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Back from the brink: Eastern Kentucky coach Walt Wells died; a miracle brought him back

Walt Wells' Aug. 28 'widowmaker' heart attack left him dead. Three weeks later, he's coaching again

No heartbeat.

No oxygen.

No pulse.

Frankly, Walt Wells no longer was alive; sprawled on his office floor August 28, unconscious and his heart having stopped working – first panic, and then resolve descended upon Eastern Kentucky University’s Moberly Building.

“They did CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) and I had no pulse for a while on the floor, a few minutes,” Wells, less than three weeks removed from the life-and-death event, told FootballScoop. “I guess what is considered flat-lined. They got my pulse back by the time the EMTs got here. I can see our building right now where they were, it’s maybe 200 yards max from our facility. Our staff got them there, got me to the University of Kentucky Medical Center, and they told me apparently I had a couple more episodes on the way up from there (the Richmond, Kentucky, campus to Lexington) from what I was told. They had to use the paddles, the defibrillator machine.”

What happened that Sunday morning, Wells said, “was truly in God’s hands”; what has happened since then – for Wells, for the Colonels – is nothing short of miraculous.

FootballScoop takes you inside the past three weeks of Football Championship Subdivision Playoffs-contender Eastern Kentucky, a storied program clawing its way back both historically and in this moment – with a head coach who somehow beat back near-certain death and a football team that just scored one of the program’s seminal triumphs, an seven-overtime affair on the road last Saturday at Football Bowls Subdivision Mid-American Conference resident Bowling Green.

“I think the biggest thing, and I believe what this has shown, is that the culture will overcome all strategies, good or bad,” said Garry McPeek, EKU’s football chief of staff and a veteran coach with multiple Kentucky high school state titles. “The culture Coach Wells has built and the work he’s put in, the staff has all been here together for the most part for three years; we’ve had one guy leave for another job. That’s almost unheard of at any level, that within itself helps show the culture and climate and passion, purpose and pride our core values are set on. You don’t rise to the level of the situation, but you fall back to your training.”

It was, quite literally, a fall and the scene of Wells sprawled, unconscious on his office floor, that mandated urgent action from all – most notably Peterson, the trainer and head of the Colonels’ football sports medicine who had just finished her first year in the program.

Eventually, doctors would tell Wells he had endured what’s known as the “widow-maker” heart attack; he had a 99% blockage of his left, main artery.

“I’m definitely blessed to have had this happen at our facility,” said Wells, a lifelong coach whose brother, well-regarded Tennessee high school coach Bobby Wells, has battled brain, colon, liver and lung cancer. “Our director of football ops, Thomas Bowling, came in to my office to ask me a question and saw me laying in the floor. He went down to get our trainer, and they did CPR while I was there on the floor. I didn’t have a pulse.”

McPeek remembers that timing on all fronts was critical; EKU leadership decided almost immediately that players absolutely were not going to learn of their head coach’s grave condition from an outside message.

“Our focus turned to the fact that we couldn’t do anything at UK Hospital, and it was a helpless feeling there, but we could serve these young men in our program,” McPeek said. “We felt like, the A.D. (Matt Roan) and I talked, and we felt like the best thing to do was get in front of our staff and let everybody know within our football program exactly what was happening and going on with Coach.”

The messaging, as well as the response, had all the efficiency of a game-winning drive. The first meeting took place that Sunday afternoon at 2:10; Roan and McPeek addressed the Colonels’ staff by 2:20.

At 2:30, they were in front of the team.

“We got with our leadership council, and, again, this whole situation was dealt with because of the culture Walt Wells has built,” McPeek said. “This program would have never been able to get through this hurdle, this bump of adversity, had the culture and climate not been built like it was the last three years.

“That foundation totally enveloped this situation.”

Unconscious for two days, Wells only remembered what he was doing before the heart attack and why he had awakened some 48 hours later in a hospital, medical equipment virtually covering his body.

“The last thing I remember, to be honest with you, was that I was sending a T-shirt and shoes to my mother, and I needed a box,” said Wells, who had arrived at the office to help launch his team’s Eastern Michigan game-week prep and review the previous day’s mock scrimmage notes. “The next thing I know, quite frankly, is that I wake up in the hospital Tuesday morning with wires all over me and in me. I see my wife and children sitting there.

“And I’m like, ‘Something has gone down here.’ They started filling me in on everything that had happened.”

Wells remained hospitalized for several days, the front-end of his visit with round-the-clock care in UK Medical Center’s Intensive Care Unit. His team opened its season without Wells on the sidelines Sept. 2 at FBS program; even in an eight-point loss and without their head coach, McPeek explained, the Colonels’ resilient effort marked the head man’s fingerprints on the program. He pointed directly to the work of EKU’s third coordinators – defensive play-caller Jake Johnson; offensive head Andy Richman; special teams coordinator Kevin McKeethan and co-special teams coordinator Derek Day – as what helped buoy the Colonels.

“I told them, ‘Coach Wells, as you know, would kick us in the teeth if we didn’t pick this thing up and keep rolling,’” McPeek, the program’s acting head coach through the 14-day life-changing event, said. “The kids bought in and never flinched. It’s credit to our administration, the confidence we all had in the three coordinators, to do the least disruptive thing and let us all keep doing our jobs exactly how we’ve been doing and just let me step in and kind of be the conductor just making sure right buttons were getting pushed. But this was all about the culture, our players and our coaches, that Coach Wells has built.”

Friday, September 9, EKU departed for yet another up-level contest; the Colonels had been scheduled for some time to visit Bowling Green.

That same afternoon, Wells had a crucial medical check-up. Doctors cleared him to rejoin the football program in person, and Wells hopped into a car with a friend – still unable to drive himself – and departed for the team hotel in Detroit.

Wells admitted his doctors might have had a different viewpoint had they known what was to unfold the next day at Bowling Green.

The host Falcons raced to an early lead; the Colonels took a double-digit second-half lead. Neither could hold an edge.

Four quarters would not determine a winner. Nor would the first six overtime sessions.

“We tell the guys you can’t sit there and worry about the scoreboard, it’s going to lie to you,” Wells, who led one of FCS football’s biggest turnarounds in 2021 when he guided the Colonels to an 7-4 season, said. “The only time it matters is at the end of the game when it’s no time on the scoreboard. That’s what we’ve preached here since we walked in door and started playing in the Covid year (2020).

“I think the mentality of we’ll play anybody, anywhere, anytime is something that got ingrained in them early. We’re going to play difficult schedules, good teams, and we’ve got to be ready to play or it won’t turn out the way we want it to turn out. I think that helped set that mindset that we’ll go do that.”

Further, as McPeek revealed, EKU’s players had been told they had to seize Bowling Green’s transportation if the Colonels wanted to make the return-trip home.

In the seventh overtime, Braedon Sloan’s mandatory two-point conversion attempt from the 3-yard line lifted EKU to perhaps what could stand as college football’s most improbable win this season.

With a glimpse inside the Colonels’ pre-game locker room, McPeek shared the team’s mindset.

“We talked about it before the game, here we are. We’re at a point now of no return,” McPeek said. “We’re going to burn the buses and when we leave, you burn your buses and the only way to get out here today is on their buses. We had to win the game to get their buses.

“The kids really bought in to that we’re not leaving until we win. And they were going to do whatever they had to do to finish the game.”

Life the past three weeks has somewhat transformed Wells’s view on football, life and purpose. Finishing games? Wells thought he was finished in life.

“A lot of people ask me if I saw a light, and I did not see a light,” Wells said. “My belief is that God wasn’t ready for me yet, so He didn’t tease me with a light. Some other people may say it’s because I was going the wrong direction. It’s truly, in my belief, it’s God’s hands on what happened. I can’t explain it any other way. I truly believe the quick action of Kristen Peterson is what saved my life. It’s really … I don’t know how to explain it. My wife, my kids, my friends, our staff saw it, our defensive team saw it. It looked like I was dead. I don’t know how else to say it. And I was dead there for a couple minutes.

“I think what it does is makes you appreciate everything you have, and it makes you want to take advantage of the good stuff life brings to you. Football is hard, we all know that. This makes you appreciate people you work with, players, support staff, managers; you look at them and realize how much they do love the job and care about job and love and care about people.”

Walt Wells is living proof of that approach.