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Luke Recker’s ex-girlfriend Kelly Craig details night of their accident that left her paralyzed in new book

Dana Hunsinger Benbow
Indianapolis Star
Luke Recker and girlfriend Kelly Craig shared an intimate moment on the front porch at Plum Creek Golf Course in Carmel Sept. 28,1999.

She doesn't remember the details of that day, the tiny details she wishes now that she could — of the final day of a life she would never live again. What she ate for breakfast. What clothes she wore. Walking out to the Ford Taurus, giggling with her tall, lanky, sweet Luke.

But, Kelly Craig said, she remembers one thing. She felt invincible.

Craig was 19, a soccer cheerleader at Indiana University and a Chi Omega sorority member. She was on vacation in Colorado with Luke Recker, her boyfriend of nearly three years, the 1997 IndyStar Mr. Basketball and IU player recruited by coach Bob Knight.

But this summer of 1999, this was a summer of new beginnings. The two had big plans for the fall — they were transferring to the University of Arizona, where Recker would play for Lute Olson.

First, though, there was a carnival. On that hot July night, Craig and Recker hopped into the Taurus with new friends they'd met at the Colorado Trails Ranch where they were staying with Craig's family.

They headed to Durango for a night of elephant ears, cotton candy, Ferris wheels and face painting.

Craig felt so free that July night, she would later write in her book, "Fractured Not Broken." Craig did not respond to IndyStar requests for comment for this story.

"Freer than a kite in the wind flying high in love and looking forward to a new life in Arizona," she writes. "We were young lovers, college kids with the world at our fingertips."

Moans on the highway

Wrecker crew workers prepare to remove vehicles involved in an accident July 10, 1999, near Durango, Colo. Former IU basketball standout Luke Recker was recovering from a broken arm, facial cuts and a partially severed ear after the head-on collision in rural southwestern Colorado.

The impact was crushing. And deadly.

Recker was in the back seat of the Taurus behind the driver, John Hollberg, 23, of Georgia. Craig and her brother Jason Craig, 17, sat next to him. Two other passengers were in the Ford.

Another vehicle heading to the carnival with them, a pickup carrying 11 passengers, was in front of the Taurus. It was July 10, 1999.

Heading toward them at 70 mph, though no one knew it, was a GMC truck driven by Bob Hardwick, 21, who was drunk, according to police. He swerved into the eastbound lane, clipped the left rear of the pickup and then crashed into the Taurus, according to the Colorado State Patrol report from that night.

Craig writes in her book of the moans and groans from people scattered on the highway. Of Recker bleeding. People screaming.

Brenda Krempp, Craig's mom, was back at the dude ranch playing cards with her husband, Craig's stepdad, Andy. The director of the ranch came through the doors.  

He was frantic, Craig writes in the book. "There's been an accident involving a drunk driver and your kids were involved," he told them. Brenda's heart dropped.

At the hospital, doctors told Krempp that Jason Craig had suffered a severe head injury. Craig had sustained a spinal cord injury, a C4  fracture. They told Krempp her daughter was paralyzed from the neck down.

"Brenda's knees buckled and she fell into a heap on the floor," Craig writes in her memoir. "She envisioned Christopher Reeve, his motorized chair and his labored breathing through a ventilator." 

Craig woke up in the hospital hearing the words "paralyzed" and "quadriplegic." She said she started to picture herself in a wheelchair, struggling to roll up a hill.

"It was like someone had draped a heavy blanket over me. For a long time after that day, I wished I'd died," Schaefer writes. "How naive I was to believe I was untouchable. That my cake life would go on forever."

But at least she had her Luke. At least for now.

1997 Indiana Mr. Basketball Luke Recker of DeKalb

A chance meeting

They met as teens on Michael Lewis' back porch in Jasper. Craig and Lewis went to the same high school and were good friends. Recker went to DeKalb and lived in Auburn. Lewis and Recker were headed to IU to play basketball.

That night on the porch, the summer before Recker's senior year of high school, Craig and Recker couldn't stop talking. They talked for hours. She was beautiful with her dark hair and brilliant smile, a track star. He was an elite athlete with a kind heart and boyish good looks.

Before the accident, Recker and Craig had made it through a long-distance relationship, living more than four hours apart. They would talk on the phone for hours. Recker would have Craig watch SportsCenter; he would watch it, too. Once together at IU, there was no more distance.

Recker told Craig of his lifelong dream to make it to the NBA. "I was his biggest cheerleader," Craig says in her book.

Recker soon became hers.

The accident that July night took Hollberg's life, the friend driving Recker and the Craigs. Recker had severe cuts to his head and almost lost his left ear.

When he was released from the hospital in Durango, days after the accident and after stitches and plastic surgery on his ear, Recker had one mission: Getting to San Juan Regional Medical Center in New Mexico to see Craig. Her brother Jason was also there with a severe head injury and in a coma.

"I'll never forget the first time I saw her and her brother," Recker told IndyStar at the time. "It was heartbreaking. It was the toughest thing I've ever seen. I did break down crying."

Luke Recker played two seasons for Bob Knight at IU before deciding to transfer.

In the hospital, Recker encouraged Craig to build strength and set goals.

One day they would look back on this and see how far they'd come, they told each other. They cried. He squeezed her hand and told her he didn't want to leave her.

"I wanted him to lie beside me, to hold me, to tell me everything would be better soon," Craig writes. "What a way to end the most wonderful vacation in my life."

A love waning

On their 3-year anniversary just 17 days after the accident, Recker pulled out a ring, two hearts with a little baby diamond in the middle and slipped it on Craig's finger as she lay in the hospital. 

She so desperately wanted to hug him, she wrote in her book. "It wasn't just a ring, it was a symbol of his love and commitment."

Craig continued rehab with the hope she would someday walk again. She was transferred to Christ Hospital in Chicago. Recker went home to Auburn and visited when he could.

"People tell me I shouldn't feel guilty. But it's tough. Every time I see myself walking or doing any simple task, I know that Kelly and her brother would give anything to do that. It's tough," Recker told IndyStar in 1999. "Somebody could give me $5 million tomorrow, and I'd give it all back for the way things used to be."

In September 1999, Craig was released from the rehab center to go home to Jasper. But first, she went to a charity golf outing in honor of her and Jason Craig at Plum Creek Golf Course in Carmel.

Recker drove her around in a golf cart, from hole to hole, all over the course, saying thank you to those who had come.

Kelly Craig is shown in 1999. Married and now Kelly Schaefer, she has written a book on the accident that left her a quadriplegic.

"I just have tons of gratitude," Craig told IndyStar the day of the outing. "It's phenomenal for me, and my brother, too. I'm amazed by how many people care, and show their support and love."

Craig talked about her recovery that day, how it was progressing slowly. She could move her left arm and wiggle some fingers. She had some feeling in her legs.

"It's a very slow process," she said. "I don't see the progress but others do. It's just so slow."

That day on the golf course, Recker told reporters of his admiration for Craig. "As tough as the situation is, she still has a smile on her face all the time. She's the one who is always cheering me up. She's incredible, she's tough, and I'm just thankful to have her."

In her book, Craig used the real names for everyone — except Recker. She calls him Eric. She writes about that golf outing that day, the smile on her face, how she didn't really feel like smiling.

"Inside, my heart ached for Eric to smile at me the way he used to, to hold me with longing, to gaze into my eyes until my breath caught," she writes. "But he didn't. His eyes remained dim and his touch cool. He stayed by my side but the energy between us had thinned."

Leaving Arizona for Iowa 

Recker shook the college basketball world when in December 1999, he announced he would leave after one semester at Arizona and transfer to Iowa.

The move would give him three semesters of eligibility at Iowa beginning with the second semester of the 2000-2001 season.

Recker said the decision had very little to do with basketball and everything to do with being closer to Craig.

"If this accident had never happened, I would never have left Arizona," Recker told IndyStar at the time. "Kelly and I were transferring there together and we were really excited about the prospects."

On that same day, Recker told IndyStar he wanted to clear up recent media reports that he said were wrong, including some that said he and Craig were engaged.

But, he said, "we are very, very close and she is the primary reason I'm returning to the Midwest."  

At Iowa, coach Steve Alford helped a distraught Recker get back on his feet. "I care deeply for coach Alford," Recker said. "He's helped me mature as a player and as a person, and I attribute it all to him because he's spent a lot of time with me both on and off the court, making sure I'd be ready to play this year. And I think I am ready.'' 

Former teammates at IU, Luke Recker (left) and Dane Fife talk during a 2002 game.

For a college kid to go through what Recker faced that summer of 1999 was tough, said Alford, now coach of Nevada.

"It was definitely something that rocked him," said Alford. But the Iowa team, coaches and community took Recker in. Alford had known Recker long before he came to Iowa; Alford met him when he ran camps at DeKalb. He had watched Recker go from IU to Arizona and then watched as Recker faced tragedy.

"That accident really kind of changed the course of his life," Alford said.

At Iowa, Recker began to heal spiritually and get back out socially. He started to smile. Eventually he and Craig broke up. Some people criticized Recker for not staying by her side.

After a 2001 game against Purdue at Mackey Arena, an IndyStar article about Recker said: "There are many in Indiana who hope Recker fails... who are critical of the relationship he has with former girlfriend Kelly Craig, who was paralyzed in that tragic accident caused by a drunken driver."

Recker said after the breakup that he never foresaw what happened to him and Craig. "It was tough for a long time because we had a lot of issues going on," he said. "It was a situation you're never prepared for and sometimes you don't handle things right."  

Alford said he always felt deeply for what Recker went through.

"He was very mature for a young man, but nobody wants to have to try to handle that," Alford said. "When that’s what happens in life, you just do the best you can. I thought he did a really good job of trying to handle it the best he could."

Perseverance and determination

Craig moved on from the breakup with Recker, though she said it wasn't easy. In the book she writes that she had some very dark days. That she wondered if she would ever be loved again. 

In 2009, she married Shawn Schaefer and now is Kelly Craig Schaefer, the mother of two children. She finished college and became a teacher. She is a public speaker and advocate for victims of drunk drivers. She speaks at schools about the tragic effects of driving drunk. 

Kelly Craig with her brother, Jason Craig, before the accident.

And she is author of her memoir, which she wrote with her aunt, M. Weidenbenner. It is a testament to her strength.

"I’m not surprised to see Kelly doing great things," Recker told IndyStar in a written message. "She is a terrific person and cares deeply about helping others. Her perseverance and determination are impressive."

Recker declined to elaborate further on the July 1999 accident or his relationship with Schaefer, but said he was glad to see her success.

"She has never complained and maintained a positive outlook, regardless of the circumstances," he said. "I’m happy that she is enjoying life to the fullest."

Recker is also married and is a father. He met his wife, Megan, at Iowa. He never made an NBA roster; he fractured his kneecap at Iowa. But, he played professionally overseas.

Jason Craig, who spent months in a coma, awoke with traumatic brain injury. He uses a walker and is more childlike than the nearly 40-year-old man that he is.

The drunk driver in the accident, Hardwick, was charged with 19 criminal counts, including vehicular homicide, vehicular assault and driving while intoxicated. Hardwick received nine years in prison. He has been released.

"I got what I deserve," Hardwick told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 2002. "I took a person's life. I got less than what I deserved."

One person died, but many others lost the lives they had before that night, Schaefer writes in her book. But she doesn't dwell on that.

“Stop waiting for Friday, for summer, for someone to find love with you, for life," she writes. "Happiness is achieved when you stop waiting for it and make the most of the moment you are in now." 

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.