Union County football coach reflects on one-year anniversary of near-death experience


At Union County High School, there's a special type of conditioning for football players who misbehave: the sandtrap.

“Up and down. Roll," head coach Ronny Pruitt said. "I have em dig a hole. Bury it back up -- whatever. Just something to keep 'em going.”

On the wall next to the pit is a reminder of the Tigers' mantra.

“It is what it is," Pruitt said. "You got to do what you gotta do to get this grade. It is what it is. They’re not gonna give it to you. You got to do 'this' at practice to start. It is what it is.”

That same philosophy has guided Pruitt off the field.

A year ago, he was in a coma for 30 days.

“It got to the point where my heart and everything started shutting down.”

In March 2016, Pruitt was on spring vacation with his family in the Bahamas when he caught what he thought was a flu.

It got so bad he couldn't breathe.

Doctors there induced him into a coma and flew him back to UF Health Shands Hospital in Gainesville. He lost 70 pounds as every organ but his heart began to shut down.

“They told my wife and my son that you need to go ahead and call anybody that you want to come in and see him."

His family could only pray.

“Why am I still here? Prayer. Period.”

When he woke up from the coma, he noticed the date: April 25, 2016.

“I’m sitting here adding up my months, and I’m like, well, spring practice starts today.”

Still weak, he watched the Tigers' spring game on an iPad from his hospital bed.

He could have given up. But, he didn't.

Pruitt coached through the 2016 fall season from a golf cart with the help of his staff.

“I felt like if I didn’t come back, I was never going to come back. And I didn’t want that. Not now. I want to leave this game on my own terms.”

Pruitt said he had to come back to his team.

“You preach to these kids: work, do this, set this goal. That’s why. You can’t preach to them and expect them to push the envelope, and you sit back.”

And, his players have noticed.

“It gave me strength and motivation because he’s been in stronger positions than we have, so I put that towards the football field," junior running back Charles Strong said. "I can do better because Coach Pruitt did better. Coach Pruitt didn’t have to come out here. He could’ve stayed home, but he chose to come out here. He was that strong.”

Pruitt said he saw players who weren't leaders last season step up and fill in during his absence.

But, it's the least they could do for a coach with such a giving heart.

“My house burned down back in 2014, and he stepped up for me and my family when that happened," junior defensive lineman Maurice Strong said. "So I thank him for that. I mean, he didn’t have to do that. He did that out of the kindness of his heart. That was truly a blessing.”

Said Charles: "During school and stuff when we don’t have a lunch, he’ll take you out to subway and get you a sandwich.”

Afterall, when the time on the clock runs down, maybe there's more you can take away from the game than what happens on the field.

“I love all these kids," Pruitt said. "That doesn’t mean I don’t show them tough love. We got to prepare these kids for what they’re going to see in the future. Not all of them are going to play football. Most of them aren’t. But the lessons you learn on the football field – you can take to your job, you can take to your marriage, you can take to whatever aspect in life, and it’s work ethic and attitude.”

Note: Doctors determined Pruitt had caught a severe case of influenza (H1N1). They said he would need two years to get back to normal health, but it's been one year, and he's almost back to where he was pre-coma. Now, Pruitt is focused on rebuilding his Tigers for the 2017 fall season.

Photo credit: Robin Pruitt

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