BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Indiana receiver Isaac Griffith kept his composure as long as possible Saturday.
It was never going to last.
He listened stoically as safety Ty Smith explained how he ignored the dire warnings from his aquatics management class and his own mother, a former lifeguard, to run back into the water and help pull his best friend out of a life-threatening rip current at Siesta Key Beach in Sarasota. He heard receiver Nick Stoner explain how he ran the fastest 500-meter sprint of his life to seek medical help. He heard his parents describe his incredibly speedy recovery as nothing short of miraculous.
After all that, of course the tears started flowing.
“These (three) guys are my brothers, I love them to death,” the 19-year-old freshman said, covering his eyes. “I always say that if you can take three warriors into battle, I’ll take those three every time.”
Without that trio of Indiana students– Smith, Stoner and Mitch McCune – Griffith probably wouldn’t have been in the Hoosiers’ team room on a crisp, blustery spring afternoon, explaining how grateful he is for a second chance at life.
His parents, Shannon and Kim, probably wouldn’t have made the three-hour drive from northeastern Indiana to the Bloomington campus to share a few laughs, shed a few tears and reflect on how their religious faith helped them cope with the near tragedy that Shannon Griffith, Isaac’s father and the head coach at Division III Manchester University, said literally put him on his knees.
Saturday was the first time Griffith, his parents and two of the three rescuers sat together to answer questions about what happened that frightening March 17 afternoon and the recovery that has Griffith on the way back to playing football. McCune, who is not a football player and had already spoken to reporters in Florida, did not attend the emotional 30-minute news conference.
But Griffith knows how lucky he is to be alive thanks to the three guys who risked their own lives to save his.
All the 6-foot, 185-pound football player wanted to do that afternoon was get to Florida’s Gulf Coast and go for a short swim in the calm, waist-high water. But when the water turned into a choppy torrent of waves with a powerful undertow, Griffith, a strong swimmer, knew he was in trouble.
McCune quickly reached out and grabbed his friend and started pulling him toward the shoreline.
When Stoner and Smith, who were already back on the safe sands of Siesta Beach, couldn’t see McCune and Griffith, they sprang into action. Stoner climbed a lifeguard’s chair and directed Smith back into the dangerous waters.
“In that situation, you’re not thinking about that,” Smith said. “That was the last thing on my mind. He was my best friend.”
Eventually, Stoner directed Smith to McCune and together they got Griffith out of the water and onto the beach and started performing CPR. Stoner, one of the Hoosiers’ fastest players, was then instructed to get an ambulance. He wound up running to a condominium across the street in record time.
“I felt like Forrest Gump,” Stoner said. “Mitch just told me to run and that’s all I really know how to do.”
Doctors later credited the quick reactions of Griffith’s friends with saving his life.
But there were still plenty of twists and turns ahead.
Smith called Griffith’s parents to tell them what had happened, and then kept them apprised of the situation until they arrived at Sarasota Memorial Hospital. Once there, Griffith’s parents were told it would be “days” before their son was brought out of a medically-induced coma. While he recovered, there were concerns about Griffith’s lungs. His parents and friends repeatedly asked supporters to pray for him to win the “little battles,” something they unwittingly were doing themselves.
“I remember hearing my uncle’s voice and my teammates’ voices when they came to talk to me,” Griffith said. “The doctors said that when my teammates talked to me, the (vital sign) numbers went through the roof.”
By March 20, Griffith was awake and breathing on his own though doctors cautioned he still was not “out of the woods.” Three days after that, Griffith, astoundingly, was discharged from the hospital and on his way home.
Today, things are starting to get back to normal.
Griffith is jogging and lifting weights as he works his way back into football shape. After Thursday’s spring practice, he stood in place and caught passes from quarterback Tre Roberson, and he hopes to be given the all-clear in time for the start of practice in August. And despite reports Griffith had been drinking before going into the water, the family said alcohol had nothing to do with the near drowning and that there has been no indication yet of any possible criminal charges.
All Griffith’s parents can say now is thanks.
“It’s hard for me to hear what these kids went through,” Shannon Griffith said as he paused to regain his composure and his wife wiped her eyes. “Like I said these three are now a part of our family.”
Isaac Griffith couldn’t imagine it any other way.
“I don’t ever take anything for granted anymore,” he said, his voice starting to crack. “I thank God every day for waking me up to that, for getting me back to football and getting me back to my friends and family.”