Sept. 19, 2007
DeKALB, Ill. - Northern Illinois head men's soccer coach Steve Simmons will relive great wins on the field, and tragic losses off of it when he takes his Huskie team to Oregon State this weekend for the Zaher/Hensor Memorial Tournament.
Simmons was the associate head coach of the Beavers in 2002, a season defined by the deaths of OSU men's soccer players Joe Zaher and Stephen Hensor, for whom the tournament is named.
Hensor was diagnosed with liver cancer shortly after the 2001 season. On Aug. 30, 2002, the same day as the Oregon State season-opener, Hensor succumbed to the disease.
"We get so focused on preparation and competition, that it was a real eye-opener when one of our own passed on," Simmons said. "After something like this, you see the world a little bigger."
Simmons had become close with Hensor, a native of Exeter, England, because both were fans of the same English soccer team.
"Stephen and I both supported Liverpool, so we'd talk about the team, and we'd talk about England, where I lived for a while," he said. "Though he was a sophomore, he was still far away from home, and I think the conversations brought him closer to England."
After Hensor's death, Simmons helped guide the Beavers to a 13-8-0 season, and the program's first berth to the NCAA College Cup, but credits his players for the success.
"Those boys really dedicated that year to Stephen." he said, recalling the team's upset victories over No. 12 Tulsa and No. 6 California.
The melancholy celebration of the team's banner year would be further subdued by a second gut-wrenching loss. Dec. 1, eight days after the team's final match of 2002, Pac-10 Freshman of the Year Joe Zaher was a passenger in a car that slid into a light pole on a rainy morning in Las Vegas. Initial indications were that Zaher's injuries were not life-threatening.
"At the time, it was more about 'Can we save his leg?'" Simmons said. "We weren't even thinking about Joe passing on, but maybe Joe redshirting and taking eight or nine months off."
After seven hours of surgery, Zaher died of injuries sustained in the accident, becoming the second Oregon State player to pass away in less than 100 days.
"Joe was one of the kids I coached in the (Olympic Developmental Program) out west," Simmons said. "I had a great relationship with Joe and his family."
Simmons still vividly recalls his last encounter Zaher.
"I'd give him a hard time and wind him up," he said. "After he got the award I told him 'I don't know how this happened, but you got Freshman of the Year. I can think of at least three or four freshman better than you.' That was the last time I ever saw him."
Simmons will relish in memories like that one when he returns to Lorenz Field with the Huskies for the Zaher/Hensor Memorial Tournament.
"This is my first time being a part of it, and it's a big deal on a personal level for me," Simmons said. "(OSU head coach) Dana Taylor has done a wonderful job taking tragedies and paying tribute to those lost through the game. They wouldn't want it any other way."