All four, in fact, came out alive. Among them was Chris Vrabel, then a sophomore and now part of a senior group integral to the Big Red’s first-ever at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, where it will take on Rice at 10 a.m. CDT Friday. Vrabel was a back-seat passenger and asleep at the time of initial impact, the swerving and immediate aftermath were surreal.
“The few minutes after it, I was kind of in a daze. I think I hit my head, so I don’t think I was thinking clearly. It was almost like it was just a dream, and that it didn’t really happen.”
While he doesn’t remember it, he had managed to pry himself out of the car and sat on the side of the road before help arrived. After receiving some stitches and staples, he was released from the hospital within hours. The driver, Quoc-Daniel Nguyen ’15, was also released from the hospital the next morning, but their two teammates were in critical condition.
The outpouring of support came from all angles, with Tanasoiu lauding the response of alumni and the daily visits made to the hospital by Andy Noel, the Meakem*Smith Director of Athletics and Physical Education. Alex Sidney ’15 was first to emerge from his coma two days later, but it would be two weeks before Jason Luu ’15 would do the same. Just two days after the accident, Vrabel was back in class and preparing for upcoming finals. But the gravity of what happened started to set in as Luu remained in a coma.
“I realized how bad a condition he was in, but then he was out of the hospital by the end of the month,” he said. “So after that, I was feeling better about it. He lived only 15 minutes from me (in Virginia) and we were back home for winter break. It was good that I got to visit him and start the next season with a clear mind.”
From top, Alex Sidney '15, Quoc-Daniel Nguyen '15 and Jason Luu '15
Remarkably, everyone made a full recovery. Luu, Nguyen and Sidney all graduated on time. Vrabel is on pace to do the same later this month, with a degree in computer science from the College of Engineering. He will move to Seattle and work as a software engineer for Amazon.
Returning to school after being able to visit Luu, Vrabel began a terrific spring season. He earned a spot on the All-Ivy League second team in doubles and ended the year on a 16-match winning streak in singles — including a perfect 7-0 mark in Ivy League play. He then took his game to new heights this fall, when he won the singles competition at the USTA/ITA Northeast Regional Championships. Grouped among the event’s 17 through 32 seeds, Vrabel rolled to six straight victories without dropping a single set.
“I would say it all culminated in the fall with him winning the regional championship in a fairly dominating fashion,” Tanasoiu said. “He’s gotten better every single year. We knew from the recruiting process that he’s extremely gifted. We knew that as long as he was invested and that he was willing to do the work that he could do remarkable things. You can see it.”
Chris Vrabel was the singles champion of the 2016 USTA/ITA Northeast Regional tournament in the fall.
The success has continued into a memorable dual season for the Big Red, which enters the NCAA tournament this weekend as the nation’s 26th-ranked team with a sparkling 21-3 record. The team won its final six matches of the regular season to earn a share of the program’s second Ivy League championship.
A season with this much success can be attributed to a host of things, with a strong senior class being among the most obvious. Within that group is Vrabel, who has become one of the team’s most consistent contributors. The perspective gained from surviving that car crash has played a role.
“Looking back, I can really see that any day one thing can happen and completely change your entire life,” Vrabel said. “If any of us hadn’t been wearing our seat belts, it could have been a lot worse. I realize how lucky we all are to just be here. I’m just thankful for every day.”