Baseball: The Eric Searcy story - "It just takes one bad decision."
Reprinted from December, 2015
Tim Buckley, The Advertiser, December 23, 2015
Former UL baseball player Eric Searcy, submitted photo.
The initial call was made on the first Friday of December in 1998. A second call — a tragic one, to his parents — followed hours later, early the next morning.
Pitcher Eric Searcy had just been told by UL baseball coach Tony Robichaux he had made the Ragin’ Cajuns’ roster, and Searcy quickly phoned his father, Lawton.
“I said, ‘You know what, Dad? I just finished my first semester of college. I made good grades. I have an awesome, beautiful girlfriend. And now my dream of being a college athlete has come true,’” Searcy said. “I said, ‘Dad, I cannot imagine life being any more perfect. I love you.’ Hung up the phone, and got hit by a drunk driver that night, and it ended it all.”
The accident left Searcy unable to walk, let alone stand on the mound, and three others in the vehicle in which he was a passenger injured, as well.
The driver of the pickup truck that struck them?
He was a repeat OWI offender who fled from the scene, served relatively minimal prison time and has been arrested on various charges several times since — as recently as this month.
Flash forward almost 17 years later, and in early November another Cajun pitcher — Colton Lee — gets arrested and charged with operating a vehicle while intoxicated.
He will serve an automatic one-year suspension, according to terms of Robichaux’s strict disciplinary policy.
The Cajuns coach thinks back to the day Searcy was sentenced to life in a wheelchair, and he can’t stop talking.
“He woke up 30 days later from a coma,” Robichaux said, “and just didn’t know where he was at.”
Just getting started
Searcy, from Baton Rouge, was supposed to pitch for LSU. He had already enrolled for classes there, and couldn’t wait to get started.
Then a Tigers assistant coach who had been recruiting him delivered the news. He no longer was needed.
“Two weeks before the fall semester started, they called me into the office at LSU to tell me they had just signed a junior-college pitcher out of Texas,” Searcy said. “I kind of went from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.”
“Coach Robichaux got wind of it, and he called the next morning.”
UL didn’t have any scholarships left to offer, but Robichaux wanted Searcy as a preferred walk-on. He wouldn’t be guaranteed a roster spot, but could earn one.
Eric and Lawton Searcy quickly found themselves driving west on Interstate 10 to meet with the man who had phoned.
The chat went much like it does with all Cajun baseball recruits who visit UL.
“It wasn’t just a 10- or 15-minute conversation,” Searcy said. “It was an hour long.
“It was a let-me-tell-you-this-before-you-make your-decision-of-whether-or-not-you-want-to-come-play-here-type conversation, and he told me — with my dad sitting right next to me, and he wasn’t just talking to me, he was talking to my dad — ‘If you ever see the inside of a police station, it’s a no-questions-asked policy. You’re suspended for a year.’”
Other options? Transfer, or quit.
Searcy decided right away that UL was where he wanted to play.
“On Day 1,” Searcy said, “(Robichaux) was very clear with us — what he expected out of us when we showed up there.”
Searcy practiced through fall ball, then sustained a strain in the rotator cuff of his throwing shoulder.
Still, Robichaux wanted him. The plan called for Searcy to redshirt the 1999 season, and play in 2000.
He never got the chance.
'I wasn't doing what Coach told me to do'
Robichaux’s players had a weekend curfew, but Searcy said he figured, “I’m not practicing right now; I just have to do therapy (for the shoulder), so I don’t have to really follow those rules.”
Not long after Robichaux had told him he’d made the team, Searcy went out with friends.
“And at 1:30 in the morning,” he said, “a drunk driver runs a red light … and now I’m paralyzed from the neck down. Because I wasn’t doing what Coach Robichaux told me to do.”
With his walk-on clinging to life, Robichaux added a new duty to his regular routine.
“You want to talk about a man who cares? He was at the hospital every single day,” Searcy said.
That blew Searcy’s mind.
“I started playing baseball when I was 5 years old, and I never liked a single coach I had,” he said. “Couldn’t stand my high school baseball coach. I just thought, ‘That’s how it is.’ Coaches … just want to win games, and whatever it takes they’ll do it. But then I get to UL.
“It was so different for me to have a coach I could tell cared about me as a person a lot more than he cared about me as a baseball player. And he’s still proving that now, 17 years later.”
Searcy said he broke the C4, C5 and C6 cervical vertebrae in his neck and severed his spinal cord.
“I was on life support for a couple of months after the wreck,” he said.
“They told me that more than likely I would always require the respirator. I couldn’t breathe on my own, so I had the tracheotomy tube down my throat breathing for me.
“And they told me I would never move anything below my neck,” Search added. “All I could move for the first three months was my head.”
Robichaux, nevertheless, coached him up.
“I give him a lot of the credit,” Searcy said, “because of the discipline he instilled in us and just (teaching the belief) that when the world says you can’t, you can.”
Searcy went on to graduate from LSU with a bachelor’s degree in business administration, and in 2008 he was awarded a master’s focused on healthcare management.
He is a healthcare consultant at surgical facilities, and, along with a best friend, owns a couple Baton Rouge restaurants.
Through his Eric Searcy Foundation, he talks regularly to teams, student groups and others about the perils of drunken driving and the sensibility of sound decision-making.
“I had no plans to go back (to school),” Searcy said. “I was a quadriplegic.
“You know — what in the world can you do if you’re paralyzed from your chest down? Certainly there’s no job you can accomplish. Well, that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
“(Robichaux) continued to push me even after my wreck,” Searcy added. “I mean, there I am lying in the hospital fighting for my life and he’s like … ‘Do you need me to bring some dumbbells? Do you need to work out? Your arms are starting to get small.’ That’s who he is.”
But there’s another reason, Searcy suggests, that it’s all possible.
“I serve an awesome God who saw fit to give me back most of the use of my arms, so I am able to push a wheelchair,” he said. “I’m able to drive (a vehicle) from my wheelchair. But, basically, from my armpits down I can’t move anything.”
Still part of the team
During the 2000 season — the one in which Robichaux’s Cajuns made their first and only trip to the College World Series — Searcy was with them much of the way.
"They would roll my wheelchair down the steps into the dugout,” he said, “because he always told me, ‘You’re still a part of this team.’”
When UL traveled to No. 1-ranked South Carolina and upset the Gamecocks to punch their CWS ticket to Omaha, Nebraska, however, he stayed behind.
But when the Cajuns flew back to Baton Rouge, Searcy was in the terminal, waiting near their gate — something permitted back in the pre-9/11 airport era.
“When their plane landed and they … walked through the doors out into that big open room,” he said, “there was at least 20-to-25 reporters there, news cameras, everything else, and little ol’ me in my wheelchair.
“I’m sitting in the back of the room. I mean, it’s as far away from them as you can possibly be in there. And when (Robichaux) walked in those doors, he made eye contact with me.
“I saw the reporters asking questions, and he wouldn’t talk to them. He walked straight to me, and hugged me,” Searcy added. “And he said, ‘Eric, you know you have a spot in the dugout in Omaha.’ Now tell me that isn’t a coach who cares.”
He still does.
It’s 2014, and UL has beaten Ole Miss in Game 1 of a best-of-three NCAA Super Regional at M.L. “Tigue” Moore Field. The Cajuns are one win away from a return trip to Omaha.
Game 2 is about to begin, and Searcy is there.
“(Robichaux) had all the players surround me right before the game in the locker room,” he said, “and he told them all, ‘Win this one for Eric, because he’s going to Omaha with us.’
“Physically, I just couldn’t go back in 2000. But I’ve never been to Omaha. Always my dream to go there one day. Of course, it was always my dream to go there as a player — and not a spectator. And my team went. But I wasn’t able to go.”
As it happened, the Cajuns lost to the Rebels in Games 2 and 3 of the Super Regional and were denied a repeat CWS appearance.
They made it to a Super Regional again this year, but that time LSU denied UL.
“Whenever they go again,” Searcy said, “I’m gonna be there.
“I made that promise a long time ago, and (Robichaux) didn’t ever let me forget about it.”
No gray area
As Searcy sees it, though, it is Robichaux’s mere presence as much as — and maybe more than — pure talent that has allowed the Cajuns to get as close to Omaha as they have.
“We had mediocre talent at best,” he said of the 2000 team.
Same thing, he feels, for the 2014 and ’15 Super Regional clubs.
“But look at how many games they win,” Searcy said.
“It’s a product of (Robichaux’s) players know he cares about them, and his players want to do everything they can do to return the favor, to show they care about him by being disciplined, by following the rules.”
Every once in a while, one does not.
“Yeah,” he said, “teenagers will be teenagers.”
Searcy asked about the details of Lee’s arrest, one of just two for OWI by a Cajun baseball player in more than 15 years, and whether an accident was involved.
There was not.
Relief can be heard in his voice.
“You look at those teams — there’s not a person in the world that would say somebody with that caliber of talent should be where they are,” he said. “But, I’m telling you, it’s the character and charity and discipline that Coach Robichaux builds in his players that allows them to do what his teams have done.
“There is no gray area with Coach Robichaux when it comes to what he expects out of you. ... There isn’t a doubt in my mind they get it. And you can feel it.
“If you build character and you build discipline into your players, winning is going to become second nature,” Searcy added. “That’s what he’s doing. That’s what he did … when I was there.”
All this from someone who practiced roughly three months for the man.
Yet even today the two remain connected.
Earlier this year at Alabama, Robichaux — who has coached 21 seasons at UL and eight at McNeese State — notched his 1,000th career win.
Searcy, however, sees his old coach fighting for bigger victories.
It’s the same reason he shares his story, and it’s why Robichaux frequently introduces him when the former pitcher speaks in the area.
“If I can keep one person from going through what I went through — or worse, losing their life — because of one bad decision …”
Searcy’s voice trails.
It’s worth it, he wants to say.
“That’s what a lot of people don’t get, is it just takes one bad decision,” he said. “A lifelong of good decisions can be erased by one bad decision.
“And if I can keep one mom or dad from getting the phone call my parents got at 2:30 in the morning saying, ‘If Eric has any brothers or sisters, you want to get them, and y’all get to Our Lady of Lourdes (hospital) as soon as you can; we’re not sure how much longer he’s gonna make it … ’ ”
The voice trails again.
“That’s the phone call my parents got,” Searcy said. “So if I can keep one parent from getting the call? Holy cow. My life has been a success.”