the men’s lacrosse and football teams. In January 2003, however, he was in such critical condition that no one but his immediate family was allowed to see him in the hospital in the days following the accident.

Bradley, who suffered a broken jaw and a compound fracture in his left arm, was sent to Bridgeport Hospital with Wenzel and went to visit his good friend as soon as doctors would allow him to leave his room.

“It was difficult for me to see him, such a big, strong guy,” Bradley said. “He was hardly recognizable.”

Although Bradley said he was shocked by what he saw, neither he nor any of Wenzel’s other close friends were surprised that Wenzel pulled through.

One of his Yale football coaches, Larry Ciotti, visited Wenzel in the hospital immediately afterward and remarked that despite the grim atmosphere, no one seemed to doubt for a moment that Wenzel’s tough, competitive spirit would win out.

“All his teammates when he was in the hospital in critical condition, all said Eric will not leave us,” Ciotti said. “He’s too competitive and too stubborn.”

Waking up from the coma was like waking up to a nightmare that was real, Wenzel said. At first, being able to play sports again was the least of his worries. Remembering how to talk, write, read and perform simple tasks took priority.

Rehab lasted eight hours a day, and Wenzel made good progress. Ever eager to push himself, he decided to take a literature course at Hofstra University in order to prepare himself for his return to Yale. It proved harder than he had thought it would be.

“At one point I actually had to go out and get the book on tape,” Wenzel said. “I had to get that double stimulus to remember the next day during class.”

But looming over the horizon, pulling him ever forward, was the dream of returning to the lacrosse field the next spring. Since Wenzel would be a fifth year student at Yale, he would be ineligible for football; lacrosse would be possible only if he recovered in time.

His left arm had sustained severe nerve and muscle damage in the accident, rendering it paralyzed. Surgeries and rehab had improved his arm to the point where he had slight mobility in the shoulder and could almost curl his arm up.

Even when he returned to Yale in the fall, until winter break, he hoped against hope that he would be able to return to the field. His arm forced him to finally confront reality.

“When you don’t have nerves to lift up your arm, you realize you may not be able to play again,” Wenzel said.

The realization was crushing for a life-long athlete and a man to whom playing the game was an integral part of his identity.

Sitting in the Jonathan Edwards common room a few months later, his left arm in his pocket, he struggled to articulate the disappointment.

“I may never be able to actually confront the fact that I will never be able to play again,” he said, forcing the words out as quickly as possible. “I absolutely love to be around all the personnel; I have to be part of that — that brings happiness.”

So when the football and lacrosse coaches approached Wenzel about being a volunteer assistant coach for the teams, Wenzel jumped at the opportunity.

Especially at first, being on the sidelines rather than in the play was a painful adjustment.

“I knew it was difficult for him,” Ciotti said. “I noticed it especially in lacrosse because he was the All-American returning goalie, and I knew he wanted to participate.”

On the football and lacrosse teams, Wenzel has proven a tremendous asset because he commands the respect of the players. He said he tries to relate his first-hand knowledge of the sports to the players to help them learn how to react in certain situations.

Jordan Ellis ’07, a lacrosse goalie, works closely with Wenzel in practice. He said Wenzel is always watching him carefully and giving him pointers to which he said he pays careful attention. Wenzel’s joy in being at practice is infectious, spreading to the players, Ellis said.

“He lost a lot, and the fact that he can still be out there means a lot to him, and we can see that, and it makes us appreciate being out there all the more,” he said.

Although it does not make up for what he lost in the accident, Wenzel’s newly discovered love of coaching is as close to a silver lining as he has yet encountered.

Which is perhaps why on a day when the clouds are their darkest, Wenzel smiles into the slashing rain.

“Things might not always go the way you want them to,” Wenzel said. “Keep working hard, stay positive, and things will turn out fine.”

Members of the men’s lax team huddle around coach Eric Wenzel ’04 (in safari hat) during a rainy evening practice. Wenzel, who was in a two-month coma after sustaining injuries in last January’s car crash, is now working as a volunteer coach for the Eli football and lax teams.
Smita Gopisetty
Members of the men’s lax team huddle around coach Eric Wenzel ’04 (in safari hat) during a rainy evening practice. Wenzel, who was in a two-month coma after sustaining injuries in last January’s car crash, is now working as a volunteer coach for the Eli football and lax teams.

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