Copyright 2017 Gannett Company, Inc.
All Rights Reserved
"Get down!" somebody screamed.
The airplane holding the Michigan basketball team skidded down the runway at Willow Run Airport in Ypsilanti, Mich., on Wednesday, passing over a road, blasting through a chain-link fence, crashing into a ditch and coming to stop before a bunch of trees.
The flight attendant opened the emergency door, and Michigan coach John Beilein went down the slide. As others ran for safety, Beilein stayed at the bottom of the slide, helping people, picking up children, staying remarkably calm.
"I knew there were a lot of little kids coming out," Beilein said Thursday as a dramatic, emotional and surreal 24-hour span that started with a plane crash in Michigan ended with a 75-55 victory against Illinois in the Big Ten tournament in the nation's capital.
"They needed help at the bottom of the slide. We didn't know if the plane was going to go up (in flames)."
Those on the plane say the engines were roaring, running hard, the turbines humming and making strange noises. The air smelled like jet fuel and burnt rubber.
But Beilein stayed at the bottom of the slide until everybody got out of the plane. He didn't feel any adrenaline. "Just work," he said. "How do we get this done?"
The engine made a strange sound, a loud pop. "I thought there was an explosion," Beilein said. "Thank God there wasn't. Then we all got clear after that."
Beilein quickly turned it into a life lesson, a lesson that goes way beyond the basketball court. How do you respond to adversity? Real adversity? How do you handle pressure? How do you react?
"This is the way life goes sometimes," he said after picking up his 210th career win with the Wolverines, becoming the winningest coach in program history. "You've got to respond positively to whatever comes your way. And boy did they."
The Wolverines showed resilience and courage just getting on another plane to get to this tournament -- remember, these are college kids.
Then they came out and showed an inner strength on the court against Illinois.
"It was remarkable execution," Beilein said of the way his team exited that plane. "If our team could execute that like, we would never lose a game."
'This isn't real'
Halfway down the plane, it was a different scene.
Mark Donnal, a senior forward, was sitting in the exit seat on the aisle, listening to a podcast. When the plane came to stop, he smelled burnt rubber and heard a clicking noise in the engine.
"Adrenaline kicked in at that point," he said.
He jumped up and helped a teammate open the emergency door exit. "I was able to pry the door open and try to get everybody out," Donnal said.
The players walked onto the wing, jumped off and ran. "I looked around," sophomore forward Moe Wagner said. "I was like, this isn't real. I could see the fear in some eyes. I realized, oh my God, this is real. You can't explain that. It's crazy."
The players ran through a field.
"As a 19-year-old naive kid, you think this plane behind you is going to blow up," Wagner said. "So I ran. I ran as far as I could."
Big man, big help
Donnal left his cellphone on the plane. Once he was safely outside, he grabbed somebody's phone and called his mother.
"It was very windy and it was hard to hear," Susie Donnal said. "He said, 'We were in a plane accident and everybody was fine.'"
She quickly heard about how her son opened the emergency exit. "He used his super-human strength," Ron Donnal said about his son, cracking a smile. "Then he started throwing people out."
It didn't really surprise Ron Donnal. "Probably since he was 13 years old, we have been trying to get him into an exit row, because his legs are so long," he said. "He just doesn't fit."
Mark Donnal, who's 6-9, said he has flown hundreds of times, which means he has heard the exit row speech countless times.
"He's heard that speech more than anybody," Ron Donnal said. "He has always been tall, so we would try to sneak him into the exit row. So when you are real young, maybe you pay attention."
Players wanted to go
The Wolverines decided there was no way they were going to travel Wednesday night. Beilein gave the team the option to forfeit the game and stay in Ann Arbor.
The players decided to play.
"Last night, we got to a hotel in Ann Arbor," Beilein said. "We did our pregame walk-through and film. I walked in there and said, 'We aren't doing this. We have to let time take care of this a little bit. We had a couple of counselors at school come visit them. We're not talking basketball till tomorrow.'"
Michigan athletics director Warde Manuel gave everybody the option of staying in Ann Arbor. A couple of staff members did not get back on the plane. Beilein's wife also stayed in Ann Arbor.
"We do have a couple of people, mainly staff, who decided not to come because they were shaken up," Manuel said. "We offered that same thing to our student-athletes. If they did not want to get on a plane, we would honor their request."
The team flew to Washington on Thursday morning, using the Detroit Pistons plane. The Wolverines walked right onto the plane. Some wore headphones. A lot of them napped.
The players arrived at Verizon Center about two hours before the delayed tip-off.
During warm-ups, the Wolverines came together in a circle, jumping up and down, shoving each other and screaming together: "Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!" They were smiling and laughing and looked incredibly loose.
The players wore practice uniforms and an assortment of shoes, because their normal stuff was still on the plane with the National Transportation Safety Board conducting an investigation.
"I could tell we were going to be ready," Beilein said. "But it was very quiet everywhere. I wasn't going to shout at them, 'What's wrong with you guys? It's a big game!' It wasn't a big game anymore."
Game was a relief
That was more of a relief than anything else.
"We were excited to get back on the court, get everything back to normal," senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said after scoring 19 points.
The Wolverines played extremely well, considering everything, running off with the win.
"It's made them so resilient," Beilein said. "They played connected today like they were connected yesterday when we got a hundred-some people off an airplane it seemed like in two minutes."
After the game, the players doused Beilein with water, celebrating his milestone win.
But they were celebrating something far bigger.
"It was fun," senior guard Zak Irvin said. "He's done so much for this program. He's developed players from the time they've been here. You can use me as an example. But he's a great guy, definitely with the X's and O's. He's taken our team to the next level."
And Beilein showed them something far more important than basketball, a lesson, perhaps, those players took to the court.
"It wasn't about X's and O's," Wagner said. "It was more about the heart and toughness and the willingness for this group to stick together."
Long after Thursday's game, Beilein stood in the hallway, talking to reporters. "I don't know what to think right now," he said, and it seemed like he suddenly realized that his team would play Purdue on Friday. "I'm not thinking about Purdue yet."
Beilein said he didn't become emotional until after the game. "When I saw my daughter," he said, choking up, as his eyes glazed over.
Like somebody who suddenly realized what had happened.
Seidel writes for the Detroit Free Press, part of the USA TODAY Network.
Read More of Today's AB Headlines
Subscribe to Our Daily E-Newsletter