By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – I am thrilled and grateful to announce that Everett Merrill will cover the Iowa-Rutgers men’s basketball game on Sunday in Piscataway, New Jersey for Hawk Fanatic.
Normally, I wouldn’t make such an announcement, and then also write a column about hiring a stringer to cover a game.
But the circumstances surrounding Everett Merrill’s relationship with Hawk Fanatic is far from normal.
Merrill nearly died while covering the Iowa-Rutgers football game for Hawk Fanatic on Sept. 24 in Piscataway.
And if not for the heroic efforts of two fellow journalists, he probably would have died from cardiac arrest.
A story that could’ve so easily ended tragically is now instead a story about second chances and the power of the human spirit.
It’s a story about courage and about responding under the most difficult circumstances.
It’s a story about knowing what to do when somebody’s life is on the line, and about having the courage, knowledge, persistence, and the nerve to do it.
Everett Merrill will forever be grateful to fellow journalists Ralph Russo and Tom Canavan, both of whom work for the Associated Press, for helping to save his life.
They were his first responders until the actual first responders arrived in the press box, and what Russo and Canavan did in those crucial first minutes after Merrill had lost consciousness almost certainly kept Merrill from dying on the floor of the press box.
“I’m glad to be able to see Iowa again under different circumstances this time,” Merrill said Friday afternoon in a telephone interview.
The near-death experience has caused Merrill to value and appreciate his friendships and relationships even more then had before the incident.
He and Russo are colleagues who share a love for covering sports, but they aren’t close friends.
“I didn’t really have a real close relationship with Ralph,” Merrill said. “We’d see each other several times, and several guys in the New York media market have reached out to me that maybe I under-valued their relationship. I didn’t really see them that often, but when word got out, they were one of the first to reach out to me and have stayed in touch.
“So, I think I value relationships and I treasure them now. I treasured them before. I value them even more now.”
A look back at that frightening night
Merrill was returning from Kirk Ferentz’s post-game press conference after Iowa had defeated Rutgers 27-10 when a routine situation suddenly turned frightening and surreal.
“I had just left the post-game press conference with Ferentz and some of the players and was heading back to the press box, which is across the field and up the stairs, not a terrible journey, and when I sat down, that’s the last thing I remembered until really Monday morning,” Merrill said. “I don’t remember anything of (Sunday).”
Merrill would go on to have life-saving triple bypass surgery on October 17th and was released from the hospital on October 21st.
“I feel great,” Merrill said. “I’m about a quarter of the way done with the cardiac rehab. I go three times a week for about 45 minutes. They’re ramping that up a little. My blood pressure is under control, and I’ve made some modifications to my diet.”
Two of Merrill’s favorite foods are pizza and pancakes, and to say that there are plenty of options for both in the New York/New Jersey area would be an understatement.
“It’s the pizza capital of the world here in the New York metropolitan area,” Merrill said. “But instead of having three or four slices of pizza at a sitting, maybe one or two.”
Fear and uncertainty
Those first few hours after Merrill was taken to the hospital were filled with fear and uncertainty for his family and friends.
It was similar to what the family of Buffalo Bills defensive back Damar Hamlin have experienced this week as he fights for his life after suffering from cardiac arrest in this past Monday’s game against Cincinnati.
Hamlin has shown considerable progress since being hospitalized.
“From what I’m told, there wasn’t a lot of information that the medical team could share with them as far as my condition,” Merrill said. “It really could have gone either way, much like Damar Hamlin. You want to be cautiously optimistic at a time like that. But every minute and every hour things could change either way.”
The nation has been captivated by Hamlin’s near-death experience, which occurred after he tackled Cincinnati receiver Tee Higgins. Hamlin stood briefly after making the tackle before collpasing to the ground.
The medical personnel that treated Hamlin in those precious early minutes on the field are now being credited with helping to save his life.
“Obviously, grateful and blessed,” said Merrill, who is married and the father of two sons ages 27 and 23. “They talk about right time, right place, certainly with Damar and certainly I can attest to that.
“If I had been in a car coming home from the game, or not at the game and somewhere else, we could be potentially talking about a different outcome.”
Merrill faced another obstacle when his surgery had to be pushed back 10 days after he tested positive for Covid in early October. He was put in isolation in the hospital and couldn’t have any visitors.
“I had to delay ten days without visitors and with people kind of scurrying in and out of the room, which you can understand, medical staff,” Merrill said. “But psychologically, I’m not going to lie to you, that did play a part. You’re there. You’re ready to have this done and move on to the next phase and then you’re dealt this curveball right on the eve.”
Merrill knew something was wrong when the doctors entered his room the morning before he was scheduled for surgery wearing masks and they immediately shut the door before telling him that he had tested positive for Covid.
“I’m like, oh, you’ve got to be kidding me,” Merrill said.
The good news is that he had only mild symptoms, mostly a runny nose. He never had a fever, nor did he lose his sense of smell or taste, which often happens with Covid.
Merrill had his surgery performed at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, New Jersey. He also goes there for his post-surgery therapy and considers himself fortunate to be in such good hands.
“The medical team at Robert Wood Johnson (hospital) in New Brunswick, which is about ten minutes from the stadium was just phenomenal,” Merrill said. “Not only during that incident but in the after care. I can’t say enough things about that trauma hospital.”
In awe and helpess
Mike Hlas from the Cedar Rapids Gazette was among a handful of Iowa media that covered the Rutgers football game on Sept. 24th and he saw up close what happened, from the moment Merrill lost consciousness to when he fell to the floor.
Hlas was sitting next to Des Moines Register reporter Kennington Smith in the press box when they both heard something unusual.
“It was a pretty good climb back up to the press box and we all got back to our positions in the press box as normal and went to work,” Hlas said Friday. “And then I started to hear this guy snoring and somebody else, I think it was Kennington, we looked at each other and were like, `what the heck.’
“It was startling, but it didn’t seem like it was anything like a person’s life was in danger. But somebody approached him and tried to wake him up and he just fell backwards. And that’s when you knew that something was terribly wrong.”
And that’s when Russo and Canavan both sprang into action and started performing CPR and pleading for Merrill to hang in there and keep fighting.
“I was in awe,” Hlas said. “I was also so grateful because I couldn’t be of any help, and I felt helpless. I just don’t even like thinking about what it would have been like had those guys not been able to step in.”
Merrill has spoken with Canavan and thanked him for helping to save his life, and he looks forward to thanking Russo, too.
“I have not been able to connect with Ralph. That is on my list,” Merrill said. “I hope to do that within a week or so. But I’ve talked to Tom, and I’ve talked to the Rutgers guys, and they all underscored what a vital role Ralph played in really saving my life.”
Russo wouldn’t have normally been in the press box that night, but he was there to write a story on the two star punters in the game from Australia; Iowa’s Tory Taylor and Adam Korsak from Rutgers.
“So, it was by good graces that Ralph was there, and as I understand it, he got things going with CPR until the EMTs arrived,” Merrill said.
Hlas was so touched by what he had witness in the press box that he contacted the Associated Press in New York where Russo is employed to let them know about what had happened.
“I made sure that an editor at the New York AP bureau knew,” Hlas said. “And he had told me that he had heard something. But Ralph never volunteered anything.
“The interesting thing to me is a lot of people would have made themselves out to be heroes.”
Sadly, it took a tragedy for Everett Merrill to even have an opportunity to cover the Iowa-Rutgers football game for Hawk Fanatic.
He was recommended after J.P. Pelzman, the first stringer that I had hired back in the summer, suddenly passed away in late July.
I had only spoken to Pelzman once on the telephone, and a couple times by e-mail, before he died.
His death was so sad and tragic, but then to almost lose Everett Merrill was beyond anything that I could have imagined.
Life is precious and fragile and never should be taken for granted.
Thankfully, Everett Merrill has been given a second chance at life, and he feels blessed to be with his family and friends, to go on walks, to eat a slice or two of pizza, and to cover sports again.
“I’m so grateful for a second chance and you make the most of it,” Merrill said. “You don’t always get up early to smell the coffee and the roses. But what you do do is try to be the best that you can be and instill that in others.”
As for Sunday’s men’s basketball game, Merrill looks forward doing what he loves to do, which is write about sports.
Iowa (9-6, 1-3) is coming off an emotional 91-89 win over Indiana on Thursday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in which the Hawkeyes overcame a 21-point first half deficit, while Rutgers (11-4, 3-1) whipped Maryland 64-50 on Thursday at the RAC in Piscataway, New Jersey.
Rutgers also handed top-ranked Purdue its only loss this season this past Monday in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“The Hawkeyes coming off that win against Indiana, I think they’re headed in the right direction,” Merrill said. “But I will tell you, I was at Rutgers last night for Maryland and (Maryland coach) Kevin Willard is a good coach. But boy, they just ran into a buzzsaw.”