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'I thought I was going to die': Barnesville rallies around football coach after stroke

Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand David Samson / The Forum

Barnesville, Minn.

Barnesville High School football coach and principal Bryan Strand, 45, spent the first few moments of Monday's hospital visit from six of his football players explaining what happened to him. He told them he had a stroke.

With his 8-year-old son in the hospital bed with him at Essentia Health in Fargo, Strand told his players how his right hand and the right side of his face were numb and he was having trouble remembering names.

Then, it was on to business.

"Who lifted today?" Strand asked Sam Askegaard, Firmian Elsholz, Jackson Wahl, Hunter Zenzen, Connor Morse and Matt Samuelson.

Not everyone raised their hand. The ones who didn't tried to explain why.

"Well, I guess if you want to hand Hawley the title, you don't have to lift," Strand said.

The players hung on his every word, as Strand talked about the upcoming football season.

In the two days following, Strand would go from believing he was going to die to using a cane to get to the school to discuss gun issues with students who participated in the National School Walkout, a nationwide protest against gun violence.

"I was totally fine and it just changed in a matter of seconds," Strand said. "I don't have a lot of bad habits. I don't have a lot of vices, but it just makes you evaluate life. Things can happen pretty dang quick, but I have the right people around me."

On Saturday, March 10, Strand was with his wife and some friends playing bingo in Rothsay, Minn. They were standing in a group trying to decide if they wanted to stay out or go home when Strand started feeling dizzy. He had to sit down.

He hated the fuss and the fact people nearby probably thought he was drunk when he had one drink the whole night. He said he wanted to go outside for fresh air, but couldn't stand. He sat in the passenger seat of his truck, but then started vomiting. The group decided, whether Strand liked it or not, they were taking him to the hospital.

Strand's wife, Meg, told him he was going in and out of consciousness in the car, as the right side of his body went numb. Meg pulled the car over and called an ambulance. When they got to the hospital and Strand was doing tests, Meg, called her two sons crying. She said they didn't have to come to the hospital if they were busy. They both came immediately.

"I said, 'Mom, I'm coming. I'm coming," said Michael Strand, who is a football player at Minnesota State Moorhead and a 2014 Barnesville graduate.

At around 1:30 a.m. the family was told Strand had a stroke. A few hours later, Strand was contacting coaches to make sure they were there to monitor the weight room at the high school in his absence. He's usually at the weight room every morning at 6:45 a.m.—a ritual that partially explains why Strand had a 104-37 football record with four section championships.

"All of our athletic programs have benefited from the work he has done in our weight room," Barnesville athletic director Todd Henrickson said. "When he first started, he was working with our athletes in the mornings on his own time. Only recently has it become a paid position. He has never asked his athletes to do anything he would not be willing to do himself.

"Because he is a coach and an administrator, he has developed a much different kind of relationship with our students. He is not seen as someone simply behind a desk. He is right there with them going through all the highs and lows associated with high school athletics."

On Tuesday, it hurt for Strand to open his eyes. He was in pain, uncomfortable and thought maybe that was it for him.

"I thought I was going to die," Strand said.

Strand felt better after a procedure in which doctors looked at the back of his heart. He was sent home later that day. Less than 24 hours after being released from the hospital, Strand felt he needed to be at the high school to discuss gun issues with those students who participated in the National School Walkout.

With a cane, a "stupid cane" as Strand refers to it, Strand went to the high school to talk to students. Meg had to make him leave.

"I just wanted to be there," Strand said. "I wanted them to see me and know I was OK. Rumors spread about stuff like this. I wanted them to see me upright. And I wanted to make sure everyone was there for the right reasons. The hugs and hellos were so nice."

Strand hates that he can't coach his daughter's seventh-grade basketball team at the state tournament. He joked he may just slide onto the bench and start coaching. He hates that he can't drive for a few weeks, joking he may take the truck for a spin around the block while Meg is sleeping. He hates that he needs a cane. He hates not being with the Barnesville students.

"Obviously, we all are hoping for a speedy and full recovery for Bryan. However, knowing coach Strand's personality, it won't be speedy enough," Hawley football coach Peder Naatz said. "I'm sure he will be using this event as an example for his teams of how to deal with adversity and overcoming setbacks. As coaches and educators, we are all hoping to accomplish this."

Strand has been contacted by countless people in Barnesville, old football teammates from Mayville State and Southland HIgh School, and players he coached at Menahga and Barnesville. When Meg and Strand got home from the hospital people had cleaned the entire house and bought groceries.

He hates that he's having trouble remembering all the names of people who have reached out and visited him. But he loves that they have.

"It happened, but it won't take me down," Strand said. "Maybe it's a way to kickstart me and not take life for granted. It's very humbling that there's that many people that rally around someone when they're down. They've been my crutch to lean on. I hope I'd be the same guy doing the same thing for someone else."

Strand has occupational, physical and speech therapy in front of him. He'll be back at the high school part-time Wednesday.

As for football, what are the chances Strand won't be on the sideline next season for Barnesville?

"None," Strand said.

Chris Murphy

Chris Murphy is a sports reporter for the Forum. He's covered high school and college sports in Chicago, North Dakota and Minnesota since 2009 and, for some reason, has been given awards for doing so.

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