By Mike Phillips
Corsicana Daily Sun
They came from all over the country and locked hands and hearts together one more time, embracing each other and the moment — just one of so many on this tearful and gut-wrenching 10-year journey that led back home on Saturday, back to the Navarro College gym, where the coaches and 10 players from the Navarro 2004 team came back for a reunion and to pay tribute to Jason Trier and Pa Saar, teammates who lost their lives in an auto accident on Feb. 9, 2004.
Trier’s family was on hand and a representative from Gambia was there for the Saar family at a tribute at half-time of the Navarro-Paris basketball game. Players spoke of the great loss and the 10 tears of recovery and both Louis Orr, who was the head coach of that team, and Johnny Estelle, who was the associate coach and later became Navarro’s head coach, also spoke.
“We are here for them,” said Courtney Castro, a close teammate who made the trip from Brooklyn to be there Saturday. “They are two angels who gave up their lives for us. It could have been any of us. We are here today for them.”
Debbie Bonner, the women’s soccer coach and Associate Athletic Director, is close to everyone on that team and has kept in touch with everyone over the years. She was vital in the reunion, and all but broke down when she spoke of Trier and Sarr, calling them, “Two angels who were looking down,’’ on Navarro on Saturday.
Estelle said the men on the 2004 team have all grown and all have gone through so much, and he emphasized that they have all succeeded in their lives.
The tribute was touching in every way.
“They are in our heart,‘’ Estelle said of Trier and Sarr, “and always will be.’’ Then he turned to the crowd at Navarro and said, “We’re family, right? We’re family, right? We will always be family.’’
It was a tender and emotional gathering at halfcourt, these men who share grief and love for another in a journey that spans a decade — much more than teammates, they are cemented for a lifetime with a bond few will ever understand.
They came from all over the country and wore black shirts with the words “We Remember,’’ on the front and the names and numbers of Trier and Sarr on the back with a list of everyone on the 2004 team.
All of them said the accident — that tragic night — felt like yesterday.
They had just played a game in Paris and were on their back to Corsicana when an 18-wheeler crashed into a van carrying Trier, Sarr, Estelle and other players. Five players were rushed to the local hospital in Paris and two players were air-lifted to Dallas’ Baylor and Parkland’s hospitals.
It was a long road back that season and a road these men still walk 10 years later.
“That accident has changed all of us,’’ Orr said. “And I believe it has changed us for the better.
“How do you grow? You grow through tough times.’’
Orr — like everyone at the reunion — spoke from his heart when he talked about Trier and Sarr.
“These two young men were such great people,’’ he said. “They were men of integrity. They were smart, courteous, hard workers. They were leaders. They were men of character. If you had a son, you would want him to be like these two young men.’’
Navarro has honored both fallen players. Two trees were planted years ago in the courtyard in their names, and when you walk into the SEC gym, large pictures of the two Bulldogs hang on each side of the foyer.
Chris Gonzalez, who later played professional basketball overseas, made the trip from Illinois to be with his teammates.
“They were such great men,’’ he said. “When I was in the hospital I kept thinking I wish it had been me instead of them. That’s how good of men they were. They were the example of character and integrity. You couldn’t ask for better men.
“This is a part of us,’’ he said. “Through everything I have been through, this has been a part of me and all of us. We all had emotional issues and we are here today. It made us who we are today. None of us take anything for granted. Today is the best day of my life. I feel that way every day.’’
Orr talked about how precious life is and how you need to savor every moment, and he talked about how everyone moved on from the tragedy in their own way.
“They showed all of us we can do more,’’ Orr said of Trier and Sarr. “They showed me I can do more. I am so proud of all of these men here today and how their lives have turned out.’’
Orr wasn’t sure how anyone would respond 10 years ago.
“It was amazing how this team came together at that time,’’ Orr said. “We didn’t know if we should keep playing. After all they went through, they were a team. They bonded together like champions and they still have that bond. Through life’s many changes, we are still bonded together and will be bonded together for life.’’
That’s why they came — from New York, Tennessee, Illinois, Texas and beyond — to be there Saturday for a heartfelt and emotional reunion.
“We have stayed in contact with each other but it has been 10 years,’’ Gonzalez said. “Just to see everyone come together again, it means a lot. It’s family. We are family. It’s been 10 years and you stand here and it feels like yesterday.’’
Trier’s family was there Saturday and the reunion and tribute couldn’t have meant more to them.
“It was emotional, very emotional,’’ said Trier’s father, Dr. Ashton Trier, who made the trip from Houston with his wife and daughter. “I appreciate what they said. “And for everyone who came here today. It means a lot to see that all of the (teammates) are doing well.’’
It was Dr. Trier who pushed Orr to continue the season 10 years ago.
“The team was meeting to decide whether we would play or not and Dr. Trier came to the meeting ad asked one question,’’ Orr said. “He said: ‘What’s next?’”
Dr. Trier remembers that day vividly.
“I said, ‘What’s next,’ because I felt they should keep playing and continue the season,’’ he said. “They needed to keep playing.’’
They did, and that bond Orr talked about drove Navarro to the regional semifinals.
“It was a dark time in all of our lives,’’ Estelle said. “Coach Orr was amazing. I don’t think anyone else could have guided us and gotten us through it but him.
“It was really emotional today, seeing everyone,’’ he said. “And to see how these men’s lives have turned out. They are all successful men of character, Christian men with values. It was such a difficult time and it is great to see these men today.
“None of these men takes anything for granted. “It’s about dealing with things in life and to keep going the right way and make something positive of your life. They have all done that. I am so proud of them.’’