Trailing by 19 points in the final quarter of a Dulles District tournament game against Potomac Falls, the Briar Woods Falcons needed a spark. Myles Tate—the Falcons’ leading scorer and all-district performer—struggled early to hit shots or even find openings against a tough Panther defense.
Perhaps sensing the desperation of the moment, Myles' father Erik got up from his usual seat near midcourt and strolled toward the student cheering section where he implored the Falcon faithful to get into the game and rally the team.
What followed was something that area basketball fans have become accustomed to during the past four years: Myles unleashed a flurry of NBA-range three pointers that helped cut the Panther lead to 2 points, igniting what had been a quiet home crowd, and giving the Falcons a chance to win despite seemingly insurmountable odds.
Although Myles’ game-high 26 points weren't enough to complete the comeback against the Panthers, the effort provided a glimpse of the never-say-die attitude that Erik instilled in his son from an early age. Twenty years after facing death on the oil fields of Saudi Arabia, it’s clear Erik has successfully passed on the competitive spirit that helped him excel in sports as a youth, and more importantly, survive the greatest challenges of his life.
"I'm not dead."
Born and raised in Reston, VA, Erik took to sports at an early age. He starred as an all-season athlete at South Lakes High School in the early ‘80s, playing football, basketball and baseball.
"I'm a competitor, I like to compete," Erik said. "I tried to take a leadership roll in every sport I played."
Erik's leadership and athletic skills played a roll in his choice of professions as well. Not long after high school, he entered the U.S. Marine Corps as a reservist. Then, in 1988, he joined the Fairfax County Police Department.
"That's all I ever wanted to do—play ball and become a police officer,” he said during a recent interview, fondly recalling his first foray into law enforcement. “I even got to be a safety patrol in fifth grade when they normally only let sixth graders do it."
Life really began speeding up for Erik in 1990. After marrying his sweetheart, Shirl, in May 1990, the reserves activated him and sent him to Saudi Arabia that fall to join his fellow service members in the Persian Gulf war, the U.S. and coalition response to Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
In March 1991, after American and coalition forces liberated Kuwait and drove the Iraqi forces from the country, Erik rode as a passenger in the fifth of a thirteen-vehicle convoy transporting supplies from Saudi Arabia to Kuwait. The convoy ran into a sandstorm that caused the lead vehicles to stop. The soldier driving the vehicle in which Erik rode could not stop in time, and collided with other vehicles in the convoy. A fiery explosion ensued, resulting in the death of the driver, and leaving Erik trapped inside the burning wreckage.
"It's a memory like yesterday. I was trapped, and I couldn't get out on the left side because there was fire there, and I couldn't kick out the windshield. Somehow I was able to navigate my way out through the door. When I got out, all I remember was a burning sensation, and I just dropped and I rolled. It felt like I rolled a mile."
Suffering from severe burns over most of his body and a gruesome injury to his left leg, the first Marines to find Erik thought he was dead.
"When I was laying there, other Marines from the other vehicles came out, and I remember distinctly one of them saying 'He's dead, he's dead.' I had to tell them, 'No, I'm not dead. I'm just on fire. Put the fire out and move me away from the truck,’" Erik Tate said, recalling the ordeal. He knew the burning truck was filled with ammunition, "I remember all I wanted to do was go to sleep, but I had to keep telling myself not to go to sleep. I just didn't want to go to sleep."
As a result of the shock and pain from his injuries, he passed out. He woke up ten days later in a military hospital in Germany. Suffering from third-degree burns over most of his body, Erik was placed in a glass enclosed isolation chamber to limit his exposure to germs and the chance of infection. The only way he could communicate with his wife—who had flown to Germany to be with her husband—was via a telephone connected to an outside room. And it was during his first telephone call with Shirl that Erik learned that his left leg had been amputated above the knee.
The news was hard to swallow for the lifelong athlete, a man who still played regular pick-up basketball games with his police buddies, and who, frankly, couldn't imagine a life without playing sports.
"Instant rock bottom," he said, explaining the initial emotion about losing his leg. "It was something I could never even imagine happening. It took me two or three days to snap out of it."
Instead of sinking into depression, Erik decided to take on his recovery process with the same resilience and competitiveness he relied upon as an athlete. The steps were small at first. On his one-year wedding anniversary in May of 1991, the doctors decided Erik was well enough to be wheeled to the door of his "bubble" so his wife could lean in and kiss him on the forehead. Later that summer, he left the hospital in Germany for Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, to begin extensive physical rehabilitation. The traumatic effects of the accident—resulting in six surgeries, skin grafts, burn recovery, infections and atrophied muscles—had taken a huge toll on his body.
"I had zero range of motion. I could barely lift up my head. It was almost like being paralyzed,” he said. “They said I was going to be bedridden for two or three years, and I was like 'no way.’"
Luckily for Eric, at Walter Reed teamed him with a physical therapist who had played college football and who was willing to support Erik's all out approach to recovery. When the doctors recommended two rehab sessions per day, Erik convinced his trainer to let him do three, sometimes four, until the doctors found out and ordered him back to two. At first, progress was slow, but Erik used lessons from his sports background to guide his recovery.
"In sports, you have to adapt,” he explained. “You are faced with all sorts of situations, and you have to deal with them, or you won't be successful. You don't have a choice, you either adapt or you fail. I took the same approach with my rehab, and I wasn't going to fail."
Back home friends and family organized a charity basketball game against several Washington Redskins to help raise money for Erik's recovery. Erik attended the game on a stretcher, unable to walk, and barely able to wave to the crowd.
Within months of the accident he received a prosthetic leg, a sign of progress that came with its own pitfalls. The wooden leg—a relic by today's standards—caused chronic infections and sores where it attached, resulting in near constant pain as Erik learned to walk again—the sores continued to develop for 11 years until a laser procedure finally ended the agony in 2002.
Despite the sores, Eric learned to walk again.
And when organizers scheduled a rematch of the charity game against the Redskins in 1992, Eric did not watch from a stretcher—he played, and scored six points.
Erik’s recovery came full circle when he returned to active duty as a Fairfax County police officer.
"Erik Tate is a hero," said Gary Cummings, who served as Erik's supervisor on the Warrant Squad when he returned to the police department. "He never complained, he never gave up, and I have the utmost respect for everything he was able to accomplish."
A change in department policy essentially forced the veteran from active duty and led to a lawsuit, but Erik's recovery continued.
Still a Competitor
Besides schooling the Redskins in hoops, Erik channeled his competitive energy into weightlifting and other sports.
Then, after the birth of his sons, Myles and Justyn, Erik decided to try his hand at another outlet: coaching.
He started when Myles was in first grade, and since that time, has coached both of his sons and many of the their friends through numerous seasons. In fact, Erik coached this year's Briar Woods’ basketball team in fall league, helping the players prepare for a season that saw the team finish in second place in the Dulles District.
Tonight, the team plays at home in the opening round regional playoff against Millbrook.
"We're both competitors, and we both hate to lose, there's no doubt about it" said Briar Woods head coach Michael Benson about Erik. "It's all about our competitive natures, and that's where Myles gets it. Myles may look calm on the court, but that kid hates to lose, and that's what you need to be successful."
With younger brother Justyn in eighth grade and not yet attending Briar Woods, Myles has been stealing family headlines with his play for several seasons. Despite his small stature, 5-foot-six, Myles has a resume filled with highlight-reel plays, and will graduate as the school's all-time leader in points and assists.
"He's literally the best player I've coached in 20 years," Benson said. "He just loves playing basketball, and he's the guy I want with the ball when the game is on the line."
In addition to his love of the game, Myles carries with him the added motivation of seeing what his father has had to endure and overcome to be successful in his day-to-day life.
"It does motivate me,” he said. “I don't talk about it a lot, but whenever I struggle, I think about what he has to go through everyday, and knowing everything he's been through, I just try to stop myself from complaining about things and stay focused."
Yet even as a self-professed "tough" coach, one who has endured more in his life than his sons and their teammates can likely fully comprehend, Erik maintains perspective when viewing the importance of any single sporting event.
"Sports is not a matter of life and death,” he said. “It's just a game. I keep that in perspective. I think that helps me relate to the players. But, there is a certain way to play the game."