SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Digger Phelps walked into Elkhart General Hospital late on a Sunday night in August and heard his star player David Rivers say, "I think I'm going to die."
Rivers had lost three pints of blood the night before in an automobile accident in which the frame of the windshield ripped a 15-inch gash across the middle of his body. There was every reason to believe Rivers might be right. But no one told Rivers that.
"I told him, 'You're going to be fine. I called your family. . . . Everything's going to be fine,' " Phelps recalled the other day.
The word "basketball" never was mentioned until a week later, after Rivers had been moved from the hospital to the university infirmary. When Phelps arrived for another visit, he found an object made for dunking that wasn't a doughnut and, eyes wide, said, "What's this?"
After an unpredictably quick recovery, David Rivers had more on his mind than resting. He asked for textbooks to begin catching up on the first week of class, then shocked many here at Notre Dame by announcing his goal is to be in uniform by Nov. 1 to continue his career as point guard for the Fighting Irish.
And Friday afternoon, Rivers took a major step back into ordinary life by moving from the infirmary to his dormitory room--two weeks ahead of schedule.
When reminded that doctors initially had said he might not play basketball this season, Rivers started his first public discussion of his ordeal by saying, "That has changed. Nov. 1 is my goal for returning. It may wind up being Nov. 8 or maybe later. But I will return. I don't think you can count me out, in terms of being there. I know what I'm capable of doing. I may not be there at the beginning, but I'll be there."
There was no sense telling Rivers he can't make it back in time for the season opener against Indiana (Dec. 2) or that basketball shouldn't mean as much to him after the near-fatal crash a few miles from here in the early morning hours of Aug. 24. That crash left former teammate and driver Ken Barlow only slightly injured and Rivers in grave danger after their van swerved to avoid a head-on collision, then went off the road and into an embankment.
"I may appreciate basketball more, simply because I know what the outcome of the accident could have been," Rivers said, sitting near an open door that looked out on the basketball court. "I still love basketball. I love it now and I always will. Nothing much has changed as far as my attitude toward the game."
But Rivers' life will in no way be the same.
When the accident occurred, Barlow and Rivers were driving from campus to Elkhart, Ind., where they and other Notre Dame players were working during the summer for a catering service. Barlow had been chosen in the first round of the NBA draft by the Los Angeles Lakers (and subsequently traded to the Atlanta Hawks, who last weekend approved his signing with an Italian League club in Milan), and Rivers' future was even brighter as he prepared to enter his junior year and improve upon last year's 17 points per game.
An oncoming car, Barlow told police, changed all that. Barlow said he swerved the van to avoid the car, then lost control as the van crossed the center line and went airborne. Neither was wearing a seat belt, but Barlow escaped with a gash on one leg. Rivers tumbled far away from the van and had to wait for Barlow to find him.
They prayed together. "Kenny got to me in a great hurry and just kept pushing me on," Rivers said. "Kenny was talking to me and he kept me in a positive frame of mind. At one point, I didn't know what to think. Really, I thought I was going to die. But right away, Kenny erased that thought from my mind and kept me thinking positive. Even when he went to get help, I stayed in that frame of mind."
Barlow took his shirt and covered Rivers, then ran to a nearby farmhouse to call an ambulance. And Dr. Kirby Gross performed a 3 1/2-hour operation. That's where Gross and Dr. William Johnson found what Phelps calls, "a series of near misses." The rim of the windshield cut so cleanly, it looked like the work of a surgeon, and it just barely missed Rivers' heart and kidneys. There was no internal damage, the doctors said.
(Police said tests showed neither Barlow nor Rivers had used drugs or alcohol before the accident.)
Phelps remembered how shaky he felt going in to see Rivers after the surgery. "I walked into the intensive-care unit and David was lying there unconscious," Phelps said. "That was tough on me, because being an undertaker's son, I'd seen that scene before, when you see somebody lying on a slab with a sheet halfway over his body. I wanted to see his eyes open, that's all I wanted to see. So Dr. Gross said, 'David, open your eyes, Coach Phelps is here.' And when he opened his eyes, he looked at me."