When Fortuna High School football coach Mike Benbow bent down to speak with Bailey Foley last Thursday, it wasn’t clear to him if his senior running back knew who he was.
“I reached in and said, ‘Hey, we are going to bring you another medal,’” Benbow said. “I don’t know if he really knew it was me. It was the first time he spoke since I saw him on the sideline.”
“On the sideline” was Aug. 25, when the Huskies were in Santa Rosa to play Cardinal Newman. Late in that game, Foley, a standout two-way player, complained of cramps, began having seizures and was rushed to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital. He was put into a medically induced coma. A portion of his skull was removed to help take pressure off of his swollen brain. He suffered a stroke. He’s been hospitalized ever since.
He’s now at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in Oakland, where he is in therapy daily to learn how to walk, speak and swallow. His parents, Tara Johnson and Sage Foley, have been at their son’s side for months.
And while Foley is physically in Oakland, he has been an emotional fixture for the Huskies in their most remarkable season.
Team captain and senior J.B. Lewis carries Foley’s jersey to midfield before every game for the coin toss. Foley’s helmet is on the Fortuna sideline throughout every game. Foley is in the Huskies’ prayers, literally and figuratively.
But when he went down, it was not assured the Huskies would play on. So devastating was Foley’s condition and the impact on his team that there was some soul searching in the hours and days after Aug. 25.
“When his mom showed up at the hospital, I was in charge of him,” Benbow said. “It was really, really hard.”
Benbow has been teaching and coaching for nearly a quarter century. He’s a Fortuna grad. He’s been head coach for 10 years. But seeing Bailey Foley stricken cast a pall of doubt over all of it.
“I drove from Santa Rosa trying to figure out what is appropriate, what should be done,” he said. “There is no rule book on how you should handle this.”
“I really, honestly, questioned if I wanted to coach again,” he said.
The players met at Lewis’ house. That week, one player walked away from the sport.
“It was understandable, it really was,” Lewis said of the departure. “It was a near-death situation. It brought up the questions and things that often you kind of push away. Talking about it helped.”
Lewis said to see a teammate and friend go down was terrifying.
“We had no idea what was happening. It was scary, it really was. Those of us who prayed, prayed,” he said. “It was a life-changing moment. You really saw how fragile we can be, in a way.”
And the players talked about that. They also talked about how to carry on without Foley while also keeping him with them.
“He went 100 percent each play. He would fly around each play,” Lewis said. “He was one of those guys who is a great competitor, a great athlete. He’s always been what coach Benbow would call one of the ‘dudes.’ He was kind of a stud on the field.”