The Light That Shines On
Unless you’re looking for it, you’ll probably never find Sharon Springs, Kansas.
Sitting within the Northwestern Plains of Kansas, the entire town is made up of around 800 residents. It doesn’t have a single stop light to it’s name. But like many of the small towns that make up the Western side of Kansas, football is king. And out here, football is played with eight men on each side of the ball. If someone on the field is special, it’ll be known in a short amount of time.
Along with the residents, you’ll find a single grocery store, bank, post office, small movie theater, a couple places to eat and a few churches. Nearly everything is located on the central strip that connects the North side of the town to the South side of the town, separated by train tracks. When you pass someone driving down the street, you wave. Not only do you know them - you know their spouses, children, siblings and pets names.
If you’re wondering how the kids spend their down time - the truth is, they don’t have a ton of it.
Sharon Springs is a farm town. Many of the kids show up to their morning weights workout fresh off their duties out at the family farm. A full day of school follows that, with evening athletic practices rounding out the day. On some days, most the kids will go home and get ready for another day. On others, they’re greeted at the door by a few more chores to finish up before supper. That’s life in the country.
But on Friday nights, that all stops. On Friday nights, there’s only one thing that matters. And that’s Wildcat Football.
November 3, 2015 – 8:00 AM
On this November morning, the town was buzzing. The Wildcats had a matchup with the Otis-Bison Cougars later in the evening. It was a necessary step to move one game closer to the State Title, a crown they last set on top of their heads in 2007. And their star player went by the name of Luke Schemm.
Luke Schemm, despite coming from such a small place, was a larger than life figure.
Luke was an early to bed, early to rise type of kid. When his alarm would go off early in the morning, it read ‘Get Better Everyday.’ The tune that woke him up was ‘We Are The Champions.’ It was clear that he had goals to go after that day, goals that more often than not, he met.
His family has a farm a few miles outside of town, where you could find him working long into the summer evenings and on early fall mornings. And that was before the work he put into his academic and athletic endeavors. He was a big kid. He stood 6’2, 195 pounds of pure muscle.
“Luke never missed a weight session, not once. That’s from his sixth grade year forward. He was very committed during the school year and during the summer.” Athletic Director and basketball coach Larry O’Connor said.
And it didn’t stop there. Luke was a three-sport star. He was an All-State running back and linebacker along with being an All-State forward on the State Champion basketball team. In the Spring, he took his talent to the track, where he was a perennial state High Jump contender, clearing an all-time best of 6’8. He was expected to clear 6’10 his senior year while cruising to an easy State Champion medal.
But on this night, it was all about football and getting one step closer to that football State Title he was yet to claim. As the crisp fall morning turned to afternoon, excitement grew in Sharon Springs. Cars were starting to claim their spaces near the entry, guaranteeing the best views for the game that evening. Players roamed the halls in their jerseys while cheerleaders could be spotted in their uniforms, preparing for the nights festivities.
Kickoff was scheduled for 6:00 local time, meaning there was little time to be wasted after school let out shortly after 3:00. As players gathered in the locker room to prepare for the game, it was understood that Luke would have to carry the load that night.
And for nearly three quarters, carry the load he did.
“He’ll get back up. He’s a fighter.”
There were a few minutes left in the third quarter when Luke crossed the goal line for the fifth time, finishing off a 60-yard touchdown run. He had now racked up over 300 yards on the night and was called upon to finish off the drive with a two-point conversion, which he unsurprisingly did.
“The kid was a freak that night. He had already scored five touchdowns, one of them called back, so four of them good. That was the best I’ve ever seen him run.” His head football coach, Jeff Hennick, said.
The Wildcats now led handily and Luke was well on his way to having a night that those in attendance would talk about for years. But as he was huddling on his sideline prior to the kickoff, something went wrong.
Luke had fallen into Hennick’s arms. Eyes open but unresponsive.
“My initial reaction was that he was dehydrated.” Hennick said.
As the sideline scrambled and the ambulance found it’s way to the sideline, worry set in across the stands and for those watching online. Something was wrong, it was just that no one seemed to know what it was.
“I thought, ‘He’ll get back up.’ That’s who he was, he was a fighter.” Luke’s long time girlfriend Cassidy Kriegh told me.
But Luke did not get back up. He was rushed to an area hospital before being flown to Denver, Colorado. During this time, his family is scrambling. His mom was able to stay with him, staying by his side to Denver. His dad, out of town for work, was in Nevada arranging for a way to get to Denver. His brother was on the other side of the state in Manhattan, Kansas, gathering information as it became available while waiting for travel arrangements to be made on his end. It was chaos.
After Luke arrived at the ER in Denver, it didn’t take long to confirm the horrific news everyone had feared.
Luke Schemm, at age 17, was gone.
September 27, 2016 – 10:58 AM
As I walk into Jeff Hennick’s office, it’s clear that this is the space of a football coach. There’s game tape rolling on his computer and a seemingly endless supply of notes and reminders.
Hennick used to quarterback the Wildcat football team. He led them to their last football State Title back in 2007 before graduating in 2008. He then went on to play at Bethel College in Central Kansas and powerhouse Garden City Community College, in Southwest Kansas, before coming back to coach at his alma mater.
He had an older brother go through the same high school, playing for the Wildcat football team as well. His mother taught there, roaming the same halls, for 30 years. His father runs Hennick Lumber in Sharon Springs, which has been family owned for over 70 years. Hennick is Sharon Springs, through and through.
It’s been nearly a year since Luke has passed and his team is beginning preparations for that weeks opponent. The opponent is none other than the same Otis-Bison Cougars, right back on the same field that Luke had collapsed on a year earlier.
He motions for me to take a seat while he wraps up a phone call. I learn that the phone call is in regards to landing a new wheelchair for a third grader that has outgrown his. Hennick is hoping to lock in a grant to get this done.
“He’s a heck of a kid. He’s outgrown the chair he’s in now and we need to get him into a new one. I was put in touch with (her) and told she may be able to help. So we’re going to see what we can do.”
After some small talk, the realization sets in that he’s going to have to talk in detail about what happened that night. He knows why I’m there.
“He was unstoppable that night.” Hennick says.
“He puts one in and he comes back and gives me a high five and goes to get in the kickoff huddle. And I go over there to talk to him and I just remember him yelling ‘Coach!’, that’s all he said. Then he goes limp and I catch him.”
As mentioned earlier, Hennick’s first thought was that maybe Luke was dehydrated. He yelled for water immediately. It didn’t take long for him to realize the situation was more serious.
“It’s like he’s trying to talk but he can’t talk. He can’t get any words out. His eyes were still open but it’s like he’s trying to talk and he just can’t.”
Hennick said his eyes then rolled into the back of his head. By that point, Athletic Director Larry O’Connor had joined Hennick on the sideline. Luke’s mother, Lisa, was on the sideline. He motioned for the ambulance immediately but at that point, they really didn’t know what was going on either, unable to see Luke collapse in the middle of the huddle.
“Of course my boys, they’re shocked. I’m shocked. I just remember telling them to say a prayer. I reminded them that he’s a fighter, he’ll be fine.”
Hennick said, even at that point, that he thought Luke would be fine and probably even rejoin the team the following week. There were no signs pointing to any kind of injury leading up to the game. Luke had been fun, personable and at full capacity. Keep in mind, he was on pace for a 500 yard, 5+ touchdown night. There were no outward signs of anything being amiss.
“There wasn’t a ton of contact on his final play, either. Takes the ball, takes the hit, crosses the goal line, flips the ball to the ref and jogs back. No ill effects.”
After a long stoppage, the game continued. The Wildcats still won handily and Hennick had joined his team and the opposing team for a meal after the game. It was then that Hennick became fully aware of how serious the situation with his star player was.
“I’m texting with his mom as we’re eating and Coach O (O’Connor) was keeping me updated too. I don’t want to be a nuisance, so I’m trying to leave her (Lisa Schemm) be. Eventually, Coach O comes and tells me that he doesn’t think it’s good and that he’s not responding. He said they were headed to Denver. At that point, I really started to get worried.”
A million scenarios start running through Hennick’s mind. What could have caused this? Did I miss something? He’s doing everything he can to remember every detail of the night, even the small ones.
“I’m not thinking head injury at all. I’m thinking maybe it was heart related at that point. Nothing like that had occurred to me. He got a concussion the first game of the year but this was Game 11, he had been fine for a long time now. It just never occurred to me. I knew something wasn’t right but head wasn’t what came to my mind.” Hennick said.
He then went home to watch the game film to see if he had missed anything. At this point, the news he’s receiving is that it could be a head injury. Hennick studied the film over and over, looking for anything he may have missed. That’s easier said than done. Luke averaged around 20 tackles per game, along with receiving 30+ carries a night. Conservatively, you’re looking at 50-60 instances that he’ll take on or hand out some contact.
“With any linebacker, there’s going to be popping. That’s just the way it is. But I thought maybe I could single out one extra violent pop, and I just couldn’t. I watched that entire game film twice that night and it’s been watched by others too, and as far as I know nothing out of the ordinary has stood out to anyone.”
Hennick said he’s been contacted on numerous occasions by hospital centers and head trauma organizations. He’s politely declined each inquiry. He does go out of his way to look more closely for head trauma, at practice and during games. Even if a kid tells him he has a headache, he’s pulled. No questions asked.
As the night wore on, he finally dozed off and fell asleep around 1:30 AM. Then, he gets a phone call. It’s one of his assistant coaches, Matt Brown, on the line. Brown is married to the daughter of Pastor Rick Dewees, who had joined the Schemm’s out in Denver.
“He calls me and he says, ‘Luke’s gone.’ And at first, you know I, I couldn’t wrap my head around it. He repeated himself. I couldn’t believe it. I hang up the phone and lay back down in bed and it wasn’t but 10 minutes later I call him back and say, ‘What did you say to me?” He repeated himself, saying Luke had passed.”
He broke down. He didn’t know what to do, really. He called his long time coach and current Athletic Director, Larry O’Connor. “We’re trying to figure out what the heck, I mean, I don’t know. He’s the same way I am, we’re both in shock.” Hennick said.
He then called his high school football coach and current assistant coach, Kevin Ayers, along with current assistant coach, Dennis Gfeller. After speaking with them, he’s sobbing. It’s 3:00 AM now and he’s completely broken down. He goes and gets into his pickup and drives out to his parents house.
“As soon as I get in the door, Lisa (Schemm) calls me. You know, as strong as she is, I’m tore up, and I can’t imagine as a mother what she was going through. But at the same time she’s wondering how I am. She’s wondering about me. There was a lot of other things she could have been wondering about at that time but she was wondering about me.” Hennick tells me, fighting back tears.
“They (Schemm Family) are the strongest people I know. I’m sure they go through their times but they’re so strong. Like Friday, you know. That will be emotional for me. At the same time, I know he (Luke) is always with us. I think Friday will be good for the boys. The last time out, we had a guy that was phenomenal and he’ll be there with us again.”
Hennick struggled for a long time, placing blame on himself. As little sense that made, imagine yourself in that situation. He’s 25 years old, a brand new head coach at the school he spent Kindergarten through 12th grade in. That alone is enough to make most people in their mid-20’s stay up at night. Add in that he had his star player collapse in his arms, never to get back up. That’s a lot to take on.
It’s better now. Any member of the community is quick to throw an arm around him, ask him how he’s doing. The Schemm family has also been great for him.
“They (Schemm Family) have been great with it. From the first night, Lisa called me and told me that there was nothing that I did wrong. That meant a lot. She told me it was an act of God that Luke was taken that night. The entire area was great. People from Sharon Springs, (neighboring town) Weskan, people that haven’t talked in awhile. You know, there’s been a wall there for some reason, and all of the sudden after this, that wall was broken down. People rallied around each other. It all came together for one cause. And that was probably the best thing.”
A year removed, Hennick is more open to the fact that there’s nothing he could have done. He’s not beating himself up as much. But that doesn’t mean the doubt is gone forever.
“There are still times I wonder, I question myself.” He added.
Hennick goes to Luke’s grave pretty often. He sits and talks with him. He talks about everyday happenings along with how the season is going. He makes sure Luke is kept up to date. Sometimes, he asks for signs.
After the team got back to playing last November, they had practice on a Thursday night. They had to go to the game field to get some lighting. Hennick says he remembers shutting all the lights off and then coming in to visit with the coaches to go over the game plan.
A couple of his players popped in and let him know there was a light on out at the field.
“The first thing that popped into my head was Luke. I walk out there and I have a tear running down my face but I can’t help but smile. It was one of the neatest things I have ever seen.”
Even after the following game, that light was persistent. Hennick was in eating with his team when a couple of the players said they were going to go visit Luke’s grave site. As they left the back of the school, they noticed that the light was back on again.
“I called Coach O (O’Connor) and asked if he shut all the lights off. He says, ‘I know I did.’ But it was on. We all smile. We called his folks and they came out and we all just sat. It was something else. You know, if a guy doesn’t have any faith, they’re not going to be able to get through that. It was some closure a little bit, knowing that he’s okay.”
“If a guy doesn’t have any faith, they’re not going to be able to get through that.”
Hennick keeps going back to that night, that tape. He’s looking for anything that stands out, maybe he missed it after all this time. But he finds nothing. The only thing he sees on that tape is a kid giving it his all and having the game of his life.
“It was like he had his guardian angel with him that night, telling him ‘Let’s go all out.’ You know, one last ride.”
September 29, 2016 – 11:07 AM
Rick Dewees has just finished renovating his new office space located in the upstairs area of his Gateway To Grace Church. “It only took three days, this was actually an old storage room.” Dewees said.
Rick and his wife Lisa lead the church located in Sharon Springs. They had both started ministry in 1990, with Rick beginning his career in youth ministry in the area in 2000. After a brief stint a couple hours away beginning in 2008, he came back to settle in Sharon Springs in 2011.
As we take a seat, there’s no time wasted. When you have to talk about such a tragic, devastating topic, you don’t just feel the mood change. You feel the environment change. It’s like walking into a shopping mall and finding yourself in a locked cellar.
The Schemm family has been a staple of Gateway To Grace Church, formerly known as Hi-Plains Baptist, since Rick returned in 2011. Not only was he by the side of the family the night of November 3rd, he was in the hospital room in Denver. He was present for the entire immediate aftermath. He was in the crowd when Luke collapsed.
“We were sitting in the northeast corner of the endzone. I didn’t see him drop but when everyone got situated, we were all aware of what was going on. We saw Luke lying there, then saw Coach O’Connor, Coach Hennick and Lisa (Schemm) there among others.”
While most assumed it was a relatively minor injury at first, Dewees never had that thought.
“Actually I didn’t think it was minor. I knew it was serious, if not as serious as it was. I just had a really bad feeling about it. Right before they loaded him into the ambulance, my wife and I were talking and she said, ‘This just does not look good.’ Right as they were loading him in, I texted David (Schemm) and I asked him if he would like me to go to the hospital with Lisa.”
He didn’t get a reply right away, as David was on the phone with Lisa trying to gather information and make travel arrangements. When he did reply, he told Dewees it would be great if he could join Lisa as he was trying to secure a flight home. Dewees up and left to be with Lisa by Luke’s side.
Upon learning that Luke would be flown to Denver, he decided to call David, who was still having trouble finding a flight to get him to Denver. Dewees then asked Lisa if she would like him to accompany her to Denver as well, knowing that David may not be able to get there for awhile. She said that she would appreciate that.
Dewees and his wife, Lisa, then stopped by the Schemm house to pick up clothes for Lisa before stopping by their own home to pick up some clothing. They then headed out to Denver.
“As best I understand it, we arrived at the hospital in Denver shortly after they had arrived. We walked into the Emergency Room and Lisa just shook her head. She told us that the doctors had informed her that he’s not going to make it.”
Roughly ten minutes later, David was able to arrive at the Emergency Room. He had pulled a lot of strings to secure a flight from Lake Tahoe, Nevada to Denver in the middle of the night.
“He came in and went right to his wife, kissed Luke, turned to the doctor and said, ‘What are we looking at?’ She explained that, more in doctors terms, I can’t remember exactly what she said, he was gone. She told David that there was nothing they could do. It was hard to witness.”
“It was a very emotional night.” Dewees tells me, holding back tears.
The next day, a team bus came up to Denver along with various other family and friends. It was a long, emotional, devastating day. After everyone had left, the discussion had turned toward funeral arrangements. Dewees offered to make some phone calls, contact the funeral home and other things, anything to take the burden off of the family. He also told David and Lisa not to feel obligated to ask him to do the funeral just because he was there, he wanted them to make the decision they felt was right.
After a brief back and forth conversation, David told Dewees that it needed to be him.
“It was very humbling. Very humbling. You know, I’ve commented to people before that I’d much rather do a funeral than a wedding. Not that weddings aren’t important. But the excitement of a wedding, a lot of things you say can go in one ear and out the other. Everyone is nervous and excited. But with a funeral, I try not to take that lightly because you have people that are entrusting their rawest emotions, to handle that in a very precious way.”
“His death woke people up but it was his life that has really inspired people.”
On November 10th, the funeral was held in the Wallace County High School gymnasium.
“I didn’t even write anything down until the night before. We were so busy, trying to be there for anyone that needed us. But I wanted to make sure that it was right, I didn’t want to rush into it. I was up until midnight or so working on the service the night before the funeral.”
It was an unbelievable site, with schools from all over the country coming in their school colors, supporting the Schemm family. The gymnasium, with seats squeezed in everywhere you could imagine, was well past capacity.
“Seeing the community rally together, you know, it happens now and then because of the big tragedies. I think we take it for granted between times. A lot of times we like to say that we don’t like small towns because everyone knows everyones business, you know, people know what you’re doing before you do. But it’s because of that family environment, that we do rally around each other. It’s a network, in a sense, and we all truly do care about each other. We just take it for granted until something big happens.”
Dewees led the funeral. Jeff Hennick spoke. Luke’s family spoke. Stories were told - stories of growing up on the farm, the competitive nature of his relationship with his older brother, Clay, stories of his athletic accomplishments. It was an emotional, heart-wrenching hour and a half. But the love and support shown for this family and community was nothing short of extraordinary.
“That was the largest funeral I’ve ever done, I think they said around 1,300 people were there.” Dewees added.
A year later, Dewees knows that there is still work to be done. Although there are wounds that will never heal, he takes on the role of doing what can be done to help those that need it cope as best possible.
“There’s still grief. There’s still pain. I still check in with David and Lisa, make sure they are doing alright. With Cassidy as well, she went through an unbelievable trauma at 16 years old. Her plans completely changed. I check in with all of them. I want them to know they always have someone to speak to.”
If there is any comfort to be taken, Dewees sees it with the way Luke’s death has impacted those in the community. Everyone from the adults down to the children filling the elementary hallways are feeling his impact on a daily basis.
“It has been amazing to see the impact that he had, as people reflect on his life. The way he lived his life. It’s incredible to see the impact it’s made on people. His death woke people up but it was his life that has really inspired people. That’s something to, you know, I guess that’s the legacy.”
Dewees moved back to Sharon Springs to mentor the youth in the area. He never imagined he’d have to watch one of those kids be lowered into the ground before reaching their graduation day.
September 29, 2016 – 2:33 PM
It’s clear that she’s nervous as she walks through the door.
Cassidy Kriegh was dating Luke Schemm when he passed. Actually, they had been together for quite awhile.
“Yesterday would have been our three years.” Kriegh told me.
As for talking about that night, it was clear the emotional toll it was taking on her.
“I actually didn’t know it was him that went down at first. I was talking with some people across the field by some cars.”
Keep in mind that the team was in a huddle situation on the sideline when he went down, it was immediately clear to anyone who it was at first, except for those on the sideline. But it didn’t take long for Kriegh to know that the situation was serious.
“I got a phone call from a friend and she told me that it wasn’t going to be good. So we got into a car and went to Tribune.”
Tribune is the nearest hospital along with having an airport capable of flying a medical team to Denver, the nearest major city, which sits over 200 miles from Sharon Springs. Medical personnel along with family, Pastor Rick Dewees and Kriegh went to Tribune that night.
But Kriegh said that earlier phone call is what switched her mindset from him being alright to the realization that something was seriously wrong. While Luke was flown to Denver, she went home to prepare to go to Denver herself early the next morning after getting the phone call that no, Luke was not going to be alright.
Cassidy Kriegh, 16, had lost her boyfriend of nearly two years.
September 29, 2016 – 7:37 PM
It’s really a beautiful place, the home of David and Lisa Schemm. David built the house in 1995, finishing it up only a month before their oldest, Clay, was born. The home, located a few miles outside of Sharon Springs, had been the only home Luke had ever known.
As I walk in the door, I’m shown a shrine that had been put together for Luke. There’s a collage with various photos along with senior photos of Luke. They are proud of their son, always have been.
Lisa was in the stands the night Luke collapsed. David, the Vice President of the National Association of Wheat Growers, was in Lake Tahoe, Nevada for business. It didn’t take Lisa long to spring into action when she knew it was Luke down on the field.
“In emergency situations I’m pretty straightforward, we need to get done what has to be done. My initial thoughts were that it was probably spinal. Just because of how he went down and not being conscious by the time I got there.” Lisa said.
David, being well over 1,000 miles away, was watching the game live online.
“I had wheat growing meetings there, I had our officers meeting that evening. I had told the other officers, hey guys, I’m going to be streaming this online. I had to turn down the volume because we were trying to carry on a conversation as well. I still remember, turning to one of the other officers and saying, ‘My Lord, Luke is a beast tonight.’ He was just absolutely tearing them up!” David said.
After Luke crossed the goal line for that last two-point conversion, their lives changed forever.
“I had just glanced away and I looked back to my iPad and I became quickly alarmed. All of the kids were grouped around and there was a kid laying down. And instantly as a parent, you quickly scan for your kid, their number, and Luke’s number was not up there.” David said.
He became panicked at that point. He didn’t know what happened, just as those in attendance had no idea what had happened. David had seen him run the extra point in but didn’t see anything that followed. To this day, he hasn’t been able to watch that game again.
David immediately called Lisa and at the time, Lisa didn’t know much either. She wasn’t being told much because no one knew what the issue was. She told David that he was down and they were going to be headed to Tribune, the town located thirty miles away that’s equipped with a hospital.
He asked if he was breathing. She said, “No.”
David went on. “At that moment, luckily, we had some good officers on staff. They told me, ‘You need to get a plane back as quickly as you can.’ Within 45 minutes, they were trying to find me a commercial flight back. Then, Lisa had told me they were going to Flight For Life him to Denver. And at that time, the next commercial flight they had for me wasn’t until 6:00 AM the next morning. I’m still in Lake Tahoe, the closest commercial airport is in Reno. We were already on our way there.”
David had just arrived into his room when he got another phone call from a member of the staff. He was told that other arrangements had been made and to come back down. He then learned that they had made arrangements for him to take a private jet back to Denver.
“From my perspective, by the time I got on the jet, I had nothing definite. We were flying in the air, basically at the same time as Lisa and Luke in the air to Denver.” David said.
“I knew it wasn’t good. When Luke had gone down, he was having seizures. Then they took him and wouldn’t let me in the back of the ambulance. Well, by the time we were on our way to Tribune, they had already called for the Flight For Life. Well, they couldn’t land in Tribune. So we had to wait and go to (another neighboring town) Leoti. We didn’t even get on the plane until 10:30 and it happened at 7:30.” Lisa said, fighting back tears.
From there, things moved quickly. They made it from Leoti to Denver in 45 minutes. Immediately upon entering the plane, Lisa was told that there was some major issues. She was told that his breathing was doing alright but that his oxygen levels weren’t up.
“I’m like, that doesn’t even make sense.” Lisa said.
After landing in Denver and getting Luke loaded into the ambulance, Lisa heard shouts about lights and sirens. That’s when the ultimate panic started to set in.
They ended up arriving at the hospital shortly before midnight. At that time, David was still in the air heading for Denver. The doctor arrived to update Lisa at 1:00 AM. Lisa had decided not to let anyone call David until he arrived at the hospital.
“The entire last hour of my flight was a black hole. I wasn’t able to get a hold of Lisa. I just wasn’t getting any information. We landed at DIA because that’s where my car was. Then they had a bus or car drive me over to it. I jumped in and headed down there. I finally found a parking spot. I walked in and Lisa was just looking at me. A doctor was shaking her head.” David added.
“She (the doctor) already knew then. They had already done MRI’s, X-Rays, everything. Swedish Medical is unbelievable.” Lisa said.
Rick and Lisa Dewees had also made it to the hospital by this time, around 1:15 AM, right before David walked through the door himself. As soon as David saw Lisa, he feared the worst.
“Lisa looked at me and said, ‘He was doing what he loved.’ And then I knew. I had hoped, even coming from the airport, that yeah he would be hooked up to machines but that everything was going to be okay.”
It wasn’t okay. David and Lisa were inside the reality of their worst fear.
They had lost their son.
“Is he breathing?” “No.”
David & Lisa Schemm
“His middle brain had swollen so much that the features of it were indistinguishable. You know, he was totally on life support to keep him alive.” David said.
Around 2:30 AM, they called Luke’s older brother, Clay. Clay had been calling his parents all night, asking for information, asking why he wasn’t being given more details.
“I had initially called his fraternity mother and told her, ‘I have to give Clay some really bad news, can you go and be with him?” She said yes, to give her a minute.” Lisa said.
She gave her that minute, then called Clay, delivering news that no sibling ever wants to hear.
His brother was gone.
“He was ready to get into a vehicle, and I was like, ‘No.’ Someone is coming to get you.” Lisa added.
A family friend had flown to Manhattan to pick up Clay and bring him back to Denver. He was joined by the entire football team and other family and friends in Denver, Luke was still on life support.
After everyone had cleared out, family were the only ones within those walls. It was time.
“We did something that no parents should ever have to do. Not only did we have to bury our child, we had to turn off the life support.” David said.
“I have to give Clay some really bad news.”
Because Luke’s death was not natural, they were required to do an autopsy. It took six months to get the results back. During this time, there was plenty of speculation as to what the cause was. Publications have published incorrect causes, while others have merely guessed. But the actual result back from the autopsy was Diffused Cerebral Edema, or in simpler terms, general brain swelling.
“I talked to the neurologist and I said, ‘Listen, if that football field had been across the street here when Luke collapsed, could you have saved him?’ And without hesitation, he responded, nope. He said when that middle brain started swelling, it shut off blood flow to the upper brain. He told me when that occurs, brain damage starts to set in within two minutes. It’s tragedy in it’s purest form.” David said.
He continued. “I asked if Luke would have felt any pain and was told no, he just would have went to sleep. And hearing those explanations, it was comforting in a way. It was comforting to know that the EMT’s wouldn’t have to second guess anything. They did what they could, the best they could and they were great. Here recently I came up on a wreck and I watched our EMT’s and they are very dedicated individuals performing on a volunteer basis. Just like anyone else, they can have self doubt. And now they know there’s nothing they could have done.”
Just like Jeff Hennick, the media has longed for a chance to speak with the Schemm’s. David has had a lot of media training with his position and they knew, if they didn’t tell the story, it was going to be somebody else’s story.
“We found out the media was there (Sharon Springs) but they were very respectful.” Lisa said.
“The media that we dealt with was a very respectful media, very conscientious of what we were trying to deal with and cope with.” David added.
David had called Larry Townsend, the Sharon Springs Sheriff, before heading back home.
First, he checked in to see if it would be alright to take Luke’s race car out on the street for the processional. Larry assured him that it wouldn’t be a problem. He then told Larry that he wanted to go out to the football field when he arrived home and if Larry would keep an eye out for media wandering out there.
David went to where Luke collapsed. He knelt. He prayed. He also went where he crossed the goal line for the final time. He knelt again. He prayed again. The media was nowhere to be seen.
After deciding to head back toward the school, the family saw the ‘WE LOVE U #4’ in the chain link fence surrounding the school playground. This was community. It was love. At that time, they decided to address the media. David wanted to show strength and thankfulness, things he tried to instill in his boys.
“I’ve always tried to teach my boys to be a man but to be a gentleman. To me, maybe it’s idealogical, maybe it’s old-fashioned, but a gentleman displays strength. He displays character. But he also displays emotion and sensitivity and caring. When we decided to do that, I thought, you know what, I have to live my life by that example.” David said.
David, Lisa and Clay stood before the media and crowd in front of the school and delivered their message. They thanked the community for all of their support, the medical personnel for doing everything that they could and reminded the crowd that Luke was doing what he loved to do. They showed a strength that isn’t found very often.
“I’ve always tried to teach my boys to be a man but to be a gentleman.”
When it came time for the funeral, even the Schemm’s were taken aback by the massive amount of support that came through the gymnasium doors.
“Even I was a little surprised at how many people there were.” Lisa started.
She continued. “Larry (O’Connor) had called and said that all these teams are coming and he asked me what I wanted them to wear. We talked about it and said, you know, have them wear their teams colors. Because Luke respected them for playing for the teams they played for. Not for feeling like they had to wear blue.”
“It was pretty neat seeing the collage of colors from the other teams. It’s what Luke would have wanted. Luke respected the other kids for who they are.” David said. “That day was a little blurry, there are things that stood out but it was a little blurry.”
The funeral, attended by over 1,000 people and watched online throughout the country, was a breathtaking tribute to such an unbelievable young man. It was made clear, in the gymnasium of Wallace County High School on November the 10th, that Luke Schemm had touched a lot of lives. It was clear that, even after his passing, he’ll continue to touch lives. He had left a legacy that will be felt far beyond the great plains of Western Kansas.
. . . . .
As the night went on, we sat and talked. David and Lisa shared old stories about Luke, remembering what an active, fun-loving kid he was.
“Luke, you know, it could get to the point where he wouldn’t stop talking. He was quiet at first but when you got to know him and got him worked up, he just wouldn’t stop!” David said.
“Luke was very gifted, obviously Luke was a very intelligent kid. He was obviously very gifted athletically. But for all of that, Luke was not a prideful kid. He was confident, he knew what he could do. But he never thought less of any other classmates.” David started.
He continued. “I remember thinking, parents can still learn from their kids. I think it was his junior year. I was getting a little cranky about how they were utilizing Luke, I was a little frustrated. Typical parent, that’s all it was, a typical parent. I was starting to be a little negative and Luke wasn’t responding. I was like, ‘Luke, what’s up?’ and he said, ‘I don’t know dad, I don’t want to talk bad about anyone.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks! I was like, okay dad. I need to listen to my son here, he’s teaching me!”
That’s the type of kid Luke Schemm was. They shared another story that took place during a basketball game in Luke’s eighth grade season. At that time, Luke was already much more physically gifted than everyone else and could score nearly at will. But on this night, one of his teammates was shooting the ball well, really well.
“And after the game Luke told me, ‘That was just so fun.’ Because all he had to do was get the rebound, go down the floor and make sure he (Cade Allen) got a good shot. Everything was falling, I mean everything. He couldn’t miss! And Luke wanted him to keep shooting, he never cared about getting his shots. He wanted the team to succeed and for everyone to be a part of it. It wasn’t about him, it was about the team.” David said.
David and Lisa have started a scholarship foundation, called the Luke Schemm Legacy. They award scholarships to local high school students. The students are asked to answer a question in a written letter. The question is, “How would you live, or leave, a legacy?”
“They’re free to answer it however they want to.” David said.
“Doing these scholarships the past year, it’s been a lot of fun. We were able to award what, five scholarships?” David asked.
“Six!” Lisa replied.
“Yes, six. And the entire point of the scholarship is that, there are rough times, there are rocky times, but are you using what you have the best you can? That’s what Luke would have wanted, from everyone. It’s not just about what you can do, it’s about impacting others. If you end up on top of the pile but have no friends, what fun is it?” David added.
Out of curiosity, I asked the Schemm’s if they are still pro-football, given what they have lived through this past year.
“Oh, absolutely. I mean obviously, if we can make it safer, let’s do it. I would never argue against safety.” David said.
“Everyone wants to make football safe. But you’re never going to be able to prevent every situation. It’s still football.” Lisa added.
They understand that football was a risk, as are a lot of things in life. Luke gave risks and gave it his all, which is exactly how David and Lisa wanted it.
David continued. “Being a parent, a board member, I can tell you that there are things taught out there on the football field that can never be taught in a classroom. And those things are so vital to a kids education. Absolutely, we need to have kids out there, playing sports, engaging, experiencing wins and losses. Those are life long lessons.”
“And to learn to respect everyone on the team.” Lisa added.
They’ll miss Luke every day of their lives. To be more accurate, every minute of their lives. They’ll always have their youngest son close to them.
“A part of our life died on November 4th. And we have no more memories coming from that. Every time you face that reality, it’s simply a reminder that a part of your life is gone. And you cherish the memories you have but there is also a very heaviness and sadness that there are no new memories coming. When you go to games, that’s what gets hit in your face. I remember having discussions with Luke during football and summer basketball and talking about getting to State, the tough teams that we would face. But those memories never happened.” David said.
“This week has been heavy for us.” He added.
“There are things taught on the football field that can never be taught in a classroom.”
Each day presents a new challenge.
“The grieving process, working through it, it’s not a destination, it’s a journey.” David said.
“You ride the waves, some of them are high, some of them are low.” Lisa added.
“Do you think I’m ever going to forget my son? You never do. It’s a journey, it’s not some goal to be achieved. You have about families going through something like this and it destroys the family. You hear about suicides and things like this. I could very much see that happening for the people that don’t have a support system around them. It’s been very much through acts of kindness from our community, our friends, families, neighbors, sometimes very small things they don’t even know. Sometimes it’s bigger things that help us.” David said.
Lisa added. “I’ve become friends with people that you never really thought you would have. But they have that ear, or that heart. It really comes out.”
They remember the good times. They even remember the frustrating times. It all bundled into the type of person that Luke ultimately was. And even today, they keep an eye out for the little things.
“I was out on the tractor, the middle of nowhere, and a little heart-shaped blue balloon went right by me.” Lisa said.
Their hearts will never fully heal. But they’ll always be full of the love they have for Luke.
September 30, 2016 – 6:02 PM
All of the tension, anxiety and nervousness was about to come to a head. Kickoff had finally arrived.
It just felt like football. You could smell the hamburgers and hot dogs in the air. The entire community gathered in the stands and around the field, both standing and in vehicles. It was finally getting fall chilly, with kids playing pick-up ball behind the stands being told to put on hoodies by their parents.
It’s somewhat rare for you to see a good eight-man football game. With the wide-open nature of the game, just a dominant player or two can send a team flying through most of the regular season. But that wouldn’t be the case tonight, everyone knew they were in for a game.
That’s not mentioning the familiar uniforms on the other side of the field. The last time they played this team, it was on this field. It was the night their star running back put on a show before collapsing on that very same sideline. It was the last time they not only shared the field with him but shared an experience of any kind with him. There’s no dodging that situation, it’s right there in front of you begging to be paid attention to.
But the situation is going to be present and move forward, with or without you. Each side knew there was a football game to be played and that if Luke could, he’d tell them to focus in and play it. It was time to look the situation in the face and step up to it. It was time to play football.
September 30, 2016 – 7:22 PM
Luke’s older brother, Clay, is in the Northeast corner of the endzone watching the game with his parents and a friend from Kansas State University. It’s the first time his friend has ever seen eight man football, he was enjoying it.
Clay coming back for the game had been a surprise. David and Lisa had been planning on going either way but were thrilled when they learned that Clay would be joining them. Clay had graduated from Sharon Springs in 2014 but not before starring on the football team, track team and basketball team that he and his younger brother Luke patrolled the paint for.
I asked him about that dreadful night last November. He had been getting updates early on but at that time, there just wasn’t a ton of information to be known. But it didn’t take long for him to become aware of how serious of a situation it was.
“I realized the seriousness of it when one of my high school teammates called me after it happened. He is a very laid back guy and sounded worried.” Clay said.
At that point, it was all about having others there to support him and waiting on any information he could get. It went from hoping for the best to devastation shortly.
“When I received the call, I was at my fraternity house staying up with my roommate. I actually didn’t receive the call until after I knew. My house mother, she had knocked on the door with tears. So I knew.”
Clay was nearly 300 miles away in Manhattan, Kansas, where’s he’s studying Agriculture Technology. He’ll be coming back home to join the family farm following graduation. He’s an extremely intelligent kid that could have done anything he wanted to do. He’s going to come back to Sharon Springs, his home.
He did have support in Manhattan. He’s not one to be shy, he had made a large group of friends pretty fast and was with a friend when he got the earlier mentioned call.
“My friend that was there was one of the greatest blessings. The way he handled it was what I needed. I will forever be grateful to him for that.”
A family friend was able to fly out and pick up Clay in Manhattan, then flying him back to Denver to join his family. That’s a lot to take on for a 19 year-old kid, in a very short amount of time. I asked him if anything stood out in the following days.
“One of the biggest things was when we arrived back at Sharon Springs and they had the cups in the fence at the school that spelled out, ‘WE LOVE U #4.’ It was definitely a great thing. And being at college, I also got to see my friends that had met Luke rally behind our community and make the five-hour drive to attend the funeral.”
Brothers, two years apart. It’s one thing to say brothers, sisters or cousins grew up together. It’s another thing to literally mean that they grew up together. It didn’t matter if it was helping out on the farm, playing summer basketball since they were knee high, sleep walking into the weight room at 6AM or going to the movie theater to enjoy some time with their friends - when they did it, whatever ‘it’ was, they did it together.
I asked him what he hoped would be taken away from this situation. I wanted to know what he hoped would come of such a devastating tragedy.
“I personally would like for people to appreciate their siblings and realize that little fights shouldn’t determine the relationship they have. I would also like to see a young kids have the drive to better their surroundings and create a vibrant sense in their communities. You never know how far a reputation will travel.”
And just like that, the Wildcats rip off a big run to set them up for the lead. They’re marching down the field. The same field that Clay and Luke Schemm used to share together.
September 30, 2016 – 8:26 PM
I could see it in his eyes. David had been engaged and talkative the entire night, all the way up to that point.
It’s hard to describe the look. There’s such a small group of people on this planet that can relate, those who have lost children early. Not only that, those who have lost children early in such a sudden, tragic, unthinkable manner. But the look, it was there. It was there as the Wildcats sideline and crowd erupted after the final stop of the game, securing the victory for the home team.
It was a look of sadness, excitement, longing and pride all wrapped into one. A look that displayed how much he misses his son that used to be the main ingredient to big wins like this. A look that was excited for these kids, and perhaps more importantly, a young coach, to get such a monumental win on such an excruciating night. A look that made it known he’ll never be able to experience this atmosphere again without remembering what he lost. But a look that was reminding of the fact that his son did lead so many of these hard-fought performances, both on and off the field, as well as any young man could ever lead.
After the sideline calmed down and the Wildcats shook hands with their opponents, the team gathered in the endzone to receive their message from Coach Hennick. At that point, David and Lisa Schemm knew it was time to congratulate the boys and speak with Coach Hennick, the 25 year-old on the sideline the night their son collapsed on that very field.
As they went to each player and congratulated them on the big win, David and Lisa finally made their way to the young head coach, Jeff Hennick.
It’s a scene you don’t see in reality too often. To be honest, it’s a scene you don’t want to see in reality too often. It’s too heart-breaking, too devastating.
There was emotion all around. Hennick had done all he could that week to focus on the process. Despite having to march out on the same field, against the same team, on the same sideline that he lost his star player on; he wanted to focus on the process. He wanted to prepare his team.
David and Lisa Schemm had spent the week dreading having to go back to that field but knowing that in Sharon Springs, community is family. They had to be there, to show support for those kids that were on that same field on that November night, to show support for the coaching staff that has lost countless hours of sleep and to join the community in cheering for the Wildcats their son Luke once led.
They thanked Hennick for all the work, all the concern and for the way he led the Wildcats throughout what was one of the toughest weeks of their lives. As for Hennick, it was an avalanche of emotion finally rolling downhill. He was able to thank the Schemm’s for all the support they’ve shown him over the past year. He was also able to just talk with them, like he had hundreds of times before that fateful night.
His Wildcats had just gotten their biggest win of the season. And he couldn’t wait to head out to the cemetery and tell his former star player all about it.
As they stood and spoke, the Wildcats players were busy soaking in all the well-deserved congratulations from the residents of Sharon Springs. Family members from states away had traveled to watch this juggernaut matchup, cheering right along with rest of the community in attendance.
The week was over. There was no more dreading the possibility of those familiar surroundings bringing back the memories that were still so raw and painful. They had played. They had won. And now they were going into their weekend with a big win under their belts and a sense of relief.
In a week full of dread and heartbreak, it was finally a moment to let some joy sink in.
October 1, 2016 – 6:47 AM
As the sun begins to rise over Sharon Springs, Kansas for another day, the group of people within this small town know they will never be quite the same.
There are reminders of Luke everywhere. There are benches placed throughout the football locker room and field, each with his name and number. There’s a garden out at the Fairgrounds. There’s the banner that hangs in the gymnasium, the same gymnasium that saw over 1,000 people gather for his funeral. And there’s the jersey. Right outside the school offices, there’s a shrine that includes photos of Luke participating in all of his sports. There’s also a senior photo, showing the young, talented, generous kid with a smile across his face.
And that #4 jersey.
“The #4 will never be worn by another player at this school again, in any sport.” Hennick said.
That’s the reminder. That’s the message that Luke left. Not through his death, but through his life. Luke was kind to everyone, dismissive of no one and gave everything he had into everything he did. That’s why a community rallied around a tragedy and the family that had to deal with it. They didn’t know any other way.
On this morning, Sharon Springs wakens with a renewed spirit. They’ll never forget the kid that was taken far too soon. They couldn’t if they tried. As the young kids that make up the elementary school grow, they’ll know what it means to walk those halls and put on that Wildcats jersey. And as current players age, have their own children, and those children do the same - they’ll know too. That’s the legacy that was left. And that’s exactly the way Luke would’ve wanted it.
That’s the way it’s done out in the Northwest Plains of Kansas. There is never a day taken for granted. And they’ll always remember the 17 year-old kid that reminded them why that is.