Play for Luke, The Luke Siegel Story

Luke

words: Marla Cantrell
images: courtesy Tim Siegel and Bobby Banck
July 2015 was set to be a big month for the Tim Siegel family of Lubbock, Texas. Tim, the head men’s tennis coach at Texas Tech University was retiring on the eighth, a decision that would finally give him more time with his wife Jenny, a nurse practitioner, daughters Alex, Kate and Ellie, and son Luke, who was nine years old.

The Siegels were moving into a new house, and much planning was underway. Paint colors, furniture placement, artwork: every decision was a joy. The backyard was a blank canvas and would remain so at the request of Tim and Luke, the two guys in the family, who loved baseball and carried gear with them in the family car, just in case they’d snag a chance to play. When they envisioned the perfect backyard, it didn’t have even one scrawny tree that could get in the way of a long pass.

But on July 28, Luke was in a golf cart accident while at a friend’s house. Tim says the golf cart had been modified, making it taller and faster. Luke suffered head and chest trauma that resulted in anoxic brain injury. The term means Luke’s brain was deprived of oxygen for a time.

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What followed was a series of events that try the heart, beginning with the phone call Tim and Jenny received telling them their only son’s life was in jeopardy. Agonizing days turned into weeks at University Medical Center in Lubbock. Luke had three brain surgeries before being transferred to Cook Children’s Hospital in Fort Worth, where he spent forty-four days and had multiple surgeries.

The day Tim and Jenny were shown the MRI of Luke’s brain was the kind of terrible that knocks even the strongest people to their knees. Tim says they were told that Luke would never speak again, never use his arms or legs.

The Siegels decided to hope anyway.

Hoping and praying with them was the Bobby Banck family of Fort Smith, Arkansas. Bobby and Tim had been friends for decades by then, their roots going all the way back to the year they were eleven years old. “We played against each other in the twelve and under national doubles tournament in Lafayette, Louisiana,” Bobby says. “Jimmy Arias was my partner. He and I played against Tim and Pat Harrison. After that, Tim and I became friends. We roomed at the University of Arkansas together.”

Friendships can be fleeting, fading away as time passes and circumstances change. But that didn’t happen to Tim and Bobby, even though the two eventually lived five hundred miles apart.

In the aftermath of Luke’s accident, Bobby traveled to Texas often to be with the Siegels. Medical bills mounted, and Bobby, tennis director at Hardscrabble Country Club, prayed for a way he could use his talents and connections to help. In 2016, he and many other volunteers, including Lucy Coleman, Elise Cooley, and other members of the Hardscrabble Country Club Women’s Tennis Team, hosted a pro-am tennis event for Luke in Fort Smith, raising more than $100,000 in half a day.

In 2017, the Siegels formed the Team Luke Foundation, a non-profit that aided families dealing with brain injuries. Bobby stepped in again with his crew of volunteers and hosted the second annual Play for Luke event in Fort Smith, raising $135,000.

As Tim spoke publicly, more and more families contacted him with stories of their own. When the Siegels learned more about a similar foundation, Hope for Minds, organized after an eleven-year-old boy named JD suffered brain trauma after nearly drowning in a hot tub, they felt a kinship. Since that time, the two organizations have merged into Team Luke-Hope for Minds.

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When a child suffers severe brain trauma, the road ahead is hard to navigate. While the focus is on the injured child, the rest of the family is facing depression, anxiety, and often feelings of helplessness. Add to that the costs that multiply even for those with insurance, and the pressure can be devastating.

Tim didn’t have a place like Team Luke-Hope for Minds in 2015. Now, though, he works hard to get the word out that there is help. In fact, the non-profit has helped many families, including five from Arkansas that have received $150,000 in aid.

Which brings the story back to Bobby, who along with his group of volunteers is hosting the third-annual Play for Luke event in Fort Smith on September 22. Growing up, Bobby attended the IMG Academy Bollettieri tennis academy in Florida. When he decided to go pro, he went back to perfect his game. At that time, there was a young player named Andre Agassi, who would go on to become a gold-medal Olympian and the number one men’s tennis player in the world. “I’m probably seven years older than Andre. I remember being asked to play a match with him. He was incredible, hitting the ball a million miles an hour. We used to practice a lot. I used to take him to 7-Eleven to get Mountain Dew.

“When he was sixteen he was sensational. He has a heart of gold. He’s done incredible things for kids. He didn’t blink an eye when I asked him to come.”

There are numbers to back up Bobby’s claims. Andre’s foundation has reportedly raised at least $60 million for at-risk kids in Southern Nevada and opened the Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, a public charter that’s been in operation in Las Vegas since 2001.

Andre will show up at this year’s event shortly after eleven in the morning, at Ben Geren Park in Fort Smith. During the same time period, Luke and his family will be welcomed, the crowd cheering as Luke is wheeled to center court. Luke’s dad, Tim, will address the audience.

“All the money is going to Team Luke—Hope for Minds,” Bobby says, and Tim adds that he’s planning to speak to some of the schools in the area while he’s here. He will talk about Luke’s accident, the importance of golf cart safety, and also about faith and perseverance. At one of his lowest points, a man Tim met while outside a grocery store, said, “Just put one foot in front of the other.” That statement has become the mantra that leads Tim on.

At this year’s event, there will be live and silent auctions. One of the items offered is an hour-long tennis lesson for two with Andre and his wife and tennis star Steffi Graf, in Las Vegas, and afterward a lunch for six.

On the day of the event, there will be a one-hour adult class with Andre beginning at noon. At one, there will be a junior clinic with Andre.

New this year is an after-party that begins at 6:30pm at the Riverfront Pavilion, with cocktails and food trucks. Live music provided by JD Clayton starts at 7pm, and then the headliner, Two Story Road, which features a husband and wife duo from Nashville, takes the stage.

The addition of the after-party allows those who don’t play tennis but want to be part of Play for Luke an opportunity
to join in.

Tim is in awe of the generosity of Fort Smith. As a former Razorback, he’s always held love for this state, but since Luke’s accident, he’s grown even fonder of this place with its kind people and loving spirit. He talks about Bobby, saying he’s never had a better friend and never will. He talks about Lucy Coleman and her crew who volunteer each year to put on the event. And he talks about Luke, the little boy who was destined to be an athlete, who wanted a barren backyard that he could imagine was a ballfield.

Today, Luke communicates by blinking his eyes or moving his tongue. Three days a week, Tim takes him to Fort Worth for therapy that tests his limits. When Tim looks at his son, he still sees that athlete’s spirit, fighting for a win in a game with tough odds.

The tough odds don’t stop Tim or Luke, and Tim says they never will. He has seen so much improvement in Luke since the accident. He has seen how his son’s story has touched a multitude. He has witnessed the kindness of so many people.

There are things that break his heart daily, like the empty backyard where he should be throwing long passes to his son. He doesn’t shy away from the heartache. Instead, he uses it to reach out to others who are hurting, offering help and hope. Saying someone is here with you. Just take it one step at a time.

 

Play for Luke takes place on September 22 at Ben Geren Park and at the Riverfront Pavilion in Fort Smith. To buy tickets or to donate, visit playforluke.com.

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