The old football coach’s best buddy figured maybe miracles happen in twos, so when John Novotny Sr. returned Tuesday to the scene of his serious automobile accident in Moran, four weeks after it happened, three weeks after he was released from the hospital, a part of him hoped against hope his dog Maddie would be sitting there in the ditch, waiting for his master to bring him home.
“Funny how the mind works, isn’t it?” Novotny said from his cell phone.
He threw quite a scare into his family and friends when on Sept. 1 his car careened into a ditch, rolled, blew out all the windows and got crushed like an accordion. Maddie, a puggle, didn’t make it. Novotny did and for that he thanks KU Hospital, where he was life-flighted and spent four days in intensive care.
“We’ve got one heck of a hospital,” said Novotny, who had 34 staples removed from the back of his head Thursday.
His pal, former Kansas football coach Don Fambrough, left for the hospital as soon as he heard the news. It wasn’t until Fambrough had received word that his friend and former co-worker — Novotny joined him on recruiting trips to explain the academic side of things to families — was going to make it that he cracked a joke about him. Once he did that, everyone felt a little better about things.
“They were listing all his injuries and once they said he had a bruised brain I told them they had the wrong guy,” Fambrough said. “The John Novotny I know doesn’t have a brain.”
Actually, Novotny, a walk-on on the Kansas football team in 1956, was smart enough to know that he didn’t have the talent to get on the field, figured out another way to become involved. He started tutoring athletes. Eventually, he became the school’s first full-time academic “coach” employed by the athletic department and by Fambrough’s count, one of only four in the nation.
A sign of progress that far outweighs any gains made on the football field or basketball court: The Kansas athletic department now has 15 full-time employees in academic support, headed by Paul Buskirk. That doesn’t count the many, many tutors. What they do in athletic competition is what makes us all pay attention, makes the turnstiles spin, the dollars mount. For all but the select few who can set themselves up for life with lucrative contracts playing professionally, it’s the progress they make working with the folks in academic support that makes the biggest difference in their lives. Many come to college from under-funded school systems and under-supervised homes. Thanks to committed people like Novotny in the past and Buskirk and friends in the present, the athletes are given every opportunity to let their athletic skills open doors to happiness.
“I never went anywhere recruiting without him,” Fambrough said, pointing at Novotny during a recent visit in the Lawrence home Novotny shares with wife Audrey.
Novotny would talk to the principal and counselors, finding out what he could about the person and student being recruited. Having him in the home impressed parents.
“I wasn’t a coach and I could put my card down that said I’m the academic athletic counselor at the University of Kansas,” Novotny said. “It gave me some credibility, as opposed to assistant line coach.”
It also put him on the scene for stories he and Fambrough still tell to entertain local sports fans. Fambrough was one of the first people Novotny thought about when being transported to the hospital.
“Two things were occupying me,” Novotny said. “One was Maddie. I kept asking people, ‘What about my dog?’ Nobody really wanted to tell me. The other was I wanted to make sure somebody called Coach Fambrough because we were supposed to have breakfast the next morning.”
It wasn’t until the next day that Novotny found out Maddie didn’t make it. It wasn’t until he went back to the scene of the accident Tuesday that he finally accepted it.
“I had this picture maybe that dog was sitting down there waiting on me,” said Novotny, who credits a seat belt, airbags, officers of the law and medical personnel for saving his life. “Did you ever have a really great dog? They just get to you.”