After the Whistle: Games – Sometimes we forget sports are…


Tony Ernst, a former Bellbrook H.S. and University of Dayton QB, passed away unexpectedly at age 26.

Ten years ago this September – the 18th to be exact – I had a day no one wants. Or forgets. That night – and for several more – sports were just a game. The
only outcome that really matters at that point you figure is life and

And then you realize you’re wrong.

My four year-old daughter has a knack – and voice – for demanding the spotlight.
She has already learned the age-old trick of talking louder than anyone else to grab control of a conversation. She’s also mastered the ability to maintain that control by talking more than anybody.

Her persistency and flair for the dramatic should serve her well down the road, which I can picture right now will be outfitted in dance recitals, musicals, plays and color guard.

Notice no sports. Anytime we pass a park and see soccer or T-Ball being played I ask her if she wants to do that and she always says “Daddy, I don’t want to play any games.”

Games…sometimes we forget that’s what sports are.

When we’re reminded – sometimes it’s not so casual.

Ten years ago this September – the 18th to be exact – I had a day no one wants. Or forgets.

The Saturday started out immaculate.

After several years of speculation and a lot of “what-ifs” I finally got to find out who my father would root for should his alma mater (Ohio University) play football against his favorite team (Ohio State).

It was an afternoon game at Ohio Stadium and I got my dad a sideline pass for his birthday. With Ohio winning in the first half and the Marching 110s performing in the Shoe, my father had one of the best times of his life. So did I.

After parting ways with my dad after the game, I met up with my longtime girlfriend (and now wife). We stayed at one of her friend’s houses near the OSU campus and did what 23 year-olds do on a Saturday night. Things were good. Great to be exact.

Then the call came.

The phone rang a little after midnight. There was trouble on the line. It was my future mother-in-law and she wanted to talk to me and not her daughter. She told me her son – my wife’s brother – was “gone.” He collapsed in front of his family at a local gathering place and was never revived. He died – at age 26 – with a wife who was seven months pregnant. Eventually a preexisting, unknown heart condition was found to be the cause.

My wife broke down when I had to tell her what happened. The ensuing drive to Dayton was the worst trip of my life.

That night – and for several more – sports were just a game. The only outcome that really matters at that point you figure is life and death.

And then you realize you’re wrong.

It’s what you do with your life before death that really counts. As I’ve heard before – it’s the dash on a tombstone that’s important, not the numbers.

The outcomes of sporting events don’t rank anywhere near the outcome of actual existence, but they do register in importance.

The ultimate goal of anyone is to better their own life and that of those around them – family, friends, co-workers, community, etc.

Not everyone gets this. Or practices it. Or believes it.

But “sports” gets it – and offers an avenue through which to make an impact on multiple levels – and for a long time.

Even in death my wife’s brother, Tony Ernst, is living proof of this.

In addition to being my brother-in-law, Tony was a standout athlete at Bellbrook High School and the University of Dayton. For this reason – playing sports – he was well known. For this reason – playing sports – he was able to impact a ton of people.

Tony was a 1,000-point scorer in basketball at Bellbrook, started varsity as a freshman and helped lead the Eagles to their first district title in history in 1990.

Football, though, was Tony’s sport.

As a quarterback he rewrote the BHS record books (still holds three of the top five single season passing totals in school history including the top spot) and helped Bellbrook win its first SWBL title in 10 years as a senior. For a time, Tony held the Miami Valley career passing record.

At UD, Tony got to go to a Stagg Bowl and helped lead the Flyers to their first Pioneer Football League title after the jump from D-III to I-AA.

As a junior high kid, I looked up to Tony. In high school he was a teammate. In college he was a workout partner in the summer.

He impacted others as well.

Over 5,000 people attended Tony’s viewing. He’s been inducted into the Bellbrook/Sugarcreek Schools Hall of Fame. His Bellbrook football and basketball numbers are retired. And his daughter, now nine, does play sports – soccer and basketball.

In addition to a memorial scholarship set up for a pair of senior students (male and female) at Bellbrook High School, there’s also an annual golf outing in honor of Tony.

The event – the Tony Ernst Memorial Golf Outing – was held in June for the ninth time at Sugar Valley Country Club in Sugarcreek Township.

The outing raises money to pay for two graduate assistants for UD’s football program for the upcoming season.

Thus far, coaches who have gone through the program have had success at the high school, collegiate and even professional level.

Nick Black is the head coach at Graham High School.

Mike Neuberger is the receivers coach at Maryland University; Brian Steiner is the defensive ends coach at Clarion University; Landon Fox is the secondary coach at UD; and Eric Evans is the receivers coach at Albany University. Brian Tracey is an athletic administrator at Elon University.

The capstone? Josh Boyer. Boyer, who coached at UD in 2001, is the secondary coach for the New England Patriots. The 2009 season is his first as an NFL position coach.

Tony may not have played professionally but he’s helped someone realize the dream of making it that far. He’s also helped countless others achieve their goals too – and to this day still does.

Appropriately, the motto of Tony’s outing? “Forever in the Game.”

Games…sometimes we forget sports are more than that.

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