O'Donnell: Coppock's final weeks were filled with work, hope, happiness … and then his family's sad vigil

On Sunday morning, April 7, Tyler Coppock and sister Lyndsey Coppock-Connolly were texting back and forth about a common new-mill dilemma:

Who's going to pick up Dad at O'Hare?

And then the caller I.D. appeared.

“It was a nurse at the hospital in Savannah,” Tyler Coppock said. “She'd somehow put together enough information from admitting data on my father and the internet to figure out how to get ahold of us. And that's how we found out what had happened.”

What had happened was horrific. “Dad” — Chet Coppock, one of the most memorable presences in the history of Chicago sportscasting ­— had been in a brutal car accident near Hilton Head, S.C.

He had arrived in Charleston the previous Monday to advance voice-over work on a boxing-themed documentary by Amy Louise Williams and her Old School Productions.

Their tasks were completed by Friday morning. On Saturday, April 6, they were in Hilton Head. Then, despite a steady midday rain, they elected to drive south — away from Charleston — on the four-lane SC-170.

“No one really knows where they were going,” Tyler Coppock said. “From a receipt in one of my father's pockets, it seems they'd had lunch in Hilton Head. I thought they might have gone to see the ladies golf tournament at Augusta (the inaugural Augusta National Women's Amateur).”

Wherever they were going suddenly was rendered forever irrelevant when the 2004 Lexus that Williams was driving, police said, crossed the median of the highway. It was hit head-on by a Land Rover SUV that then slammed into a northbound, late-model Chevy.

Of the five people involved in the accident, emergency responders immediately realized that Coppock had taken the worst of it. He would never regain consciousness.

“Some of the folks were taken to the Coastal Carolina Hospital, which is a midlevel facility about 20 emergency minutes away,” said Lance Cpl. Matt Southern of the South Carolina Highway Patrol. “Because of his condition, Mr. Coppock was rushed to Savannah.”

“Savannah,” 40 minutes away, meant the Memorial Health University Medical Center (MHUMC). It is the Lowlands region's only Level One trauma facility.

By midday Monday, the Coppocks — Tyler, Lyndsey and Anna Busalacchi, Chet's ex-wife — were there.

“At first, it wasn't all hopeless,” Tyler Coppock said. “My father was beat up and the worst of it was head trauma. But the neurologists explained that swelling can go down and the brain can regenerate to an extent. But they also made it clear that a 7-year-old would have a much better chance of pulling through than a 70-year-old man.”

And the vigil began.

Happy ... and busy

In Chicago, few knew.

That was in part because so many Coppock plates continued to spin.

Days prior to his departure for South Carolina, he made his final appearance of the season emceeing a private event for the Blackhawks along with Chris Chelios. His next assignment, according to team president John McDonough, was to be at the Blackhawks Convention in July.

He was also on the threshold of emerging as a regular contributor to Mancow Muller's upstreaming new morning show on WLS-AM (890).

He had finished writing his sixth book — “Silky D: #85 Bears All” — about Dennis McKinnon, one of the Super Bowl XX champs. That work, according to Rick Kaempfer, co-publisher of Eckhartz Press, remains in sequence to be released this summer.

In one of the grandest days of his life, Coppock, on March 16, was father of the bride as Lyndsey wed attorney Mark Connolly. Both ceremony and reception were held at the tony Ovation on West Fulton in Chicago.

“He was so happy that day,” Tyler Coppock said. “He was completely in his element. He danced as best he could. He gave a great toast. He was so into being father of the bride. I heard him do (Marlon) Brando as Don Corleone more than once and it made me laugh every time.”

He was even ever so grudgingly making plans to celebrate his 71st birthday April 30.

“I got a text from Chet on Friday, April 5,” said Joanne Zagone, the primary lady in his life from 2011 to 2015 and still a regular confidant. “He suggested I come back to Chicago to celebrate with him. I was under a deadline so I didn't respond right away. I called him back the next day and didn't get an answer. But that would be Chet … busy.”

But in Savannah, Chet was not doing well.

Shock then sadness

“We came home for the weekend to regroup and then went back on Monday the 15th,” Tyler said. “There had been no improvement and actually some decline. We began to really brace for the worst.”

That worst came shortly before midnight on Wednesday, April 17.

The next day, at the suggestion of mother Anna, she, Tyler and Lyndsey went for a boat ride off the coast of the classic Georgia port.

“Honestly, I think that was the first day we all felt we could breathe again,” Tyler said. “It had been nothing but shock, hospital, hotel, hospital, hotel and waiting. And to see him in the ICU … It wasn't him. The boat ride, the sea air, all of it, at least exposed the three of us back toward whatever our new normals are going to be.”

In Chicago, the shock was just about to begin.

Said McDonough, the man who along with Blackhawks executive vice president Jay Blunk stood by Coppock while so many others drifted away: “I think it was Dave Eanet who called late Wednesday night and said there were reports that Chet had been in some sort of serious accident. He didn't have any details.

“I didn't really process it and it was too late to get anyone via telephone or text. So I prayed that night, hoping it was wrong. The next morning, when the full news reached here, I had a call to go on a radio show and I couldn't. I hadn't processed things yet. I'm still not sure I fully have. He was a trailblazer, a pioneer, and I don't think we're ever going to see anyone like him again.”

Southern, the SC highway patrolman, reports that the investigation into the accident remains “ongoing.” No tickets have been issued.

Williams, the driver of the Lexus, could not be reached for comment. She had sustained “nonlife threatening injuries” in the crash, according to an interim report.

In a first act of the new normal, Tyler and Lyndsey entered their father's West Loop condo Sunday afternoon.

“He had already mounted three photos from the wedding,” the icon's son said. “There was also a 'Save The Date' note about it stuck to his refrigerator. And on his desk were some papers that looked to me like the start of his next book.”

A memorial service for Chet Coppock will be held on Monday, April 29, at 10 a.m. at St. Pauls United Church of Christ, 2335 North Orchard St. in Chicago's Lincoln Park neighborhood.

The public is welcome.

Blackhawks President John McDonough and Chet Coppock at a Daily Herald event in 2014. Daily Herald File Photo
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