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Playing to Remember

A car accident involving members of the Texas A&M-Commerce women’s basketball team took two lives and reshaped many more

La’Tisha Hearne (left) and Zenobia Winbush (right) carry reminders of their teammates. JARED HORN PHOTO

There is nothing remarkable about the swath of Paris, Texas, where Farm to Market Road 1497 bisects Texas State Highway Loop 286: two lanes cross four others; a thicket of power lines bears a few flashing lights; ratty patches of grass rest at each corner; a yellow sign with black letters hangs on a chain-link fence capped by barb wire, which guards the row of storage units in the distance. Here, at this unremarkable junction, four young lives would change forever.

Aubree Butts, 20

Two hours before sunset on June 3, Texas A&M University-Commerce basketball player La’Tisha Hearne pointed her black Nissan Maxima south, crossed four lanes and a wide median and was just a few feet from ensuring that no one in the car would ever remember that intersection. Then a green semi barreled into the right rear door.

The car spun into the grass. Hearne and her teammate, Zenobia Winbush, who was riding shotgun, were concussed and bruised and terrified. But their teammates in the backseat – one who felt little choice but to dance when she heard the first notes of any Beyonce song and another who enjoyed few things more than watching Kevin Durant play basketball – died.

The other Texas A&M-Commerce players would soon learn, through text messages and frantic phone calls, that Aubree Butts, 20, and Devin Oliver, 21, were gone. Losing two teammates in an accident when a third was behind the wheel yields complicated emotions, but the team didn’t shatter, and Hearne refused to run away. Instead, she and her teammates were able to work through their grief and thrive – not because they forgot the ugly thing that happened at that ugly intersection, but because, with every drop of sweat and every free throw, they remember.

Devin Oliver, 21

After winning only seven games last season, the Lions won twice as many this year. “They rallied around it more than fell apart,” Texas A&M-Commerce first-year coach Jason Burton says. “They want to play for them.”

Hearne says the two women who lost their lives felt more like sisters than teammates. Winbush, Butts’ roommate, had become a de facto member of the Butts family. Winbush’s parents live more than 300 miles away from campus in San Antonio, so she would often travel home with Butts for holiday breaks rather than making the long trip. On the court, Butts provided ample energy and defense. Oliver was a precise shooter, averaging 10.3 points per game as a junior in 2013-14. Both were going to be starters on this year’s team, Burton says.

Burton had yet to coach a single game for the school when his phone rang that June evening – a fellow coach heard that some of Burton’s players might have been involved in a wreck in Paris, about 40 minutes north of Texas A&M-Commerce’s campus. Only two months into his new role, the new coach’s job was about to expand well beyond the confines of recruiting trips and managing timeouts.

One by one, Burton tried to call the four girls. None answered. Burton was en route to a Paris hospital when he learned he had lost two players whom he had already begun to admire for their good grades and enthusiasm in practice. When Hearne was released from the hospital, she returned home with family, but Winbush’s parents were too far away. So on the night she lost two of her best friends and nearly lost her own life, she stayed with her new coach.

“They’ve endured a lot, being in the car and seeing what they saw,” Burton says. “There is not anything you can say to them in that instance that makes it OK, but you’ve got to be there for them.”

After the accident, Winbush never doubted she would return to school for her junior season. Butts, Winbush told herself, would insist that she keep playing. For Hearne, though, the one who nudged the car out into that complicated intersection – one where 40 people had been injured and seven killed since 1995 and transportation officials placed additional stop signs only a week after Hearne’s accident – the decision wasn’t so simple. She dropped out of summer classes and returned home to nearby Richardson, Texas, unsure if she would be able to return to campus or the gym or the locker room. Before the fall semester began, the senior made her decision.

“Coming back was my way of remembering,” Hearne says. “Constantly being around something they enjoyed helped me to finally cope with the situation.”

Coming back was only the first step. There were group counseling sessions, tears and a void to fill: The six players returning from the previous year’s team had to learn how to support and trust each other again. Senior Abigail Leaupepe-Tele, Hearne’s roommate, dropped the phone when she learned of her teammates’ deaths. In the wake of the accident, Leaupepe-Tele struggled even to look at Hearne, the constant reminder of who wasn’t there.

Burton gradually learned how and when to ask about the fallout from the accident in the frequent one-on-one chats he holds with his players. Hearne leans on him and a network of friends, family and counselors who make themselves available to her at all hours. When guilt or trauma overpower her, she can call Burton – even at 3 a.m. – and he will answer. Hearne and Winbush grew closer, too, bonded by the harrowing few seconds that were nearly their last. 

“I was always going to be there for her,” Winbush says. “We went through the same thing.”

Butts’ and Oliver’s pictures were framed and hung in the locker room, and each player touches the photos before they leave to take the court. For Hearne, the memories those images evoke linger during games. She played for them, she says, and she played well. She led the team in rebounding and finished fourth in scoring.

But basketball is not Hearne’s escape; it’s no refuge, she insists. Instead of losing herself in the next play or the fatigue, she makes herself remember. During games, she kept a tiny ceramic heart – speckled green for Butts, purple for Oliver – tucked into her left sock. She reached down to touch it before every free throw. Her friends are with her, gently pressing against her ankle, with every step.

Winbush wears a green bracelet – Butts’ favorite color – in her hair during games. Winbush says she pushes herself harder on the court because she has been given a second chance, because she could have been sitting in the backseat, not the front.

“It just made me appreciate life,” she says. “You don’t know when it’s going to be taken from you.”

About Champion

Champion magazine goes behind the headlines and beyond the scoreboards to celebrate the unique connection between Americans and college sports. Champion is published by the NCAA.

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