Former Northern State Player Matt Hammer Remembers Don Meyer
Former Northern State head coach Don Meyer was a coach, mentor, husband (to his wife, Carmen), and friend.
Meyer was especially close to one of his former players and coaches, Matt Hammer. Hammer played for Coach Meyer from 2002-2006, and served as a student assistant in 2006-2007, and graduate assistant from 2008-2010. (He is now an assistant coach at Sheridan Junior College in Wyoming). His experience as a player and coach is unique.
And it all starts with practice, and where the average fan doesn't often get to watch team's do the dirty work. Hammer draws up what it was like to be in the gym with Meyer and his teammates.
"It was non-stop learning. Coach would stop us all the time, and he would teach you. Practice was always intense with a lot of fundamentals. We would have hour-long practices the morning before games and go at the same intensity as days we didn't have games. It was competitive, and Coach Meyer wasn't going to let you not give less than what you were capable of."
Meyer always came to practice juiced, and gave his team energy to feed of him. Meanwhile, in games, everybody's eyes often flocked to the sideline where they saw Meyer's shadow being a teacher to his great teams.
"You could always hear him, and you could always pick his voice out from the crowd. A lot of people from outside of the Aberdeen community weren't able to see him coach on a regular basis, so anytime we would go on the road, like Augustana for example, I'm sure people would see him on the sideline yelling all the time, and think, 'this guy is crazy.' But the thing about Coach Meyer was he was always teaching. He was always trying to get the best out of you. Yeah, he was definitely loud at times, but he was never degrading. It was always constructive criticism," tells Hammer.
When the Wolves were in a time-out, or in the huddle, Meyer was never too high when his team was playing well, or too down when the team was playing poorly. He was even keel, and Hammer says he always knew what to expect.
"It was great because it kept us calm. It never seemed like anything rattled him. We left the huddle, and knew what we had to do and he prepared us."
When Hammer graduated from playing under Meyer, his learning didn't stop, either. He stood alongside his mentor, watching his coach's demeanor on the sideline.
"Be ready because he was always on top of things. He didn't let anything slip through the cracks. As a young coach trying to learn, I always wanted to know what he was thinking. So, I asked him a ton of questions, but it would always end up with him asking me the questions. I definitely don't think it was him trying to learn from me, but him trying to get me to learn how to think on my own when it came to coaching. He was always looking for a teachable moment, making those around him better," explains Hammer.
On a lighter note, Hammer enjoyed being in the office and hearing Meyer joke around with his dry sense of humor, and witty one-liners.
While Meyer was known for his success on the hardwood, a devastating car accident in 2008 showed why life is so precious. Hammer was coming over a hill with the sun shining brightly in his face. Meyer's silver Toyota had drifted into the opposite lane, and a semi-truck collided with him. When Hammer got to the scene of the accident, he was the furthest car back, and wasn't able to see whose car was in the accident. Debris was all over the lane, and luckily, he was able to put the car in park. When Hammer and another graduate assistant were able to get out of their car, each of them was able to see that Meyer's car was the only vehicle with serious damage. The frightening part for Hammer and the rest of the team is the fact that Meyer didn't say much, and each of them couldn't tell or see exactly what was wrong with Coach because of how he got positioned in the wrecked vehicle. So, they called 911, and stood around Meyer saying prayers. Time was ticking really slow as Hammer watched his mentor suffer in pain.
"It felt like it we were standing out there for days. Being in the middle of the country, the ambulance had a long ways to get to the scene. I was definitely scared and in shock, just thinking about what might happen to one of the biggest mentors in my life."
A doctor from Marshall who was on his way back home from visiting family saved the day when he came up to the scene of the accident.
"He arrived, and checked coach's vitals. He calmed us down, and told us coach is going to be fine," tells Hammer.
Meyer survived the accident, and weeks later had to have part of his leg amputated. In fact, the first words Coach Meyer communicated were the words he scribbled down on paper, 'when can I coach again?'
Hammer visited his longtime coach and friend in the hospital a week later, and Meyer gave him two important life lessons.
1. No matter how bad you think you have it, somebody else always has it worse.
2. The grass is always greener around the sewer. This means, you may want to be somebody else or have what they have, but they might not have it as good as you think they do.
When Meyer did get back on the sideline in his wheelchair, he made history on January 10, 2009 winning his 903rd game, and passing Bobby Knight as college basketball's all-time winningest coach. (Duke's Mike Krzyzewski later passed Meyer).
Hammer shares that his coach's accident seemed to open Meyer up to his players on a more emotional level.
"I noticed he was a lot more open to you. He would pray for you and tell you how much he loved you visited him (after the accident). That was what was great about Coach Meyer, no matter how big of a surgery he just came out of, or how much pain he was in, every time he prayed with you, he was always praying for you, never for him."
Meyer was unselfish, and consumed with making others better around him. When he would grab Hammer's hand, and pray for him, it was in times when he was going through life's hardest times.
"His job was to make others better. The last four years when he wasn't coaching, he and his wife, Carmen, traveled to all over the country to help others improve. His passion was great, not just for basketball, but for life and seeing people develop," says Hammer.
Meyer passed away on early Sunday morning. He finished coaching with 923 wins at three schools, Hamline, Lipscomb, and Northern State. He won the Jimmy Valvano Award at the ESPY's in 2009. ESPN's Buster Olney wrote a book on Meyer entitled, "How Lucky Can You Be: The Story of Coach Don Meyer."
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