As pandemonium erupted on the field at East Noble following the Knights’ 29-24 victory over Hobart last Friday, Coach Luke Amstutz was in the thick of the celebration.
But as he made contact with one man in particular, Amstutz’s smile grew while also showing visible signs of emotion.
Amstutz lifted up his shirt, revealing a red tee with an Ohio State logo emblazoned upon it. The man, Gregg Bauer, had tears in his eyes.
In late March of 2011, four boys from Angola High School were traveling home from Spring Break in Alabama when their car was struck by a minivan that crossed the median. All four, including Gregg Bauer’s son Alexx and teammate Riley Zimmer, were killed.
Amstutz was prepping for his fourth season as head coach of the Angola Hornets when the tragedy struck. Alexx was the team’s starting quarterback in 2010 while Zimmer had been named All-NECC that same season.
“As soon as Luke found out, he got in his car and he rushed right up here,” said an emotional Gregg. “We had been at Spring Break too and we had knew what had happened. When we arrived home at 12:30 a.m., Luke was right there.”
Gregg and his wife Lisa remember a lot of wonderful people over the course of the whirlwind week following their son’s passing. Gregg credits many, but is quick to mention Amstutz and how supportive he was, even to the point of reading a poem that had been written following Angola’s first-ever Class 4A postseason victory in 2010, a 19-18 win over Wawasee.
For Amstutz, he could not imagine the pain that the Bauer and Zimmer families were going through. He had babysat Riley while in college, while the coach-quarterback relationship is arguably the deepest within the locker room.
“The families grieved and so did I,” Amstutz said. “For awhile, I just didn’t know if I wanted to be a football coach anymore. I wanted to get away from Angola because of the memories of it all.
“Eventually, I started focusing and valuing what was in my life.”
With Amstutz’s wife Shea expecting around the time of the boys’ deaths, the family decided to name their newborn daughter Alexa Riley Amstutz after the two football players who had died in the accident.
“It was unexpected,” Gregg said. “What an honor.”
Amstutz stayed just one more year at Angola, electing to move on to East Noble beginning in 2012. For him, it was an agonizing decision, one that he reviewed with many before making it official, including Gregg Bauer, who had a younger son as a sophomore on the 2011 squad.
“I still remember that conversation where he was thinking of going,” Bauer said. “In the end, I think he made the right decision.”
Since Gregg’s son Austin was still playing at Angola, he couldn’t make it to any East Noble games to support Amstutz. That is until 2013. With the Hornets taking on Bishop Dwenger in sectional play, Gregg decided to act.
“It sounds bad as a dad, but I told Austin that if Bishop Dwenger was up by a lot by halftime, I was going to head over to the East Noble game,” Gregg said. “From that time on, I have been on the sidelines.”
Gregg has tried to be on the sideline for every single East Noble home game since, while also making an attempt to get to a fair amount of road games. To Gregg, remembering his son goes along hand-in-hand with supporting the coach his son was so close to.
“I know that Luke loved Alexx and Alexx loved Luke,” Gregg said. “That is still a big deal.”
Just how big of a deal is it?
Luke Amstutz is a die-hard Notre Dame fan. There are few fall Saturdays that Amstutz cannot be found in and around Notre Dame Stadium in South Bend. He admittedly loves the Fighting Irish and despises Ohio State.
“He says that he can’t even handle crossing the state line into Ohio,” said Gregg about Amstutz with a laugh.
Yet when the Bauer family was getting rid of some of Alexx’s things a few years back, Gregg asked Amstutz if he would like the Ohio State t-shirt that Alexx would wear under his uniform during games at Angola.
“We are big Ohio State fans, we are from Ohio,” Gregg said. “My wife’s cousin played for the 1968 National Championship team at Ohio State and her aunt and uncle lived next to Woody Hayes. When Alexx was growing up he was just getting into following football when OSU won the title in 2002.”
Over the years Amstutz has taken good care of the shirt with the logo of the program he despises. He wore it under his East Noble garb for the sectional title game, then again for semistate.
On Saturday, it will make another appearance.
“It is disgusting,” said Amstutz with a laugh about wearing the shirt. “Alexx loved Ohio State. He always wanted to be a Buckeye.”
It is a way to honor Alexx and remember both him and Riley, two boys taken way too soon simply by fate, circumstance or purely being unlucky.
Come Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, Gregg will be unable to be on the sideline with East Noble. More stringent regulations for field passes will have him up in the stands cheering on the Knights.
But no matter how close or how far away Gregg is from Amstutz, the bond will still be there, born between Luke and Alexx years ago and continuing with Alexx’s parents. Amstutz has found a way to be a part of both the Bauers and Zimmers lives in the years following the tragedy.
“Losing a child is very, very painful, but it can also be quite lonely,” Gregg said. “Luke helps me not to be alone. He welcomes me and Lisa, whether it be on the sideline or at family get togethers.
“Luke has been a special person in helping me. I’m not sure if he knows that or not.”
The feeling is reciprocal.
“Alexx and Riley were great kids and their families have become really close to mine over the years,” Amstutz said. “We hope we can make them proud one more time on Saturday.