By SHAWN KREST
Gregg Nibert had something he needed to discuss.
The Presbyterian College head basketball coach had just seen his team lose its season opener to Duke, 113–44. "We're not 69 points worse," Nibert would say in his post-game press conference. No one in the room cared. Nibert wasn't the story, nor were his Blue Hose players.
After all, it was Duke's season opener, too, which was the nation's first look at the Blue Devils' superstar freshmen class. Jahlil Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow had all played their first career games. Quotes from the 18-year-old future NBA millionaires would lead the game coverage, not some 57-year-old coach of a Big South program that was cannon fodder for Mike Krzyzewski's team of A-Listers.
Nibert had been there before. The game was Presbyterian's third trip to Cameron in the last seven years. Each time, he'd left Clinton, South Carolina, with his team and headed north - leaving behind his wife, his two sons, and a new, tiny, innocent baby who had suffered from the cruelty of others. Three years earlier, his team's 41-point loss to Duke coincided with Coach K tying Bobby Knight for the most wins in coaching history. "It was like going into a knife fight with a toothpick," Nibert had famously said about the record-setting loss.
He stood at that same podium now.
Nibert knew that this was the biggest stage he would see for the entire season. There were 120 or so media members covering the game. He was a guest, though. He needed to respect the historic venue, the opportunity that playing a perennial national contender afforded his players, and the Hall of Fame coach everyone was waiting to hear from once his own press conference ended.
So, he praised his own players. He raved about Okafor. All the while, his time was slipping away. His window was closing. Coach K was waiting to step to his podium. "We're never gonna forget this night," Nibert said. He repeated it. Then he collected his box score and walked out the door.
But then Nibert stopped. He had to speak for those without a voice.
Just outside the media room, he turned, re-opened the door, and burst back into the room. The crowd of reporters was still retrieving their recorders from the podium. They formed a confused semi-circle around him.
"I have something to say," he began.
Eight years earlier, Gregg's wife Peggy had something to say, so she called a family meeting. "It all germinated out of my children getting older," she said of the meeting. "And, since I wasn't in the workforce, I'd felt a calling to do something else." She'd actually had the calling since her children were in junior high. It just took her awhile to listen.
"For about five years, I kept putting the Lord off," she said. "Finally, he was kind of beating me over the head with the idea." The idea, she explained to her family one night in 2006, was to open the Nibert home to a foster child.
Parenting their teenage sons, Shaun and Van, wasn't easy. Often, Peggy would be the only one available to them; coaching isn't a profession that lends itself to family dinners. With road games and recruiting trips taking Gregg away, "Just you wait until your father comes home!" was often two or three days down the road. Plus, Gregg had a dozen college boys he'd promised to take care of, too. Add in practice, scouting and game film review, and Peggy, like the spouses of most coaches, essentially was an in-season single mom.
When one considers the tremendous burden that comes with taking on another child - a child that was likely to come with serious health or developmental issues, and delivered virtually without warning on the worst day of his or her young life - it makes sense why Peggy balked at the idea for more than half a decade. "Neither my husband nor my kids knew anything about it. Not even the thought of doing foster care. I had never shared anything at all about that. The boys didn't even know what it was."
"It was a complete shock," said Van, the youngest Nibert son, who was 15 at the time.
"When Peggy prays on something and comes to a decision, she's a prayer warrior," Gregg added. "There's no stopping her."
After almost six years of her mulling it over, it took the three people closest to Peggy just one evening to settle the matter. "There was no way I'd ever go against it," said Gregg. "That was an easy one. We told her, if that's what you think we need to do, we're all in."
"I just knew it was something that was very obviously pressing on my mom's heart," said Van. "I was excited at the idea of having a new baby in our home. I just didn't know at the time about some of the terrible and unfortunate circumstances that some of them would come from."
The session with the media wasn't going well.
Nibert spoke from the heart, earnestly calling attention to the plight of the innocents to whom he opens his home. He pleaded to those listening to understand the gravity of the depravity committed against them. The Niberts have received babies with concussions and broken bones. There often is the need for late-night emergency room visits, and for doll-sized braces that help them heal. There are ceaseless, agonizing cries of pain.
There was sincere emotion painted on his face, but as he looked from face to face with plaintive eyes, he didn't see a match for the urgency and emotion he felt. He didn't see any understanding.
Media members looked at each other, some stifling smirks. They were there to write the story of a game whose outcome had never been in doubt. The best team won. The best players were the top performers. A post-presser outburst from the opposing coach hadn't been in the script. Some surreptitiously recorded the scene on their phones, just in case the meltdown became tweet-worthy.
Nibert continued speaking. Someone would hear his message. After all, these were the same people who, prior to the game, were looking in horror at photos of a toddler scarred by a switch-wielding NFL player named Adrian Peterson. What would they say if they saw the aftermath of more heinous abuse - against even younger victims? How would they react if they knew about the horrors he'd been repeatedly exposed to over the last eight years? What if they had seen the unspeakably sad scene he'd just left behind in Clinton?
He was John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, half-crazed with the spirit.
To become a foster parent in South Carolina, a family must complete 14 hours of training. There are additional courses in order to foster infants. References must be provided, the fire and health departments must sign off on home inspections, criminal background checks must be passed, financial records must be provided, and medical exams must be given.
"That's how I found out I had prostate cancer," said Gregg.
Doctors initially were concerned about Nibert's test results in November 2006. A month later, he was tested again and received the unsettling diagnosis. Making matters worse, Presbyterian had petitioned the NCAA earlier that year to begin the process of moving to Division I athletics. (The school had been at the NAIA level when Nibert took over in 1989.)
The following year, its first in Division I, Nibert's team would have just five home games. Their 25 games on the road took them to 12 other states, including a trip to California over Christmas break. Presbyterian basketball would travel 23,773 miles that season, or just slightly less than the circumference of the Earth.
Despite the demands on Gregg, however, the Niberts never considered putting off the decision to foster a baby. Instead, they took all of the challenges in stride. "Ironically, that's how the Lord works," he said.
The following March, while on a surgeon's waiting list, Gregg went with Peggy to pick up their first foster child - a five-month-old baby named Marcus who suffered from shaken baby syndrome and blunt-force trauma to the head.
"We picked him up out of Greenville Memorial Hospital," Gregg recalled. "He was our very first one - he had been airlifted there. We picked him up, and then we were off to the races. One of our sons just happened to be playing tennis nearby, so we went from the hospital to the tennis match with our new baby."
Three weeks later, they packed up Marcus to go to Vanderbilt so Gregg could get his cancer surgery.
"I've often wondered if Coach Nibert was stricken with this disease, because God knew he would fight it - and beat it - just to set an example for others," said Art Chase, Presbyterian's former sports information director and a fellow cancer survivor.
Marcus lived with the Niberts for two and a half years. Gregg doesn't mention the date they picked him up in Greenville, but he recalls July 16, 2009 without hesitation. "It was a Friday," he said. "That was the day [Marcus] pulled out of our driveway, headed for Kansas." The boy had been adopted by a couple the Niberts knew.
"He was calling Peggy 'Mom,'" Gregg said. "Our boys were like his brothers. He was adopted by a couple that used to babysit our children; he's eight years old now, and doing absolutely awesome. We still get to see him. He was an angel and a blessing to our lives."
Marcus's place was taken by a girl who stayed for close to a year, before she went to live with her grandmother. She still spends the night at the Nibert home on occasion. "Whenever we want to see her," Peggy said. "Any time we can."
Soon after, there was another child. And then another. And another. Over the last seven years, the Niberts have housed 37 foster children.
"They haven't all been DSS babies [abuse victims from the Department of Social Services]," Peggy clarified. "I also do cradle care. That's where they have an adoptive home for a newborn, but they need a liaison - some place for the baby to stay between the time the birth mother passes the child off and whenever the parents are ready to take the baby. Sometimes it's a few days. Sometimes it's a month or two."
Even without the short-term, healthy foster children, the Niberts have had 11 DSS babies. The laundry list of injuries is both mind-boggling and heart-breaking. There were the ones with skull fractures. The one that had seven broken bones. Another with nine. Babies who have been kicked. Infants with brain bleeds, or broken ribs, backs, legs, or the tiny body brace that surely haunted Nibert at the podium in Cameron.
Prohibited from giving any medical details on his foster children, all Gregg will say of that night in the media room is, "My heart was breaking."
"If I went into your home and gave you nine fractures," he posited, "in your home, where you're supposed to be safe, you'd call the police. They'd ask, 'Who did that to you?' You'd say, 'Oh, that was that coach,' and I'd be arrested in a New York second.
"These babies have no voice," he said. "Nobody's looking out for them. Our first baby, we put all of our heart and soul into fighting for the guy. No one ever got involved."
Passion started to rise in Nibert, much like those moments after the season opener. "You're talking fractured skulls," he said. "We went to the mayor, the sheriff. Nothing was done. There are times when it's clear who did it. You know the parents were the perpetrators."
Nibert echoed what he said in the media room. "There needs to be law enforcement involved. Social services don't have the power or the resources. The sheriff's office - law enforcement - they have the badge. They have the power. They have the investigative tools. We need to go after these parents, these perpetrators and arrest them."
The Niberts cared for just one baby - a two-month-old with nine fractures - where an arrest was made. "It was a glorious story," Gregg said. "They found out the parents were the abusive ones and action was taken. She's with new parents now and doing OK."
Normally, things don't end up so neat and tidy. The Niberts say goodbye to an infant they've loved, and move on to the next one. "Every one of these children is a gut check when they leave," Peggy said. "Every one of them."
For a family who worked cancer surgery and foster care into their son's tennis team schedule, however, it's just part of the routine. "It takes a day or two to get back on course," Peggy said. "As gut wrenching as [saying goodbye to a baby] is, it's a mindset you go in with. But you're still never prepared."
"My parents love those children relentlessly," Van said. "My mom pours all of her love and care into each child, and every single time she has to give a child up, it devastates her. But the next time she gets a phone call to pick up a baby, she's ready to go again."
"The easier ones are the ones where the stories are good, and they get new families," Peggy said. "You know their lives are going to be so much richer, because they'll be well-loved and taken care of."
Unspoken is the fact that many of the stories don't end that way. Abused children are reunited with their parents, and the cycle continues. "If you can do that," Gregg said, about abusing an infant, "you can do anything."
"We tell ourselves, it's not about us," Peggy explained. "It's about the children. It's a mindset you go in with. Yes, it's going to be hard. Yes, it's going to rip your heart out. But there's another child right behind that one that needs love for as long as you can have them."
It's not about the Niberts, which is why they let the children leave. "We could have adopted the first one. We probably would have had the other couple not come forward. But then, it would have been selfish of us," Peggy said.
Selfish. To adopt.
"We've already raised our family," she said. "There are homes where couples have been waiting for years to adopt. We never got into it to adopt. We got into it to help as many as we could. And we knew that once we adopted, we wouldn't be able to foster anymore."
"She just has a passion for loving these babies," Gregg said. "She sacrifices her time. It's truly amazing how much she loves them."
Gregg finished speaking and looked around at faces that showed amusement, or no emotion at all.
"After seven years, I didn't see it getting any better," he later told me of the experience. "I kick myself for not saying anything sooner. For not doing this seven years ago. People were upset by the Ray Rice video. Imagine if there were a video on TV of someone hitting a baby like that, because they do. There would be a national outcry."
There was no outcry on that night in Cameron. Most media members waited until he left the room before snickering. "Well, that just happened," said one. Reporters coming in late from the team locker room were briefed on the show they'd missed.
Still, Gregg didn't regret speaking out. He wasn't ready to say that his impromptu speech had no effect. It was much like fostering, where the Niberts never know the impact of their care. "Most will never remember it," Peggy said of her family's time with the infants. "Some may get new parents that will eventually tell them the story. They have the scrapbooks we started for them. Maybe they'll tell them that we took care of them as a baby when their parents could not."
"Really, all a kid wants is love," Gregg said. "That's all they need, even for a short time. This little girl or boy, if you loved them, then there's a love in their heart - whether it's just for a week or two or longer - they get that love, and that'll be their start."
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For more sports coverage, please visit The Cauldron and follow Shawn Krest on Twitter: @KrestACCWriter3
By SHAWN KREST