(Photo: Duquesne Athletics)
When Scott Grahn and Joel Landis saw three heavily-bundled figures approach them through the falling snow, the two emergency workers didn’t quite know what to expect.
Rather quickly, it became apparent these men were in need. I’m responsible for a group of students stranded on the bus on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, one of them explained, and we haven’t eaten for 19 hours. What wasn’t made clear in that panicked explanation was they were assistant coaches for the Duquesne men’s basketball team, a group enveloped in a saga that was receiving national attention.
In that moment, however, none of that mattered. Grahn and Landis had to do something.
“These guys, they were desperate,” Grahn said. “I’m not going to lie to you.”
For as isolating as Duquesne’s 22-hour wait on the Pennsylvania Turnpike last weekend may have felt, the Dukes were never alone. They were joined by peripheral figures like Grahn and Landis, people who provided varying degrees of help in their quest to get back home.
When the assistant coaches first met the two Somerset County emergency workers, the team was at perhaps its lowest point. Hungry and stranded, they tried getting a pizza delivered at a nearby overpass. When that plan crumbled, they found their way to Grahn and Landis.
With nearly every restaurant in the area closed because of the weather, the five of them hopped in a Chevrolet truck and called a local Giant Eagle. The grocery was understaffed and closing in an hour, and the employee on the phone was doubtful they could scrap together a meal for an entire basketball team. But Grahn spoke with a manager, insisting the matter was urgent. The order got through.
By the time they dropped off rotisserie chickens and snacks at the team’s bus, they were greeted as conquering heroes. When they saw hundreds of other buses and stranded vehicles on the turnpike, however, they knew their work was far from done with that delivery.
“That fed into our whole response later on,” Landis said.
Grahn and Landis, who hold full-time jobs and work emergency management as volunteers, spent the rest of their day aiding others however they could. They shoveled snow away from tailpipes to make sure they wouldn’t clog and send carbon monoxide back into the cars. If a motorist was experiencing medical problems, they’d help get them to an ambulance. They delivered 25 pizzas to cars and buses provided free of charge by a restaurant owner whose son saw a story about Duquesne on Sportscenter. And on a day when information was in short supply for those stranded, Grahn would feed Duquesne coaches like Rich Glesmann any updates he received.
“If that’s my daughter out there, I want to know when she’s coming home, too,” Grahn said.
By the time Grahn and Landis finished with everything at 4:30 Sunday morning, they had worked 17 hours. And they came away from that day with an unexpected link to and a newfound respect for a certain college basketball team.
“Those kids that were in that bus, they were more than willing to help one another, as well as the other buses that were around them,” Grahn said. “That’s what makes a team.”
THE BUS DRIVER
(Photo: Duquesne Athletics)
Only Eugene Sargent’s mother calls him by his given name. To everyone else, he’s simply Sarge.
For the past 35 years, Sarge has been driving buses and for the last seven years, he has been the primary driver of Duquesne’s men’s and women’s basketball teams, as well as its football team. He’s a veteran of the road, someone who knows its rhythms and many of the problems it presents.
But when he saw a swarm of red brake lights 80 miles outside of Pittsburgh on the Dukes’ trip back from George Mason, something immediately crossed his mind. “Oh boy,” he thought.
Sarge had waited in accidents before, sometimes for as many as six or seven hours, but never anything like this. As the hours stretched on, he kept the bus running, providing heat and electricity for those on board. Gas, thankfully, was never a concern, as he said the vehicle had enough fuel to run for three days.
When not trying to sleep and monitor the bus’ gauges, he would chat with players who have become pseudo-family members over the years. For the Beaver Falls native who worked full-time installing fiber-optic cable systems until he retired three years ago, the ordeal was another reminder of why he loves what he does.
“From talking to these guys here, you get to know where they’re from and where they grow up,” he said. “A lot of them have never been anywhere because of their culture and where they grew up. Being around the different people, it thrills me.”
THE MIDDLE SCHOOL STUDENTS
(Photo: Duquesne Athletics)
Cheryl Kluesner’s middle school students weren’t in a dire or compromising situation. But after their Dubuque, Iowa-bound bus had idled in the same spot for more than 12 hours, the kids had understandably grown a little restless.
So when they saw on ESPN that a bus carrying a college basketball team was right near them, Kluesner saw not only a distraction, but an opportunity to inject some fun into an increasingly worrisome predicament.
She walked over to the Dukes’ bus, explained their situation and asked if a few players might want to come over. They happily obliged. Once there, they started to chat. The students explained they were from a town about 30 miles from where “Field of Dreams” was filmed. They asked the players about their stats and tried to teach them some of their favorite dance moves.
“It sounded like they were all getting tired of being stuck, so I think this might have brightened their spirits, too,” said Riley Fangman, one of the students.
Even after the players left, they maintained a bond with the students. The Dukes shared some of the food they received from a grocery store with them and helped dig out their new friends’ bus with trashcan lids and cardboard pizza boxes. Once traffic started to move, their respective buses flashed their lights at each other as a final goodbye.
“The Duquesne Dukes have a new following from afar,” Kluesner said.
THE LONGTIME BROADCASTER
(Photo: Duquesne Athletics)
Even at age 79, Ray Goss is in good shape. He has experienced the kind of physical wear and tear that comes with aging, from stem-cell treatments for his joints to a possible knee replacement in the future. But in his 48th year as the voice of Duquesne basketball, he approaches his job with the same vigor he had when he was a much younger man.
When ESPN and CNN flashed images of the Dukes holed away in their bus, the picture often presented was one of a group of energetic and plucky college students making the best of an otherwise dreadful situation. The way the players weathered the wait was endearing, but not entirely surprising given their age. But how was that older gentleman on the far left side of the photo handling those same conditions?
“I can adjust to things pretty well,” Goss said. “Mentally, it wasn’t a strain because, I don’t know, I guess I’m used to adversity. I didn’t feel any ‘Oh, man, I need to rest for three days.’ I’m ready to go tonight [Tuesday night’s game vs. La Salle]. These kids, they always talk about travel and getting their rest. If I can get to the game and sit down, I’m okay.”
While players killed time on their phones, tablets and other electronic devices, Goss did what he often does when he travels with the team for road games. He read books and magazines, worked on Cryptoquip puzzles and answered calls and texts from about 15 different people, including his four daughters.
The problem was that Goss began running out of things to occupy his time. As the wait persisted, he finished the 450-page book he was about halfway through when the trip began. While he got some rest, he has a hard time getting comfortable on buses, meaning that he was never able to sleep for more than an hour at a time.
With players extending their long legs across the aisle for some much-needed comfort, even getting to the bathroom at the back of the bus was an adventure at times.
“It was like a hurdle race,” Goss said with a laugh.
For someone who has been the Dukes’ play-by-play announcer for nearly five decades, the trip rekindled some old, albeit not always pleasant, memories. In Feb. 1983, an Amtrak train carrying Goss and the Duquesne team took 10 hours to get from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia because of a snowstorm. The trip ended up being worth it, as the Dukes upset Temple in overtime.
Six years ago, the Dukes attempted to head home following a game at George Washington. After the bus driver convinced then-coach Ron Everhart that they’d try to make the trek back, they got caught in snow in the middle of Washington, D.C. They ended up getting some cars to take players and coaches to a nearby hotel, where they stayed that night before leaving the following morning.
Those moments live on as stories and after last weekend’s misadventure on the turnpike, he has another one for the collection.
“That had to be the worst one,” Goss said.