From the bottom to the pinnacle

Saturday, March 18, 2006

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A life dedicated to athletics was altered more than 14 years ago when Brian Brandtner fell more than 120 feet from a cliff, exploding his left femur bone and nearly ending his life.

In fact, Brandtner technically died three times after that fateful fall. His long road to recovery -- a road which took him through 35 surgeries, cost him half of each hip for failed bone grafts and four inches of his right femur to even his legs out -- has led him to the pinnacle of high school sports.

Brandtner, in his first year as the boys basketball coach at Bell City, will lead the Cubs into the Class 1 state championship game at 1:45 p.m. today at the Mizzou Arena.

A dream that was altered can still be realized for Brandtner.

"When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was win a state championship," Brandtner said. "That's been my goal as a coach, and it's just a dream come true being in the situation we are this weekend."

On Aug. 20, 1991, Brandtner's life changed forever. It was the day before his junior year at Notre Dame Regional High School, and Brandtner and some of his friends were killing time between soccer tryout sessions.

Most of the rest of what happened that day Brandtner now recalls only as othes have told him. The boys made their way to Trail of Tears to go swimming. It was the first trip to Trail of Tears for Brandtner. As they walked along a cliff, Brandtner attempted to jump a crevasse, which was supposedly about five feet wide, but he slipped on some loose rocks.

Brandnter fell down the side of the cliff and was able to temporarily cling to a dead tree, but the tree gave out sending him more than 120 feet to the ground.

"I actually died three times," Brandtner said. "I was really blessed one of my teammates, Chris Talley, was there.

"They pretty much assumed I was dead. We he got to me, I was kind of choking on my teeth. He reached into my throat and pulled my teeth out, and basically saved my life.

"If it weren't for Chris Talley, I wouldn't be here. Really, you can't ever repay someone who saves your life. Every time I see Chris, it brings a tear to my eye. To owe someone your life, you can't describe that."

Brandtner was taken by helicopter to Southeast Hospital. He said there was talk about taking him to St. Louis to amputate. His left femur had not only been broken, it had exploded in the fall.

"It was actually like a grenade going off," Brandtner said.

But Brandtner said Dr, William Thorpe was instrumental in having Brandtner taken to Southeast Hospital, where Thorpe and many others worked to save the leg. Brandtner actually was walking and doing light practices with his basketball teammates by the Christmas after his fall.

Brandtner had setbacks, first during the basketball season and again during baseball season.

"It was just such a tremendous injury, you can't come back from that," Brandtner said.

Brandtner was involved in three sports in high school, and playing sports was something he said he saw as a likely career choice. Not being able to play was excruciating, especially during his senior year when the Notre Dame baseball team won the state title.

"That was a great feeling, but it also destroyed me because I really wanted to be there," he said. "My life, I just enjoyed being part of the team, coming through for people. I liked when people counted on me."

The next few years were "rough years" for Brandtner following his graduation from high school. By attending area high school sporting events, he was able to find his inspiration.

Brandtner credits his girlfriend at the time, who is now his wife, with putting the idea of coaching in his head.

"Jessica looked at me and said, 'Brian, why don't you get into coaching,'" Brandtner said. "I just knew right there that's what I had to do.

"When she said that to me, it was like magical words. The very next day I went and talked to Chris Janet, the Notre Dame basketball coach at the time."

In the 1997-98 season, Brandtner became a volunteer assistant at Notre Dame. He later coached the freshmen and then the junior varsity. In all, he spent five years coaching in all at his alma mater.

Brandtner then spent three years as head coach at Caruthersville before taking the Bell City job prior to this season.

Through all of his ordeals, Brandtner gained a new perspective on life and more importantly on himself.

"When things go bad, or don't go your way, you know they've been worse," he said. "I've been in the grips of hell, when you're feeling depressed and down, and you don't know what to do with your life. When you come out of it, it gives you that much of an advantage in life.

"What happened was I learned me. I know who I am. I know my weaknesses. I know my strengths. I know what I'm capable of doing. A lot of times you're more than a coach, you help these kids with so many aspects of life. I think it's a lot easier to help other people when you know yourself."

The long and many times painful road for Brandtner has led him to his dream game in what he has said is his dream coaching job.

"I wouldn't take it all back if I could right now," he said. "I use to be a 6-foot-1 athlete, care-free. That was my life.

"For me to say I wouldn't take it back, that speaks volumes for what I've gained."

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