MANITOWOC, Wis. — For the first 20 minutes of their 12-and-a-half-hour bus ride from upstate New York back to Manitowoc, head coach Phil Budervic and five members of the Silver Lake College of the Holy Family men’s basketball team sat silent.
It was a time for reflection, considering what they’d just been part of.
“And then that’s when I asked them, ‘How did it make you feel to put a smile for a few minutes on the faces of a family going through the worst day of their lives?” Budervic said. “One of the players said, ‘It was the best feeling in the world to do that.’ That’s when I knew we had done the absolute right thing to go. We helped a family and paid our respects to a true hero.”
It was only one day earlier, on Jan. 28, that the Silver Lake College contingent boarded a bus and traveled close to Rochester, N.Y., to honor 9-year-old Tyler Doohan, a boy none of them knew but whose heroism touched people’s hearts around the world.
On Jan. 20, the fourth-grader was sleeping over with several other people at his grandfather’s trailer home in Penfield, a suburb of Rochester, when a fire broke out at about 4:45 a.m.
Tyler went through the trailer and helped save six people, including two children. He went back in to try to save two remaining relatives – one of whom had lost a leg because of diabetes and used a wheelchair – but none of the three came out alive.
Budervic was looking at his computer screen when news about the tragedy flashed on the screen.
“I saw the face of that boy and read about what he did, and it just moved me to tears,” Budervic told The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay. “I thought, ‘We have to do something, this boy’s a hero – a hero in every sense of the word.'”
Budervic contacted the local fire department in New York, which in turn spoke with Tyler’s family. The family was so moved by the team’s offer to help that they invited the coach and players to attend.
Several members of the Lakers basketball team volunteered to be pallbearers, but Budervic had to whittle them down to five.
The players who traveled nearly 1,600 miles round trip to pay their respects to Tyler and show support for his family and friends were Chris Jones, Austin Allen-Walker, Darius Barnes and Aaron Davis. One player wished to remain unnamed.
Budervic said he and his players met privately with Tyler’s mother, father and stepfather shortly before the funeral at St. John of Rochester Catholic Church in Fairport, N.Y.
“They personally thanked us for coming,” Budervic said. “That was really a surreal moment for me and the players. I think that was when it really hit us. She (Tyler’s mother, Crystal Vrooman) gave each of us a hug. It was just a very emotional moment.
“People really appreciated that we came to show our support, and we were happy to help in any way we could,” Budervic added.
The coach said he was extremely proud of his players.
“You really get to see what genuine, classy individuals they are,” he said. “Some of the best kids in the world are in our program.”
Among the digital images transmitted around the world was one of Budervic and the players serving as pallbearers at the funeral.
Budervic said he wishes all the things people do to help others could receive as much attention, especially efforts by those in the Silver Lake College community, whether it be the school’s president, Chris Domes; faculty, staff and students; or the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, the order that sponsors the school.
“Helping others is what we do at Silver Lake College. If someone needs help, we will help them,” he said. “With our program, it’s first and foremost about life lessons – our core values are compassion and community; basketball comes second.”
At the end of the day, though, Budervic said, the team’s New York trip was all about Tyler.
“He’s the hero here,” Budervic said. “He’s the one we all should try to be like in our lives – doing whatever you can to help others. He’s just an absolute hero.”
Wideman writes for The Compass, newspaper of the Diocese of Green Bay.