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Coach feels compelled to share story of infant son killed by drunken driver

The Bigler family was in this vehicle July 28, 2012, on their way to a cabin on Lake Minnewaska when a drunken driver crossed the center line, killing 5-month-old Drake. State Farm Insurance has kept the vehicle, and Brad Bigler brings it to schools when he speaks to youth about the family’s tragic experience. ( Tom Cherveny | Tribune 1 / 2
Yellow Medicine East student Erin Bissett, left, thanks Brad Bigler for telling his family’s tragic story Thursday to high school students in Granite Falls. Bigler is a coach at Southwest Minnesota State University in Marshall. (Tom Cherveny | Tribune)2 / 2

GRANITE FALLS — Brad Bigler is looking forward to his seventh season as head coach of the Southwest Minnesota State University men’s basketball team in Marshall.

“It’s going to be fun,’’ he said, while pointing out to a reporter that this year’s roster includes local talent from Dawson-Boyd and MACCRAY. The talent will be tested soon: The Mustangs’ first exhibition game puts them up against the Minnesota Gophers on Nov. 11.

All of this was on his mind Thursday morning when shortly after talking basketball, Bigler, 35, walked onto the auditorium stage at the Yellow Medicine East High School. He gave a first-person account of a tragedy so painful he could not tell it without tears in his eyes.

It’s a heart-wrenching story of how his 5-month-old son Drake was killed by a drunken driver. It happened only eight months after Bigler’s mother died on Hawk Creek while he frantically tried to rescue her.

Bigler is willing to put the excitement of the upcoming basketball season aside and return to all of the pain his family suffered for one reason:

“God gave us a story to tell and that story hurts, but it is our responsibility to tell it so we can make an impact on others,” said Bigler.  He told his high school audience Thursday that this was the answer he offered his young son, Nash, just the other night.

Brad and his wife, Heather, were seated around the supper table with their two young daughters and son when Brad announced that he was about to load up the vehicle they were driving that tragic night and haul it to Granite Falls.

Bigler told the story of the family’s tragedy to an audience for the first time a few years ago. He spoke in New York City at the request of the National Football League. State Farm Insurance has preserved their vehicle so that it can be used in his presentations.

He can make only a limited number of presentations such as the one in Granite Falls this week. As a college basketball coach, he must abide by National Collegiate Athletic Association rules that limit the number of times he can speak off-campus to high school students.

Of course, it’s young people he wants to reach most. “You are going to make mistakes. Just don’t make those mistakes that will impact you the rest of your lives,’’ he told his YME audience.

Dana Allen Schoen, was 38 years old when he got behind the wheel of his heavy-duty pickup truck with a blood alcohol content of 0.351 percent on the night of July 28, 2012, according to court records. He was one mile from his home when he crossed the centerline on Minnesota Highway 29 south of Starbuck and struck the Bigler vehicle.

Bigler said his wife Heather, who was driving at the time, still remembers the sound of the pickup “shredding our car like a pop can.’’

He doesn’t remember the sounds. He had been seated in the front passenger seat. He was found on the pavement, unconscious, with a broken vertebra in his neck, and his ribs and numerous other bones fractured as well.

Bigler said his wife heard the emergency workers yelling at him in the ambulance: “Sir, don’t leave us. Stay here sir, keep breathing.’’

She heard too the pain of her mother, Sharon Schuler of Granite Falls, who had sat in the backseat, her arm atop infant Drake in the car seat. “Help,’’ she cried, “help, I can’t move my shoulder.’’

Heather held their infant son. His breath became longer and longer and colder and colder, Bigler said. At the hospital she learned he would not make it.  

“She has to watch her son take his last breath,’’ Bigler said.

He had suffered a very similar misery only eight months earlier, on June 25, 2011.

Bigler, his 55-year-old mother, Diane Bigler-Hagenow, and a group of friends were kayaking on the hard-running waters of Hawk Creek. As he came around a bend, Bigler said he spotted his mother holding on to a tree for her life. He reached her, grabbed her and saw her open eyes for the last time just moments before chaos erupted. The tree fell and the branch held her three feet under as he pulled and she grabbed.

“Then all of a sudden she just stopped,’’ he said.  

Her death was a freak accident, Bigler said.

The car crash on Highway 29 was different, he said. “It could have been prevented that night. It was a choice. A choice by one selfish person,’’ said Bigler.

Dana Schoen served 42 months in prison after being convicted of criminal vehicular homicide.

Minnesota State Patrol Trooper Amy Churchill, who had arrested him at the accident scene, joined Bigler in telling the story of that tragic night.

“It looked like a tornado had been through,’’ she said of what she saw upon arriving at the scene.

Don’t drink and drive, Bigler told his audience. Have a plan to get home safely. Surround yourself with friends who will make sure you do get home, he urged them. “Live to fight another day.’’

 “You see, we all want you to be safe. We all want you to be there for others,’’ Bigler said. “That is what today is all about.’’

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

(320) 214-4335