On Saturday March 26th 2011, I was sitting at home with my wife watching a movie. My daughter was in bed at about 7:15 when the phone rang. That conversation changed my life forever…
Two years ago, Evan Weaver, Matthew Roe, Alexx Bauer, and Riley Zimmer were killed in an accident on an interstate in Alabama when a young man crossed the median in a severe rain storm and struck them head on. Three of the young men, and the driver that struck them died immediately. Alexx Bauer, as a first responder told the family, was still alive upon arrival, but died in transit to the hospital. The deaths of the four young men was a national news story, and shocked the small town of Angola.
In 2011, I was a history teacher and the Football Coach at Angola High School. By all accounts for me, and as far as I had known, life was great. I had a great job, in a great town, a wife and a daughter, a family with which I was close. Every day I woke up and made the drive to Angola, where I taught about the Greeks and Romans, then went to the weight room or practice field with my team and got to coach football. I had everything I ever wanted.
Today, in 2013, from an outsider’s perspective, you might say my life is very much the same. I am a history teacher and a football coach. I have had two more children and moved to East Noble High School. But those who truly know me, know I am a distinctly different person as I write this.
On Sunday, my family and I traveled to Angola, and visited the gravesites of Evan, Matt, Alexx and Riley. And as I knelt down to reflect upon the last two years of my life I was overwhelmed by memories, and I felt I had to share my perspective.
Being a football coach is kind of like being an uncle. But instead of being just an uncle, the parents have taken a 4 month vacation to Europe, and lose all communication with their son. And during that time, when there is no communication between parents and son, the uncle, who is responsible for the kid’s safety, grades, welfare, and mental state, learns more about the young man, and they build a unique relationship that is hard to describe to the outside world. You are not a parent, but in some ways, in some cases, you know, understand, and love them as if you were.
The memories I have of Alexx and Riley are great ones. Every day Riley was supposed to be grading papers for me, but instead was sleeping on the floor in my office watching Saving Private Ryan. Or when Alexx brought a beehive into my office and destroyed it. (Still haven’t figured that one out) Or when Riley hit a Fairfield WR so hard that he flipped him over and his tooth popped out. Or when Alexx just wouldn’t stop whistling in the back seat of the van on the way to West Virginia, and I stopped the van on the high way and beat the crap out of him with a pillow. I think about Riley’s cowboy hat and his piercing eyes. I think about Alexx and I, battling about Notre Dame and Ohio State. I think about eating at Coney Island with them after media day or playing dunk ball on my daughters’ toy rim in the basement. Or when we won the biggest game in Angola history when Alexx hit Seth Fifer in the end zone with seconds remaining at Wawasee.
If you have made it this far in my letter, and I hope you have, you’ll see there is a purpose here. I think that every year for as long as I am alive, this is going to be a tough time of the year for me, and I can only imagine what it holds for the Bauers, Weavers, Roe’s, and Zimmer’s. Last year, on spring break, I was at the Kenny Chesney concert in Ft Wayne when he began to sing Boys of Fall. I am a grown, man… I’ll admit it, I cry sometimes. That was Riley’s favorite song. And my daughter and I listen to it all the time.
As we come to Spring Break here in 2013, the purpose of me writing is complicated. After the accident, I spent a whirlwind summer with my team, traveling, trying to understand, trying to find closure, only to find myself feeling scared and pushing away the people I loved. I went through an emotional football season that year, with highs and lows, but never truly coming to grips with what we had all had been through.
Then, around Thanksgiving of 2011, I decided one night to go outside in the cold November air for a run around the block. And after about a half mile, I stopped in the middle of the road at 9PM and for some reason stared at the sky. In that moment I saw the stars the brightest I had ever seen them. The music coming through my headphones was “The Show Goes On” by Lupe Fiasco. It was one of Alexx’s favorite songs. And as I sat there and listened to the words, and stared at the sky, I decided that it was time to change some things. I wasn’t exactly sure at that point what I needed to change, but I could feel that it was time for something to change.
Think about all the times in your life when you have decided to change something. Time to spend more time with your family. Time to lose some weight, or get in shape. Time to eat healthier. Time to find a job you will love. Time to stop fighting with your parents or wife or husband. Time to give up smoking. Time to tell someone you love them more. Or we have all said things like “Someday I’m going to go to Rome.” Or, “Someday I’m getting on a train and heading west.” Or, “Someday I am going to buy a boat or try out for a team, or a play. I am going start a business. I am going to learn to play piano. Someday…….We always put it off until someday…
I found in that moment, on Cedar Canyons Road, under the stars, in the cold, under the influence of the musings of the aptly named “Lupe Fiasco”, that I didn’t need to change a whole bunch of things, but instead, I needed to change one thing that would affect all things.
It’s a complicated thing to give advice to someone. On one hand, I would love to tell you all to be so careful on Spring Break. Make great decisions, keep your hands at 10 and 2. On the other hand I would tell you to take chances. To go on an adventure. To live and love like you’ll not see tomorrow. And both are correct. In a dangerous world, we must all be vigilant, but if we don’t throw caution to the wind from time to time, how do we experience, everything life has to offer?
I can only offer my last two years as an example. At 29 I had a bucket list. At 31 I do not. I decided to not feel sorry for myself, or complain about the little trivial things that bother me throughout the day. I decided to focus my efforts on truly being “present” with my family. I began to focus on controlling what I can control with my job. I began to try and just be aware of the moment as much as possible, to try to understand other points of view, to try and feel more compassion. I am far from perfect, and I realize this more now than ever. But I have found a lot of peace in my quest to perfect the important aspects of my life.
Live for your family and friends. They will love you and protect you. Enjoy the moment. Make all the clichés of life real for you. Think about what each moment truly has to offer. Don’t be scared, but be aware. Try for a moment to understand where you are in space and time. It is truly remarkable that we stand and walk and live and love.
For me the lessons I have learned from the Angola Four have transformed the way I live my life. I have gained a perspective and a clarity of purpose that I have never felt before. I truly still wake up each day, and think about them, what they would be doing now, and of the great memories I had a chance to share with them, and still share with Gregg and Lisa Bauer, and Matt and Suzy Zimmer. In 2011 we added a permanent reminder to our family, by naming our 2nd daughter Alexxa Riley Amstutz. Every time I look at that little girl, I am reminded of the pure sweetness, mischief, fun, laughter, and love that these boys were.
Next month, I will run in the Fourever Friends 4 Mile Run in Angola, benefiting the scholarship foundation. It is a great event, and an easy and very affordable way to have some fun and support an amazing cause. As I do with everything, I will be competing as hard as I can and trying to win. It is the only hour of my life that I would ever wear an Ohio State shirt, and I will cherish every moment of it. But the moment I cross the finish line, in first, or last, I cannot wait to see old friends and family, and laugh and joke, and talk about memories of the Angola Four.
I used to think I had to travel on Spring Break in order to have fun, to experience life. I know understand that I may travel, or I may be still, and in either case, I will only be as full filled as I allow myself to be. Whether you are traveling, or spending time with friends and family, cherish each moment, be aware, and make great decisions.
At Alexx’s funeral, in 2011, I read a poem about his final football game, and how I will always remember him. And I also told Gregg and Lisa Bauer, I will do all I can to make sure that their memory never fades away, and that the way they lived life becomes a lesson for us all.
Each day I try to make that happen in the way I live my life. I hope I honor their memory in the way I raise my kids, the way I teach my students, the way I coach my team. In writing this to you today, I am simply helping to keep their message and their legacy vibrant, for all the world to see.