Bigler family turns tragedy into something positive

SMSU hosts sixth annual anti-drunk driving campaign

Submitted photo Heather and Brad Bigler are pictured last year with their four children, including 5-month-old Drake, who died in a crash caused by a drunk driver in 2012.

MARSHALL — Drinking and driving is a choice. And hopefully for those who have seen little Drake Bigler’s smiling face and know his story choose to never get behind the wheel after drinking.

The consequences of drinking and driving can absolutely devastate families. Brad and Heather Bigler had their lives shattered when their 5-month-old son Drake was killed by a drunk driver in July 2012.

“There’s no doubt about it that it’s a choice,” Brad Bigler said. “A lot of times, it’s a selfish decision. But if you have some planning prior to going out, you can make a lot better decisions.”

That’s the message that organizers hope to get across to people in attendance at the sixth annual “It’s a Slam Dunk — Don’t Drive Drunk” event hosted by Southwest Minnesota State University today when the Mustang basketball teams take on Bemidji State University. The women’s game begins at 5 p.m., followed by the men’s contest at 7 p.m.

“The thing about change is that it not just one message,” said Bigler, head men’s basketball coach at SMSU. “It takes consistent messages. That’s what makes a difference. (This event) is becoming a tradition here. It’s that time of year for people to understand that it’s not a good idea to drink and drive.”

In honor of Drake, the Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference (NSIC) decided to bring the “It’s a Slam Dunk — Don’t Drive Drunk” campaign to every campus in the conference.

“(Current NSIC Commissioner) Erin (Lind) and I have a friendship that goes back to our college days at SMSU,” Brad Bigler said. “Erin and (former NSIC commissioner and SMSU athletic director) Butch Raymond obviously know our story very well and I think it was just one of those things where it was an opportunity to improve awareness. I think the school, over the course of the years, has done a good job doing that.”

NSIC Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) members step up every year to help coordinate the events, which take place at basketball games during designated weekends in January and February.

“On Saturday night, SMSU Student-Athlete Advisory Committee members will be collecting signatures from fans committing to not driving drunk,” said Kelly Loft, athletic communications director at SMSU. “Pledge stickers, magnets, tattoos, pencils, window decals and key chains will be handed out to fans that commit to join in this initiative.”

The NSIC is a 16-team, 18-sport, NCAA Division II conference with teams located in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, North Dakota and South Dakota. Since starting the “Slam Dunk” event in 2013, the NSIC reports that nearly 50,000 signatures have been obtained from fans pledging not to drive drunk.

“The event is important because it spreads awareness of the dangers of drinking and driving and that one poor decision can change lives drastically,” said Allison Monson, who serves as compliance officer and also director of student-athlete academic affairs at SMSU. “If we can help stop one person from making the wrong decision then we feel we are successful with this event.”

Monson said the university setting is ideal for a number of reasons.

“The fact that an event like this is held on a college campus during an athletic event helps us reach not only students, but the community as well,” she said. “Having the SAAC lead an event like this shows their dedication and commitment to making a difference on campus and in the community.”

Originally adopted at the 1989 Convention, the SAAC was split into three separate organizations — one each for Divisions I, II and III. SAAC members serve as student-athlete liaisons who represent student-athlete interests at the campus, conference and national levels.

“The NSIC SAAC group has long held charge of this initiative and every year, gathers the names of individuals who pledge to not drive drunk,” said Monson, a former head women’s basketball coach. “The story hits close to home for those who support SMSU, so many people are willing to commit to preventing drinking and driving.”

Monson added that the past “Slam Dunk” events at SMSU had been very successful. For the past four years, SAAC member Bilal Louzati has helped organize the campaign effort.

“It is an event that is really close to the heart and means a lot for this university,” Louzati said. “Each year, SAAC members walk around during the men’s and women’s game and collect signatures from fans. The signatures are a pledge to not drink and drive or let anyone do so.”

Louzati noted that he thinks the event is a good opportunity to have conversations about drinking and driving and the consequences of doing so.

“We will also be having drunk goggles provided by our public safety on campus for fans to try on and walk with,” he said. “In addition, we’ll have some T-shirts and minor prizes for fans who participate in our effort with raising awareness for this meaningful event.”

Bigler said an announcement before the games today will explain the campaign to fans. Anyone of any age can pledge to not drink and drive.

“We’re really thankful that the conference has continued to build this tradition and offer their financial support with the T-shirts and other souvenirs that they create to help improve awareness in the Midwest,” Bigler said.

Brad and Heather Bigler, both SMSU graduates, know their lives will never be the same as it was before July 28, 2012 — the night Drake was killed in the crash caused by a drunk-driving repeat offender — but they continue moving forward.

“We’re at a good place,” Brad Bigler said. “Our kids are growing up fast. For us to keep some normalcy, we enjoy all the moments we can with them. We’re building family traditions with them and just try to help them become the best people they can be.”

Taleigha Bigler is now a fourth-grader, while Nash is in second grade. Three-year-old Tatum wasn’t born yet when the crash happened but knows Drake through photos and family stories.

“We have pictures of Drake throughout the house,” Brad Bigler said. “We also have traditions, like in February for his birthday we send some balloons up into the sky. We do some little things throughout the year. For us, it’s a good way to remember his legacy.”

Despite their grief, family members have taken the tragedy and turned it into something positive for the future. Drake’s Law passed with the help of the Biglers.

“(Rep.) Chris Swedzinski (R-Ghent) and those guys were very good about helping us out,” Brad Bigler said. “It’s now a law and it’s moving on to the next chapter. Drake’s Law basically holds repeat (drunk driving) offenders more accountable. It allows a judge the opportunity to increase penalty due to a person being a repeat offender and showing a pattern of not following the drinking and driving laws.”

The man who swerved his car into oncoming traffic and caused the collision which killed 5-month-old Drake and severely injured his dad and great-grandmother had a blood alcohol content of 0.32 percent. He had also been convicted of gross-misdemeanor drunken driving in 2005, for drunken driving in 2000 and for reckless driving and speeding as well.

Monson said the entire SMSU Athletic Department and countless student-athlete tried to give a lot of support to Bigler and his family after the tragedy.

“The environment in our department is one that centers around family and building relationships,” she said. “Anytime someone goes through a tragic event, we all want to step in and offer support or whatever they may need. That’s what families do for each other.”

As the sixth annual “It’s a Slam Dunk — Don’t Drive Drunk” effort draws near, Bigler is optimistic that the messages about not driving drunk have gotten through to people.

“I think it’s improved in our community,” he said. “I think our student-athletes haven’t had as many issues. I think consistent awareness has made a difference.”