It was just past 11 a.m., about 15 hours after another victory on the football field, as Howard Schnellenberger pushed a wheelchair through a set of double doors at Jackson Memorial Hospital in Miami, 2,125 miles from the previous day's game in Greeley, Colo.
Schnellenberger, the head coach of the undefeated Florida Atlantic Owls, had slept only a couple of hours, having returned to his home just north of Boca Raton at 4:45 a.m. after the victory. By 9 a.m., he was driving some 50 miles south on I-95 as he does every Sunday morning to visit his eldest son Stephen, 44.
As bright sun flooded the plaza in front of Ryder Trauma Center, Schnellenberger pressed a pair of sunglasses onto Stephen's head and steered him into a quiet courtyard, parking him in the shade. He then commenced the most important coaching he would do all week.
"Put your arm out straight," Schnellenberger said.
Stephen slowly stretched out his right arm, which he cannot fully extend.
"See how high you can raise it," Schnellenberger said.
Stephen's arm inched skyward.
Schnellenberger held up his right hand, the one bearing the Super Bowl ring from the Miami Dolphins' undefeated season in 1972. He was an assistant coach on the team.
"Go a little higher," Schnellenberger said. "Can you touch it?"
Stephen pushed his hand to his father's, and smiled.
A University of Miami graduate and successful businessman, Stephen lapsed into a coma and suffered a severe brain injury after complications in surgery nearly two years ago. Born with a rare endocrine disorder, Stephen had needed frequent medical care throughout his life, but he lived normally and fully until the operation to remove a tumor in his colon went awry on Feb. 10, 2003, causing him to stop breathing for nearly 10 minutes.
Ever since, his father has managed to balance the demands of high-pressure coaching with nurturing a son whose setbacks can be life-threatening and whose daily progress is measured in centimeters and syllables, an existence none of Schnellenberger's teams -- underdogs though most of them have been -- could truly comprehend.
"I tell him all the time," Schnellenberger said, "He's tougher than any football player I ever had. He's tougher than I am."
Schnellenberger builds. He did it at the University of Miami, turning a program threatened with collapse into a perennial national championship contender, bringing the school its first national title after the 1983 season. He did it at Louisville, in five years taking the Cardinals from a 2-9 record to their first major bowl, the 1991 Fiesta Bowl.
He's doing it again at FAU, which five years ago didn't even have a team. Schnellenberger, hired in 1998 to direct football operations, solicited some $15 million to get the program off the ground. He helped design an $8.5 million athletic complex. And then he named himself coach of the team.
After going 6-15 in his first two seasons, Schnellenberger last year led FAU to an 11-3 record. The Owls became the fastest start-up program ever to earn a berth in the Division I-AA playoffs. This season, FAU has begun the process of jumping from Division I-AA to Division I-A in the Sunbelt Conference, posting a 5-0 mark in five road games.
Schnellenberger is also pursuing a state-of-the-art domed stadium on campus, and he predicts that his relatively unknown team will soon reach the heights of the other Division I-A powers in Florida -- Miami, Florida State and Florida -- contending for a national title in five years.
"Everyone kind of chuckles, asks, 'What's in that pipe he's smoking?' " said Anthony Catanese, the former FAU president who lured Schnellenberger out of retirement. "But so far, everything he has said has come to fruition."
Linebacker Chris Laskowski, who was in Schnellenberger's first recruiting class, recalled an early meeting in which Schnellenberger told his players they had more talent than his national championship team at Miami.
At the time, Laskowski thought: "This guy might be crazy."
Now, he says, he is a believer.
"Schnellenberger just instills in players and coaches the belief that we're going to be great," Laskowski said. "[He says] if you're not as talented as another player and believe you're better, you're going to be right up there competing with him.
"A lot of us just bought into that. We hear it over and over again."
Stephen is barraged with similar encouragement. Though Stephen's goals are cloudier and his timelines more wobbly, Schnellenberger's approach is, in many ways, the same. He is both a father and a coach to the core.
"When I get there, the first thing I do is come busting in the room and say, 'Hey, Steve, Dad's here,' and he'll smile. I'll get him emotionally worked up," Schnellenberger said.
"Then it's, 'Okay, now we'll have speech therapy. We're going to work hard today. Ready? Ready? Ready?! Ready?!!' That's what he responds to."
In the courtyard, Schnellenberger is direct, relentless, gruff. Stephen reacts readily to his father's booming baritone voice, albeit deliberately and often without eye contact, as it can be a strain to turn his neck.
"How many is this?" Schnellenberger asks, holding up one finger.
In a hoarse, almost inaudible voice, Stephen mouths "one."
As Schnellenberger holds out more fingers, Stephen goes through the laborious process of coughing out words, counting to 10.
"What do you want, meatloaf or chicken?" Schnellenberger asks before pushing Stephen into the cafeteria.
"Meatloaf?" Schnellenberger repeats.
Stephen shakes his head.
Stephen smiles, a trick he uses with the nurses to express assent without speaking. His father, however, wants words, not sign language.
"I got to have a 'yes,' " Schnellenberger says firmly. "If I don't get it, you don't get lunch."
With considerable effort, Stephen offers a raspy, "yes."
When they are not outside, a venue Stephen prefers to the hospital ward he has occupied for more than 20 months, Schnellenberger and his wife of 45 years, Beverlee, lift their son to a mat on the floor and help him unfurl tightly bent limbs and strengthen sapped muscles.
They routinely bathe him, dress him, feed him, brush his teeth and change his diapers. It can take five minutes to bend his leg sufficiently to squeeze his wheelchair into an elevator and over an hour to replace a diaper, given the necessity for cleanliness and Stephen's size: He is 6 feet 3, 145 pounds. His weight is up from the 118 he dropped to after an infection nearly took his life, but well below the 218 he weighed when he entered the hospital.
Schnellenberger visits his son on Sundays (before his 2 p.m. team meetings) and Mondays (a day off for the team). Beverlee comes Tuesdays through Saturdays, sometimes arriving before noon and leaving after midnight. She put 37,000 miles on their car last year.
"I'm resigned to Stephen's situation," Schnellenberger said. "It's been in God's hand now for a long time. . . . I can't allow myself to place any demands on his recovery or pretend like everything is going to be all right.
"[But] one of the hardest things is the toll it's taken on Beverlee, because she's a mom and she won't allow herself to completely turn it over to God. . . . It's a 24-hour-a-day job for her."
After every trip, they talk into a tape recorder, commenting on the day's developments. Later, they transcribe the tapes. The notes on Stephen's journey now number some 3,000 pages. Beverlee said she started the ritual the day Stephen's surgery went wrong.
"Most of my talking occurs on I-95," Beverlee said. "Sometimes I'm crying so hard I have to stop because I can't see."
Beverlee, however, said she refuses to let Stephen see her cry, even if it means wearing sunglasses to cover the tears. She believes he needs the boost of positive energy, not the burden of worry. For her, it's been something of a longstanding policy living as she has in a household of ambitious men.
When her husband was fired as head coach of the Baltimore Colts in 1974, all three sons -- Stephen; Stuart, now 43; and Tim, now 35 -- were outside playing football. She summoned them into the house and told them the news: Daddy got fired and was on his way home. He's still a great coach. They would still go to school, and they would hold their heads high. "There's nothing," she recalled saying, "to be embarrassed about."
"Our family's like that," she said during an interview in the memorabilia room of her home. "We don't give up. We don't think tragedies are things to dwell on."
Stephen was born with Multiple Endocrine Neoplasia IIB, a rare congenital disorder of the endocrine glands that carries with it a high risk of developing thyroid cancer. At 14, his thyroid gland was removed after a tumor was discovered. At 20, his adrenal glands and a kidney were taken out.
A day after his father coached the Miami Hurricanes to their stunning upset of Nebraska that gave Miami its first national title in 1984, Stephen -- who worked as a sideline volunteer during the game -- began the first of six weeks of what would prove to be successful radiation treatment for cancerous tumors found in his neck.
A cross-country runner at Pace High in Miami, Stephen later worked jobs in real estate, computer sales, insurance and mutual funds. His brother Stuart, a tight end and offensive lineman at Miami, was cut during training camp with the Washington Redskins under Joe Gibbs in 1984. Tim was an internationally known model before settling down to a real estate career near Boca Raton.
There were no indications, at first, that Stephen's colon surgery in February 2003 had not gone smoothly. After the eight-hour operation, Stephen sat up in bed and talked to his parents. The doctors pronounced the operation a success. The Schnellenbergers went home, only to be awakened at nearly 1 a.m. with a call from the hospital. Stephen had gone into cardiac arrest. By the time they arrived, he was in a coma.
The Schnellenbergers plan to take Stephen to Saturday's game against Louisiana-Monroe at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. They will let him sit on the sideline before the start, then move him to the part of the park that accommodates wheelchairs.
They also hope to transport him in the coming weeks from Jackson Memorial to a facility closer to their home, making visits much more manageable. Stephen has earned the right to move. Schnellenberger says Stephen's doctors have been awed by his progress.
Schnellenberger, too, is occasionally awed. Hanging in the back of his office -- to the right of four painted game balls from the University of Miami, the Dolphins and Louisville -- is a poster taped to a door.
In shaky, childlike scrawl is the message:
Stephen gave that to his father for his 70th birthday this past March. His father figures his son received considerable help from the nurses, but he showed it off, nonetheless, with pride.
"Every day I see him, I say, 'Stephen, you're my hero and you're your dad's hero, too,' and Stephen starts crying," Beverlee said. "I say, 'Stephen, there are big strong football players, but nobody is as strong as Stephen Schnellenberger.' Nobody could go through what Stephen has gone through in life and still be living and fighting.
"He fights every day to come back, to talk and to walk, to throw his legs over the bed. He'll jabber and we'll have no idea what he's talking about. He's very, very strong. He'll never give up."