KRAVITZ: On a special Purdue Senior Day, a special big man gives thanks for his family’s blessing

Rachel (L) and Erin Haas with Nick at Purdue's final home game February 25, 2018. (WTHR image by Bob Kravitz)
Bob Kravitz

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. (WTHR) - Nick the Seizure Dog had some of the best seats in the house Sunday afternoon, nestled in the front row of Mackey Arena, right next to Rachel, Danny and Erin Haas – Isaac Haas’ mother, father and younger sister. “This is his third game,’’ Rachel was telling me of Nick’s appearance. On the other end of the floor, her son, Isaac, was warming up, preparing for Senior Day, the final game of the Big Ten regular season.

Haas, you see, isn’t just playing for Purdue these days; truth is, he’s never played basketball simply for himself or for his team. He’s playing, too, for Erin, his younger sister by four years who suffers from epileptic seizures on a daily basis. He’s been her champion since he was small – well, Isaac was never small, but he was just four years old when Erin was born – and he has been fighting to make her life better and more manageable since they were young kids.

“I can still remember, Erin would have one of her seizures and Isaac would go into her bedroom,’’ Rachel Haas said. “He’d be sitting there, holding her like a baby. They still fight like brother and sister sometimes, but he’s always there for her, whatever she needs.’’

Now, during Senior Day festivities, here was Isaac standing at mid-court, scratching and petting Nick – the dog did not seem impressed with Senior Day – while Isaac’s arm was wrapped around his sister. More than a year ago, a GoFundMe page was set up and netted more than $22,000 for the seizure dog, and the Haas family needed every last cent to buy the dog, train him and prepare him for life with Erin. He’s been in the Haas’ Alabama home since August.

“It’s been unbelievable,’’ Isaac said during the post-game press conference. “It’s completely changed the landscape of what we’re able to do and what she (Erin) is capable of doing. It’s definitely calmed her a lot. It’s allowed her to go places where she wouldn’t normally be able to go, like a game. It’s been amazing.

“All that time from when she got that dog until now, I’ve just been waiting to say a big thank you. I felt like social media wasn’t enough. I felt like Senior Night was the perfect time to look at everyone and thank them for giving and not expecting anything back.’’

Earlier, Haas tried with all his might to keep it together, but it wasn’t going to happen, just as his mom, Rachel, knew that it wouldn’t. He’s a rock on the outside, but all soft and emotionally available on the inside. The tears began flowing the moment he walked onto the court with his family and saw his framed uniform. Then Vince Edwards, the first of four senior speakers, began crying while thanking his family, and soon, Haas followed suit. Rachel cupped Isaac’s face as her son tried to take deep breaths, but it was of no use.

This wasn’t just about Haas’ long four-year journey, or the amazing journey the four seniors – Haas, Dakota Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Vince Edwards – shared. It was about the way the Purdue community helped the Haas family raise money for Erin’s seizure dog. It was the way the Purdue community continued to give Sunday late afternoon, this time to the Epilepsy Foundation, before the Boilers’ one-sided victory over Minnesota at Mackey Arena.

Purdue's Isaac Haas dunks against Minnesota in his final home game February 25, 2018. (Image courtesy Purdue Basketball/Twitter)
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Through sobs and red eyes, Haas managed to share a few words to the Senior Day crowd, saying “You have no idea how much it (the fund raising and the acquisition of the seizure dog) means to my family…’’ but the emotions were too raw.

This night brought out the players’ and fans’ emotions because, well, this is one of those special college basketball classes. They were (are) what student-athletes are supposed to be about, all of them four-year players, all of them on the verge of graduating, the kinds of players who can make you feel good about college hoops at a time when that’s a very difficult thing to do. It’s hardly a surprise, then, that this senior class won its 100th career game together Sunday, or that this group has won more games at Mackey Arena than any other senior class. They went 21-13, 26-9, 27-8 and now stand at 26-5, holding out hope they can still earn a No. 1 NCAA Tournament seed by winning this week’s Big Ten Tournament in New York City.

This group came along at a time when the Purdue program was struggling, having suffered through two straight seasons without sniffing an NCAA Tournament berth. The Boilers had lost their way, had stopped recruiting “Purdue Guys,’’ and ended up in and near the Big Ten basement for a time. But a holdover, Rafeal Davis, began changing the culture, Biggie Swanigan provided a template for success, and this group took it to a whole new level.

It could have been greater. They could have won the Big Ten regular season, but a late-season three-game losing streak ended the dream of back-to-back conference titles. They blew a 14-point lead on Ohio State with 10 minutes to go. They lost to Michigan State in East Lansing on a buzzer beater. And then they did the unforgivable, somehow losing at Wisconsin.

But there’s still the Big Ten Tournament. There’s still the NCAA Tournament. That’s how this team will be judged. That’s how this team will be remembered. This is a group that lacks a catchy nickname, like the “Baby Boilers’’ and “Three Amigos.’’ They are vying for a name that will be revealed organically, something like…champions.

Whatever this group has gone through together – whatever Haas, in particular, has gone through, including homesickness and a tentative start to his college career – it’s nothing compared to what Erin has experienced. She has had brain surgeries in the hopes of quieting the seizures. She has had facial reconstruction after several face-first falls during seizures. She has diminished mental and social abilities, and will never be able to live alone.

But this dog, Nick, has changed her life, and it has changed the lives of the entire Haas family.

“It’s just really given Erin so much more freedom, and it’s actually reduced the number of seizures,’’ Rachel said. “She’s not nearly as anxious. She’s focused a little more on the dog now. The seizures are still daily, but before the dog, she’d have five to 25 (seizures) a day. Now we’re looking at maybe a couple a day, depending on the situation. But it’s much better.’’

That’s what Haas is about. That’s what all these guys are about, putting others before themselves. It’s why they were central to Purdue’s rebirth, why they’ve had such great success these last four years, why they have a chance to do something very special in the upcoming postseason. “I really believe,’’ Matt Painter said, “this crew, their best basketball is ahead of them.’’

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