KENDALLVILLE — When you get a promotion or reach a special place in your life, you are especially thankful of many people you come across who have impacted you on the way to that significant destination or event. You don’t need a holiday to remember them and count your blessings.
As Luke Amstutz approaches coaching in his first state championship football game for East Noble, he has not forgotten four young men in Angola. And he has not forgotten their families he mourned with, shared with and listened to for much of the year 2011.
A lot changed in Angola when Angola High School seniors Alexx Bauer, Riley Zimmer, Matt Roe and Evan Weaver were killed in an automobile accident on March 26, 2011, in Chilton County, Alabama, when their vehicle, going north on Interstate 65, was struck by an Alabama man whose vehicle crossed the median coming from the other direction.
Many lives changed forever. What was enjoyed will not be as enjoyable. Holidays might have become agonizing inconveniences.
It’s not a stretch to say that the accident changed how some high schools and spring sports coaches viewed spring break. It has totally become a week for families and friends to be together, not an occasional hard-line play-or-else ultimatum with prep teams.
Bottom line, life after March 26, 2011, was not what it used to be is, and may never be again.
It was probably around this time of year that life really became difficult. The outpouring of love and support far and wide quieted down after Angola’s first-round football sectional home loss to Plymouth. A football season of remembrance toward the Angola four began with a special invitation to an elite 7-on-7 tournament in Hoover, Alabama, in the summer of 2011 and continued on with a tribute early in a home game as a couple of Hornets wore Bauer and Zimmer’s black jerseys while running one special play. Golf outings raised funds for scholarships in honor of the four boys, and that went on strong for a couple of years.
Amstutz was at the forefront a lot. He and wife Shay even named their second child after two of the boys. It was a daughter named Alexxa Riley.
It was an honor for Luke to be the spokesperson, the face of not only a football program, but of a small town school and community healing together.
Luke is partial to his players. Luke, Shay and their children have grown close to the Bauer and Zimmer families. Luke has known Riley’s parents Matt and Susie going back to when he was a student and basketball player at Tri-State University (now called Trine).
Still, Angola lost four quality young people, and the football coach has not lost sight of that either.
“I still talk about Alexx and Riley to my football teams,” Amstutz said. “They were full of life and happiness and they loved to compete and get after it. It brings tears to my eyes and I’m proud that me and my wife helped fill a void and be there for them.
“We’ve seen the Weavers and Roes from time to time. We don’t forget them, for sure.”
Amstutz and Matt Zimmer are big Notre Dame football fans and they and their wives have gone to Irish games together.
The Bauers and Amstutzes have grown very close over the past several years. They’ve gone out on local lakes together and Gregg has been helpful to Luke grilling and smoking food, like ribs and brisket. Gregg and wife Lisa have been guests at Amstutz family reunions.
“He does a better job than me,” Bauer said with joy by phone Wednesday evening. “He can grill a real good steak.”
Gregg Bauer has been to every East Noble home game since 2014. Amstutz has given him a season pass and allows him to sit in on coaches meetings.
Bauer said he is into football, but the energy is not the same since Alexx died. Gregg was a big Ohio State fan, but does not really keep track of the Buckeyes as much as he used to.
Following the Knights has brought some excitement for football back for Bauer.
“Losing a child is painful enough. But it can get kinda lonely,” Bauer said. “Luke helps me with that by inviting me onto the field.
“Football isn’t quite as fun. But Luke is bringing joy to my life by letting me do this.”
The stories Bauer shared by phone on Wednesday made me smile and even well up a bit. He had spots of emotion, too, but held up very well.
Amstutz has worn Alexx’s Ohio State t-shirt as an undershirt throughout this playoff run. Amstutz is definitely not an Ohio State fan, but he wanted the t-shirt anyway. “That’s special to me,” Gregg Bauer said.
Amstutz joined the Bauers for senior day at Franklin College’s football game in 2015. Franklin recognized Alexx Bauer that day and presented Gregg and Lisa with a jersey, a plaque, a helmet and a football autographed by the team.
Former Grizzlies coach Mike Leonard, who resigned last week after 17 seasons at the helm, only talked to Alexx a couple of times in recruiting the quarterback. But Leonard believed that Alexx would have gone to Franklin and retired No. 10 from 2011-14 as a tribute to him. No Grizzlies player wore that number during those four seasons.
“I know why now,” Gregg Bauer said with a better understanding of why Leonard did what he did. “Coach Leonard is the most fantastic human being I ever met. He is a wonderful person. I love him dearly.”
Bauer has enjoyed watching East Noble play this season. He said the defense has made the biggest improvement to put EN in a position to win a state title.
“I’m so pleased for Luke,” Bauer said. “Every game they can run it or pass it. After the Mishawaka game (on Aug. 30), he had a feeling they would be a really good team.
“The offense has been good enough and the defense has been special,” Bauer added. “As they say, defense wins championships.”
Alexx Bauer was Amstutz’s first real good quarterback in his head coaching career. Alexx began modernizing an Angola offense that has historically been run-heavy.
Amstutz’s success developing quarterbacks has carried on over eight seasons at East Noble, most recently with Andrew McCormick and Bailey Parker.
But this friendship has grown way beyond a quarterback-coach relationship. If there are any positives from a terrible tragedy, it’s building incredibly strong friendships that will last a lifetime.
In dealing with unfathomable loss, Amstutz and the families of the Angola four have had a great impact on each other.
Those families helped Amstutz be a better leader of young people and helped him be in the position he is in today.
“I think after it happened, it closed me down. I wanted to lay on the couch and cry,” Amstutz said. “As time went on, I’ve learned to appreciate more. I see my family as a positive reminder of the boys.
“Being a football coach is not a job. A lot of it is out of love.”
Bauer said, “I don’t think Luke knows how much he helps me.”
Bauer said he and Lisa will be at Lucas Oil Stadium this afternoon when East Noble plays Evansville Memorial in the Class 4A state championship game. Amstutz said Matt and Suzie Zimmer are expected to be there as well.