Coach remembers Meg Herndon was an honor student who helped others

Sunday, September 23, 2012
Meg Herndon

Southeast Missouri State soccer coach Heather Nelson believes it's fitting that Meg Herndon will continue to help others even after her death.

Herndon, who passed away Thursday following a Sept. 9 motor vehicle accident that left the 21-year-old Southeast senior in critical condition with a severe brain injury, will have her rare B-negative blood type donated as well as her liver and kidneys.

Nelson can't think of a better legacy to leave behind for the Redhawks' defender and honor student, who was a nursing major.

"I can tell you without a doubt that Meghan was going to be a fantastic nurse. She was caring, bright, resourceful and passionate," Nelson said in an email interview. "I am so proud of her decision to be an organ donor that it is difficult to find words to express how I feel. I can only tell you that it is fitting for Meg to be the miracle that so many other families were praying for.

"I would like Meg to be honored for giving the gift of life and am hopeful that more people will choose to become organ donors because of Meghan."

Nelson spent time over the weekend reflecting on Herndon's life, what she meant to the Southeast soccer program and how she impacted the lives of everybody she came into contact with.

Southeast administrators declined to make any soccer players available to speak with the media. Nelson said they continue to grieve over the loss of their popular teammate.

"As a mother, my heart goes out to Meghan's family. No parent should have to bury their child. They have treated our team as family, and it has helped us make sense of this devastating event in our lives," Nelson said. "The loss of Meghan is life-changing for everyone in our program. As a staff we are trying to ensure our players are provided the opportunity to grieve in their own way, reinforce how much we care about each of them and support each other in every possible way.

"We have cried together, prayed together and hugged one another, and at times when we are more at peace with things we have enjoyed sharing stories and laughed together. We all feel blessed to have Meg in our lives, and it is a heartfelt loss to every one of us. The team is trying to be strong and support each other as we work through this extremely difficult time. We all know that Meg would expect nothing less of us."

Herndon, a graduate of Rockwood Summit High School in the St. Louis suburb of Fenton, Mo., played in 55 games during her four-year Southeast career and made 39 starts.

She started all seven games this season prior to her accident and started all 19 contests last year as the Redhawks won the Ohio Valley Conference regular-season championship.

But Nelson said Herndon's contributions to Southeast's program went far beyond her athletic skills. Among other areas she excelled in was academics. She held a 3.83 grade point average, earning a spot on the OVC Commissioner's Honor Roll three times and being named a three-time Southeast Scholar-Athlete.

"Meg as a person would best be described by me in two words, strong and passionate. She was independent, bright and known for her zinging one liners," Nelson said. "Meghan was dedicated to her family, her team and her nursing studies. She had a passion to be the best she could be in all aspects of her life. Meg's favorite quote was, ‘Impossible is Nothing.' It exemplifies how she lived her life, and it's so fitting to those of us who know her best."

Nelson fondly recalled a game from Herndon's career that highlighted her personality.

"She was confident, straight to the point and at times brutally honest. I loved that about her. You always knew where you stood," Nelson said. "We were playing an away game against a top 25 team and the game was becoming more and more heated with the score tied 0-0 and our defenders having a stellar game.

"An opposing player was giving a lot of grief to our goalkeeper, Ashton Aubuchon, and central defender, Hayley Abbott, for a play in which a cross was served across the front of our goal. Ashton had punched the ball away and in doing so, she collided with a forward from the other team. Ashton was in the process of helping the player up when one of her teammates got all bent out of shape and started going off on Ashton and Hayley. Meg simply turned to the girl and in a calm manner stated, "You need to find Jesus." Then Meg went about her business of defending the upcoming corner. The girl on the receiving end stood there stunned, her jaw almost hitting the ground. ... She had nothing."

Southeast associate head coach Paul Nelson, Heather's husband, said the turnout for a Sept. 11 game against Evansville at Houck Stadium, just two days after Herndon's accident, exemplified the amount of lives she touched.

There was talk among Southeast administrators of canceling the contest before Southeast players intervened.

"Quite honestly I wasn't sure it was fair to have them play that game, but they wanted to play for Meg and they were absolutely passionate about doing so," Heather Nelson said. "They felt it was the one thing they could do in her honor and on behalf of Meghan's family. As coaches we respected their decision because in our hearts we knew it was what Meg would have expected of us."

Although the Redhawks didn't win, they played a strong game before settling for a 0-0 tie.

The big story that night was that a record 841 fans attended, the most ever for a Southeast home soccer match.

"The crowd was unbelievable. I guarantee you, most of that was support for Meg. We knew it was going to be a great tribute to Meg," Paul Nelson said that night. "Meg is a great person, and it showed by the amount of people that came to show their support."

The outpouring of support for Herndon was also exemplified in other ways, including donations and tributes posted on websites.

Bracelets bearing the inscription "PRAY4MEG" were made and more than 2,000 were sold in just a few days. All of the money will help pay for Herndon's medical bills.

"Meghan meant everything to us, and in turn we meant everything to her," Heather Nelson said. "In our program each individual is valued for their humanity first, and over time our players become each other's extended family. In times like this, I am reminded how important our philosopy and priorities are because after all soccer is just a game."

Heather Nelson said she is happy that Southeast players and coaches were able to spend time with Herndon at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis following the accident, although she never regained consciousness.

"One of Meg's closest teammates and I drove to St. Louis shortly after Meg was flown by helicopter from St. Francis Medical Center to Barnes-Jewish Hospital. We were able to spend the first three days with Meg and her family. We were welcomed with open arms and treated like family," Nelson said. "Other teammates visited during the week and almost the entire team was able to visit her on Saturday and Sunday [last week].

"When we were informed by family members that the results of the MRI showed that Meg's brain injuries were devastating, Meg's boyfriend Justin Angle and his mother Connie Angle left the hospital to give us the news in person. The following day we were given the opportunity to say what we anticipated to be our final goodbyes in person. Meg's family and the Angles treated us like family, and I don't have words to express my heartfelt thanks for the kindness they have shown."

Herndon's visitation, which began Saturday, will continue from 1 to 8 p.m. today at Kutis Funeral Home in Affton, Mo.

The funeral is Monday at 10 a.m. at St. Paul Catholic Church in Fenton, Mo.

Southeast will hold a campus memorial service Thursday at 7 p.m. in Houck Stadium.

"The entire department of athletics is mourning the tragic loss of Meg Herndon," Southeast director of athletics Mark Alnutt said in a statement released the day of Herndon's death. "We extend our deepest condolences to Meg's parents, family, friends and teammates, who have all shown inspirational strength in dealing with these challenging circumstances.

"Meg was a brilliant student-athlete who touched the lives of countless individuals in the community, something that has been shown with the uncanny support displayed over the past few weeks. She personified the term student-athlete by every definition with her dedication in the classroom, community and on the field."

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