CENTREVILLE — Centreville High School football coach Aaron Hartong’s debut guiding the Bulldogs in 2012 was a mentally and physically draining experience. The program finished 1-8 overall and Hartong initially found it difficult to reach some players who weren’t all that interested in a new coaching philosophy.
The team has since grown closer, having accepted Hartong and his calm, caring-but-demanding demeanor. But it’s also the hits this squad has taken outside of football recently that has formed a newfound solidarity.
It was just Aug. 11 that sophomore lineman Ridge Heiber and his four sisters lost their mother, 45-year-old Teresa Lee Heiber, to cancer. Three other Centreville football players are currently dealing with mothers battling the disease. Another team member nearly lost a stepbrother recently in a vehicular accident. Another said goodbye to a close friend who was unresponsive after a motorcycle crash and was taken off life support.
Even for Hartong, who, prior to taking a teaching/coaching position at his alma mater last year, worked at The Crossing in Middlebury — a school for troubled youth — and the St. Joseph County Jail running an educational program for inmates, this much personal tragedy in such a short amount of time was difficult to know how to handle.
“Nothing compares to this,” he said Sunday night. “Not like this; that’s for sure.”
Hartong left in the middle of Wednesday’s two-a-day practice session to pick Heiber up and reunite him with his teammates. The Bulldogs sprinted to Heiber, hugged their friend and did a team breakdown around him with “Hieber” as the call.
“That’s pretty powerful stuff,” Hartong said. “A lot of the guys just found out [about their mothers] right as the season was starting. They’ve been so sympathetic towards Ridge, obviously. They know what it’s like and hope that other people would do the same for them. This team is unified and always has been a family. I’m shocked how they’ve grown up this last year dealing with this stuff and what happened last season.”
Teresa Heiber was laid to rest Thursday. The entire team was in attendance at the memorial service at Sturgis Evangelical Church, where she attended, Hartong said.
“Ridge basically took care of his mom while she was dealing with this while his dad was on the road [working],” Hartong added. “I know he was at almost every summer weightlifting [session] despite what his mom was going through. I know one day he walked the eight miles from his house to lift. He’s a big boy; he’s got to be around 300 pounds. He walked eight miles and that’s the kind of kid he is. He loves his mom and he loves football, and he did what he could to take care of both.”
Hartong volunteered to house Heiber this year if need be. It’s already clear that his second family has its arms wide open as well.
“I don’t want him to drop off the edge right now with this kind of turmoil in his life,” Hartong added. “I’m really trying hard to keep him focused because he has the drive to go somewhere.”