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The greatest victory of Ken Eriksen’s career a matter of life and death

The USF softball coach says his greatest triumph, by far, occurred during a 2008 practice.
Former USF softball pitcher Cristi Ecks (now Krawczyk), left, was resuscitated on the Bulls' field by coach Ken Eriksen, center, and former graduate assistant athletic trainer Kelly Cox (now Burkett) after collapsing and showing no sign of a pulse during a practice in 2008.
Former USF softball pitcher Cristi Ecks (now Krawczyk), left, was resuscitated on the Bulls' field by coach Ken Eriksen, center, and former graduate assistant athletic trainer Kelly Cox (now Burkett) after collapsing and showing no sign of a pulse during a practice in 2008. [ Courtesy of Kelly Burkett ]
Published Apr. 28
Updated Apr. 29

Every April 1, the manager still makes the call to his right-hander, the one with the knee-buckling curve, dastardly change-up and 4-month-old son.

For each of the last 13 years, USF softball coach Ken Eriksen’s greeting to Cristi Ecks — a married mom of one who now goes by Cristi Krawczyk — has remained the same: Happy Life Day. Happy Re-Birth Day. Or some variation.

“He still calls me every year on that day,” Krawczyk said. “It’s just like a thing that we all went through together, and it’s something that we’ll never forget. It was a crazy experience. Really, all my teammates and my coaches, they’re the ones that really remember it. Obviously, I don’t remember anything.”

Eriksen, by contrast, recalls darn near every detail, from the color of the sky to the discoloration in Krawczyk’s face as he held the 20-year-old’s head in his quivering hands.

“It felt like three days were going by,” he said.

As early as Friday, when USF begins a four-game series against East Carolina, Eriksen, 60, could clinch his 1,000th career triumph as Bulls coach. During that tenure, which spans nearly a quarter-century, he has reached the College World Series, has won seven conference titles, and served as an assistant on the 2004 U.S. Olympic team that won a gold medal in Athens, Greece.

Related: As another milestone looms, a list of Ken Eriksen's memorable USF softball wins

He’s set to try for another gold as head coach of the Olympic team later this year in Tokyo. But he insists those triumphs still pale in comparison to that spring afternoon in 2008, when his team mobilized itself with brisk efficiency after Krawczyk collapsed in the pitching circle with no pulse.

By opening day 2009, she was pitching for the Bulls again.

“It was the most incredible win I’ve ever been involved with,” Eriksen said.

Grace under pressure

As a freshman in 2006, USF right-hander Cristi Ecks won 24 games and helped lead the Bulls to the program's first appearance in the NCAA Super Regional.
As a freshman in 2006, USF right-hander Cristi Ecks won 24 games and helped lead the Bulls to the program's first appearance in the NCAA Super Regional. [ Times (2006) ]

A 5-foot-7 Virginia native with elite pitch command and a drop-curve Eriksen described as “nasty,” Krawczyk entered the 2008 season on the watch list for the USA Softball National Collegiate Player of the Year Award.

As a freshman in 2006, she won 24 games, posted a 1.15 ERA in 224⅓ innings, and helped lead USF (50-25) to its first NCAA Super Regional berth. The following season, she finished with the country’s third-best earned-run average (0.73), surrendering only 13 earned runs in 125 innings. Her seven saves out of the bullpen set what was then a USF single-season record.

Even cleaner than her statistical lines was her medical history.

“I had nothing that had ever come up on any physical,” Krawczyk said. “No family history, nothing.”

She had won seven of 10 decisions to start the 2008 season, posting a 1.21 ERA in 19 appearances. The afternoon prior to an April 2 contest against Florida in Gainesville, she was standing in the circle as Eriksen hit grounders and fly balls to the defensive players behind her.

“He was just going around and hitting balls to each position,” she said. “And that’s the last thing I remember.”

Krawczyk’s body crumpled to the ground, her face slamming into the brown clay. Because it was April 1, peers momentarily presumed Krawczyk was clowning.

But dread — and Eriksen — soon converged on the circle.

“So I ran out there right away and held her in my arms,” Eriksen recalled. “It was really in a quick, quick sense that she stiffed up and basically her heart stopped — and she died right there.”

Realizing the urgency of what was transpiring, Eriksen began furiously pumping on Krawczyk’s chest as graduate-assistant athletic trainer Kelly Cox — now married and known as Kelly Burkett — raced from behind the third-base dugout.

“Her face was blue, didn’t have a pulse, wasn’t breathing — all the classic signs,” Burkett recalled. “So you’ve got to start your CPR stuff.”

Taking over for Eriksen, Burkett continued CPR even as she dispatched players and assistants: Outfielders were sent sprinting to USF’s nearby track stadium to summon the trainer with the automated external defibrillator. Others were instructed to find Burkett’s boss, Steve Walz, believed to be monitoring a Bulls football spring practice nearby. Someone was ordered to phone 911.

“It was the most amazing thing,” Eriksen said.

“I had been pumping for probably, I don’t know, 35 to 45 seconds. (Burkett) comes running in and it’s like, ‘Coach, I’ve got it from here.’ And as she’s pumping, she’s giving everybody direction. ... It’s like a slow-motion movie.”

Eriksen next recalls a trainer racing in from the rightfield corner — defibrillator in tow — and unraveling the device as he practically slid into the circle. Within seconds, the electrodes were attached to Krawczyk’s chest.

“The first-wave shot goes in, nothing,” Eriksen said. “And then the second wave goes in, bang, there’s a pulse.”

An ambulance from nearby University Community Hospital (now AdventHealth Tampa) arrived as a semblance of normal color returned to Krawczyk’s countenance. Eriksen estimates she was en route to the hospital 15 minutes after collapsing.

“I would 100 percent say team effort,” Burkett said.

“I remember the girls way in the outfield that would be closer to the main training room — they ran to the training room. There were some closer to the track — they ran over to the track. There were some closer to where football was practicing. I mean, these girls weren’t playing. They put on their little speed-running shoes and just went for it.”

Bound by trauma, triumph

Burkett rode with Krawczyk in the ambulance. Eriksen adjourned practice so players and coaches could head to the hospital. As Eriksen and administrator Barry Clements (now a USF deputy athletic director) made the walk of a couple hundred yards back to the Selmon Athletics Center, an afternoon storm cloud drifted over the campus and suddenly burst, drenching the pair.

“I was drained,” Eriksen said.

Not to mention doused with perspective. While Eriksen — who played baseball at USF under Hall of Famer Robin Roberts — never had been obsessed with wins and losses, the episode reinforced his belief that relationships are the essence of sports, and that softball can serve as a metaphor for life.

Never before in his career — player or coach — had he witnessed a collection of individuals performing their own unique tasks so efficiently and purposefully for the greater good.

Related: USF softball scholar Ken Eriksen still keeps it simple

“I think the girls on that team, they saw something that I really wished they never had to see,” Burkett said. “But just seeing how responsive they were in a time of emergency just really shows their maturity. And it shows how well I feel like Ken trained them to (respond).”

Krawczyk said doctors never found a cause for her collapse, but inserted a pacemaker (which she still has to this day) as a precaution. After months of monitoring, contemplation and intense lobbying (on Krawczyk’s part), she was allowed to rejoin the Bulls for workouts that fall.

She posted a sub-2.00 ERA as a senior, and ended her career as the Bulls’ all-time leader in saves (18), a record ultimately eclipsed by Pinellas Park High alumnus Sara Nevins. Today, she works in marketing for a national home builder and resides in Gainesville, Va.

Burkett, now employed by the Indiana State Department of Health, served as a bridesmaid in Krawczyk’s wedding, and vice versa. They have vacationed together, and even have competed together in endurance events such as the “Tough Mudder” obstacle course.

A relationship forged by lessons and challenges gleaned from the game of softball. Just the way their coach drew it up.

Well, sort of.

“No matter what,” Burkett said, “Ken could win zero games in his career, and I think he would still care about his girls and about their lives, and about them as people.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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East Carolina at USF, noon Friday

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