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October 31, 2006 09:50 PM

Team Freidel

Mike Freidel has dedicated his life to football. 

After a standout playing career at Armour High School and Dakota State University, he turned his attention to coaching. And he's spent more than 25 years molding a new generation of gridiron greats. 

But, after a near-fatal ranching accident last summer, Freidel's career at the University of South Dakota came to a sudden stand-still.

Away from the football field, Mike Freidel wears a different hat - annually spending what little free time he has working on a friend's Wyoming ranch. But last June, this hobby almost cost Freidel his life.

While repairing a flat trailer tire, it exploded, scattering pieces of metal from the tire's rim - causing multiple injuries to Freidel's left arm and left eye. He was unconscious, and left with an extremely long road to recovery. 

"The prognosis with any type of traumatic brain injury is uncertain. Any medical professional who has any experience in these types of things will tell you that.  There's no answer - it's a wait and see," Freidel's wife Joni said.

It's been more than four months since the accident, and after stops in Casper, Wyoming, and Sioux Falls, Freidel now spends his days at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

He's still in what doctors are calling a 'mild coma,' but his condition is improving.

"They're working with him with physical, occupational, and speech therapies, and working on trying to get him to reroute some of the day-to-day tasks, speech, those types of things, so that he can start responding more consistently," Joni said.

While she continues to work and take care of the couple's five children, Joni can be found at her husband's side a couple days a week.  And she says while his response is minimal, Mike is still very much alive.

"When you're married to someone for that long you can see that connection, and I see that in him. When he grabs my hand and I'm talking to him about the boys playing football - or Haley in soccer, or Kelsey dancing, or something his brothers have done, it's there, it's definitely there," Joni said.

In what is, perhaps, Mike's greatest time of need, the response from those he's touched is staggering. It all started with a few simple t-shirts, and it's turned into a sea of red, as people jump in line to join "Team Freidel." 

"We had so many people coming up to us at the game asking where they could get the shirts.  We ordered 200 for the next game, and have now sold more than 1,000 shirts," Director of Admissions Stephanie Moser said.

Moser also happens to be Mike's sister-in law, and she says the outcry of support toward the Freidel family has no boundaries.

"Joni has said more than once - It's just weird to be walking in a community, and it doesn't have to be here.  In Mitchell, Rapid City - all these towns that have bought the t-shirts, to see your name on the back of that t-shirt, and to know that that person cares enough about Mike and the family that they're willing to wear that shirt, and buy that, and show their support is just overwhelming," Moser said.

In addition to the shirts, Moser has also spear-headed other efforts to raise money for the family, including online and silent auctions before and during the annual USD-Augustana football game.

"One thing my parents taught all of us was there's nothing more important than family. So I'm just doing what little I can to help Mike and the family, and to get them what they may need down the road which will be money, and the support that way," Moser said.

And whether that help comes from family, or the thousands of friends and fans that have rallied around the fallen coach, Mike's wife says she's been humbled by the experience, and will never forget. 

"A good friend of mine once said you can't pay people back, but you can pay it forward. That's our mission from here on out. Do what we can, take care of Mike, get him back to the family, take care of our kids - and pay it forward. We're going to do what we can to help other people in their need too," Joni said.

Event organizers at USD and Augustana are calling the benefit a huge success. It raised nearly 
$15,000 to help support the family and pay medical expenses.

If you want to reach out to the Freidel family, you can donate to the Benefit Fund for Mike Freidel at any Wells Fargo location across the state.

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