By Gene Frenette, GateHouse Florida
JACKSONVILLE — When I told Billy Donovan the news Wednesday night about Jaguars quarterback Nick Foles and his wife, Tori, losing their unborn child nearly four months into the pregnancy, his voice instantly sank.
The former two-time national championship coach at Florida, now four years into his tenure with the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder, has never met Foles. But few people in the public limelight can relate to the pain Nick and Tori are going through quite like Billy and his wife, Christine, who experienced this nightmare nearly two decades ago under slightly different circumstances.
On Nov. 2, 2000, Christine was due in one week to give birth to the couple’s fourth child, a daughter named Jacqueline. But when she didn’t feel the baby move in her womb the previous day, Christine had a terrible premonition after a doctor in her neighborhood wasn’t certain if the heartbeat he detected was the child’s or hers. So she decided to get examined at the hospital.
Billy, who was packing at home to go to SEC Media Days in Birmingham, called her to check up, only to hear his wife whisper that their baby girl was gone. The doctors would then have to induce labor. Billy rushed to the hospital, watching the horror of his wife delivering a stillborn child. The umbilical cord wrapped around Jacqueline’s feet, cutting off her oxygen, leaving the Donovans to sort through unspeakable pain that took them a long time to process and heal.
Tori Foles posted on her Instagram account Wednesday the “devastating process” of having to deliver her deceased baby boy after contracting pneumonia, which forced her into labor.
“The emotions go back and forth from immense and overwhelming sadness, confusion and anger to a firm belief that God has this fully in his hands and will use this for good,” Tori posted.
All these years later, Billy and Christine Donovan can relate to all those intense emotions because the experience of losing a child will resonate with them forever.
“It was all so overwhelming,” Donovan told the Times-Union from his summer home in Crescent Beach. “You’re in the hospital, and people are giving birth. It’s a boy. It’s a girl. Then you’re in there dealing with funeral arrangements.”
The Donovans have long ago made peace with losing Jacqueline Patricia. They relied on their strong Catholic faith to not only help them cope, but also used that terrible ordeal to help others, many of them strangers, persevere through similar circumstances.
“No one ever wants to go through this. It’s always hard to accept,” said Donovan. “I hope in some way for Nick and his wife, there can be some kind of level of peace that they can grab from this. In some way, if we can lend support. … If there’s anything I can do, I would be more than happy to extend a hand.”
An awkward transition
Foles returned to work Thursday with the Jaguars, who held the fifth of 10 OTAs, and had his worst outing so far, throwing two interceptions. The 30-year-old quarterback is expected to address the couple’s ordeal with the media Friday.
On March 14, Nick and Tori Foles, along with 2-year-old daughter Lily, were all smiles at his introductory news conference. Armed with an $88 million contract and the opportunity to establish himself as a full-time No. 1 quarterback, everything felt right in his world.
But sometimes, life gets in the way. Things have now been thrown sideways.
While Foles adjusting to a new environment and getting the Jaguars up to speed offensively is important, it pales in comparison to the grieving process his family will endure. Donovan had to navigate that awkward process and needed a jolt from his former boss, ex-Providence College basketball coach Rick Pitino, to gain some perspective.
Initially, Donovan went back to practice a few days later because Christine gave it her blessing. Pitino, whose own wife lost a child several years earlier, convinced him to stay home longer. So Billy stayed home another week, returning to the Gators about a week before a Nov. 17 season opener against Florida State.
“I’ll never forget the Pitino quote, ‘What are you doing?’ I said my wife wants me to go back to work,” said Donovan. “He says, ‘Do not go back to work, stay home until she’s OK. Even if she’s telling you she’s OK, she’s not OK.’ [Pitino] went through those situations for himself, saw things. So I went back home, tried to be there for Christine and help her through it as best as I could.”
Donovan says everybody has to operate on their own personal timetable. He readily admits, despite the traumatic experience he and his wife endured, he has no right answer for couples dealing with the loss of a child. What he tries to do is relay his own experience, then let people decide the best path for themselves.
“As a husband, you try to make sense of the emotions and feelings she’s going through, seeing your wife suffer and knowing you’ve lost a child,” said Donovan. “But you don’t have the attachment of carrying a child. You’re trying to constantly put yourself in a woman’s position and understanding what they’re going through.
“There’s so many different things emotionally that we went through, the twists and turns. People in the supermarket who saw her when she was pregnant might see her later on and say, ‘Oh, what did you have?’ She’s got to explain. Then people are afraid to talk to her. It can be really uncomfortable.”
Being a high-profile basketball coach, Donovan and his wife obviously had a phenomenal support system through having so many close-knit, personal relationships through the years and, naturally, strangers knowing their story and wanting to help.
In Donovan’s case, he had the incredible coincidence of two former Gator assistant coaches, Anthony Grant and John Pelphrey, experiencing the same thing with their wives. Grant’s wife, Christina, was eight-and-a-half months pregnant in February 1999, when a rupture in her placenta caused her to bleed internally. It led to the death of their son, Brandon Powell.
Then in August 2003, after Pelphrey took the head coaching job at South Alabama, his wife, Tracy, lost their third child — John Patrick — because she had a condition known as isoimmunization, which caused her to develop antibodies against antigens from the baby. Doctors successfully delivered the Pelphreys’ second child, Grace, under the same circumstances, but the procedure didn’t work with John Patrick.
So the Donovans have experienced both sides. They received comfort from close friends who lost a child, then had to turn around and be that compassionate friend to lean on when another close colleague and his wife went through the same trauma.
“As my wife got through some of it, part of the healing process for both of us has been talking to other people,” said Donovan. “I’ve had different people reach out to me that wanted to talk and I made myself available to do that.
“I don’t have any answers or solutions for any person going through that. I try to talk about what I went through, how I tried to deal with it, what was maybe helpful to me.”
A faith test
Tori Foles told me after her husband signed with the Jaguars, one of the biggest things that attracted her when they began dating in college at Arizona was Nick’s strong Christian faith. It not only got him through his whirlwind NFL career, but also steadied Tori when she had to battle a mysterious blood disorder — postural orthostatic tachycardia syndrome (POTS) — which stumped many doctors before they were married in 2014.
Now they are dealing with a far different personal challenge, one that Donovan is certain will require a strong faith to get them through because that’s what happened with him and Christine.
“I think the one thing you immediately do, even from a spiritual standpoint, [a woman’s] first thing is, ‘What did I do wrong? I must have done something wrong,’ ” said Billy. “My wife went through that. The first place you go through is like guilt and shame, especially when you’re spiritual. Is this a message from God? There’s so many things you go through as a couple after something like that.”
Nick Foles encouraged his Twitter followers to read Tori’s heart-rendering Instagram post, then directed them to a Bible verse (2 Corinthians 12:9), which says: “But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.”
Donovan insists that faith component was instrumental for him and Christine, who got pregnant again more than a year later and delivered a healthy daughter, Connor, their last of four kids in 2002.
“Your faith has to come in because you can’t make sense of it,” Donovan said. “There’s nothing. You can’t say this is why it happened. There’s none of that. We’re all human beings, always looking for answers of why.
“And sometimes, there isn’t a why. Sometimes you got to trust in a greater power that the child is in heaven with God. Faith is basically putting your trust in God in those situations. Hopefully, it makes the relationship stronger and your faith stronger, so you can try to use it in a way that helps other people.”
On the ride home from the hospital after Christine lost the baby, Donovan, who had to deliver the news to his three kids (ages 9, 7 and 3 at the time), took inspiration from a sign as he waited at a red light.
“I’m crying a little bit, teary-eyed, trying to get myself together to talk to my kids,” Billy said. “They would want to know if Mom had the baby, and I had to say, ‘No.’ I’m trying to get my thoughts together when I pull up to the light and there’s a church on the corner. It had a sign that said, ‘God is good all the time.’
“I’m sitting and thinking about that and said to myself, ‘Gosh, I’m so blessed. I got three healthy kids. This one didn’t work out, but I’m blessed to be able to go home and see them.’ You sit there and sometimes in these terrible situations, you fail to realize what you do have and what you have to be grateful for.”
Comfort in helping others
Donovan, who left Florida after the 2014-15 season to coach the Thunder, and his wife have immersed themselves in several different children’s charities, including a memorial fund started by a friend of his wife that raises money to assist families with funeral costs for kids passing away unexpectedly.
It has been therapeutic for the Donovans, essentially trying in their own way to repay the comfort and uplifting thoughts they received from both close friends and strangers.
Every year, either on the anniversary date of Jacqueline’s death or as it approaches, Billy will get a phone call/email from Grant or Pelphrey to say they’re thinking of him and Christine. He does the same for them.
The Donovans have multiple stories about people who have sought them out after going through the ordeal of losing a child, including someone Christine helped in the Thunder front office. Billy suspects the same thing will happen to Nick and Tori Foles due to the high-profile nature of him being an NFL quarterback.
“I’ll never forget this. I was running one day in my neighborhood in Gainesville,” said Billy. “I ran past this girl, and she was just crying. I kept running, then turned back around and she turned back. I ran into her again, and she’s still crying, so I stopped to see if she was OK.
“She says, ‘Are you coach Donovan?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ then she says, ‘You and your wife lost a child, didn’t you?’ I said, ‘Yes’ and she said, ‘So did my husband and I and it’s been really, really hard on our relationship. Is there any way I can speak to your wife.’”
At that moment, Donovan remembered the unsolicited advice from a marriage counselor at the hospital the day Jacqueline passed away, saying that many couples who lose a child see their relationship diminish and end in divorce. That didn’t happen with Billy and Christine, but he wanted to make sure it didn’t happen with this female stranger who was asking for help.
So Donovan put the woman in touch with Christine. It was one of many examples Billy says helps them as a couple to deal with the loss of Jacqueline.
“There’s been different situations where, as my wife got through, she realized it’s helped her deal with her grief, our grief,” said Donovan. “People reach out, just trying to get some guidance. It helps to help others.”
For now, Nick and Tori Foles have to find their own personal path that works for them in this recovery process. If they need counsel from a couple who has lived their nightmare, Billy and Christine Donovan will be ready to take that call.
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