Coach Brian Brandtner recently returned to Meridian after five days out sick to find about 30 messages from staff and students waiting for him. “Coach, it's not the same without you,” one read. “We miss you,” read another. “I love it here, I do,” Brandtner reflects, “I was off for five days, and I missed it. You know, there’ve been a lot of places I’ve been in my life where I couldn’t wait to get out of there. If you told me I‘m gonna be gone for five days, I’m high fiving, ya know? [but] I missed it.”
Meridian is a special place for Coach Brandtner, and he’s not one to mince words or waste time with empty compliments. He’s no “yes man,” but if you’re doing right by him and others, he’ll let you know. He enjoys the camaraderie between faculty and administration at Meridian, something that not every school can claim. It’s become a place where even a routine meeting can dissolve with a bit of small talk and humor. Then there are the students.
“I love these kids,” he tells us, and from the warmth in his voice, you can tell there’s no doubt about it. Coach Brandtner explains that the students at Meridian have a unique talent for detecting what’s genuine and what’s not with their teachers. That’s why Brandtner believes in being as candid as possible; If you can demonstrate your own openness, you're more likely to receive that openness in return.
Coach has a reputation for being somewhat of a sage, someone that students of all ages come to with academic and personal issues. Quite a few of the students we talked to revere him as a father figure. It doesn’t surprise us; After all, Coach Brandtner is a dedicated dispenser of hope. “Give them hope,” he stresses, “Give them hope. So many of these kids have such a tunnel vision of what life is.” The only way to widen this vision, Coach says, is to show them what’s out there so they can find their success.
Hope as a prescription is something Coach Brandtner had to be an eyewitness to himself. When he was 16 years old, he survived an accidental 125-foot drop from a cliff at a quarry near Trail of Tears State Park in Missouri. As he lay on the railroad tracks below, his body shattered, trying not to choke on his teeth, little did he know then that this was far from the end, but instead, the beginning of a strange and unexpected change in his path.
Thirty-nine surgeries and a mess of grief later, he found himself watching a high school basketball game one night with his girlfriend at the time. For a while, he had wondered, why me? He had always stood up for others; why had this happened to him? “I was mad at everything,” he admits. On the way home from that Friday night game, he was questioning the decisions made by the coaches and talking strategy when his girlfriend turned to him and said, “You need to coach basketball.”
“It was like a cartoon. A light bulb went off,” Coach Brandtner recounts, “I pulled the car over…I had no idea what I could do with my life… I’m not going to put on a suit and tie and sit in a cubicle somewhere. What can I do?” The next day he went to his high school coach and asked to volunteer. Soon after, he applied to college at SEMO.
Though there were dark days, he wouldn’t take back his experience. It’s the vehicle that brought him to this point. Teaching PE, he can see and interact with every student as they come through the gym. When there’s a fight, he’s usually the first one there. He cuts off problems on the gym floor before they move into the hallways and classrooms through the relationships he builds with students.
“I mean, a lot of these kids have a skillset in one way or the other. Most just don’t have that experience, you know, and most just don’t even think it’s attainable,” Coach tells us. He wants his students to know that “Each and every one of you can make it, and there’s a ton of ways to do it.”
It’s no wonder Coach Brandtner was missed so much during his short absence. He’s a constant reminder to students and colleagues that we all have a skillset; all that’s required is its application. And, yes, while the grass is always greener somewhere, if we’d only focus on the advantages we know we have, then it doesn’t matter which advantages we’re without. And those are words we won’t take lightly from a man who found a way to not only survive a 125-foot fall, but to thrive in the years that followed.