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Wabash fighting through

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Wabash celebrates its win vs. Wittenberg (Wabash athletics photo by TR Photo)
Wabash cuts loose and celebrates its overtime win at Wittenberg.
Wabash athletics photo by TR Photo
 

By Adam Turer
D3sports.com

Wabash always fights. But the Little Giants never expected to have to battle through something like this.

Nothing prepared them for the tragedy that rocked their program on Sept. 10, when senior captain and four-year starter at linebacker Evan Hansen died by suicide.

The season could have gone in two very different directions. After Saturday’s overtime victory over Wittenberg, the Little Giants control their playoff destiny and could win the NCAC for the first time since 2015 if they win their final two games.

The Little Giants are a tight-knit team representing a tight-knit university in a tight-knit community. It has taken every ounce of strength from everyone involved to move forward after Hansen’s sudden passing.

“There’s no game plan for this. You just have to keep doing what you’re doing and know what will lead to wins and to recovering from something like this. We’ve been trying to be strength for each other and lean on each other and be there for our teammates,” said senior captain Oliver Page. “It’s been a really hard semester. I remember telling my parents after the game on Saturday that that was the first time I’ve really had fun and felt happy in a while.”

The elation of the overtime win over the Tigers was cathartic for many Little Giants players. Throughout the season, even when they are winning games — which they have done in seven of their eight contests — the loss of Evan weighs heavily for many.

“There were a number of guys crying their eyes out after Saturday’s win,” said head coach Don Morel. “They weren’t sure how to experience joy again. For some of them, it was the first time in six weeks that they’ve experienced joy. I’ve learned from all the help we’ve gotten that crying is a very normal response.”

The team is processing the loss of a friend and teammate, and the Hansen family is dealing with an unthinkable loss. The two help one another in ways both tangible and intangible.

Wabash seniors flash Evan Hansen's No. 32 after the team's win at Wittenberg, with the scoreboard in the background. (Instagram photo, Kyle McAtee)
Wabash seniors flash Evan Hansen's 32 after the team's win at Wittenberg.
Photo from Kyle McAtee's Instagram account

“It’s definitely a rollercoaster of emotions, both high and low. There’s obviously the lows of dealing with the ongoing loss of Evan. But then with the outpouring of support from his teammates and fraternity brothers and our friends and neighbors and our church and his high school and the community in general, it’s been very uplifting,” said Evan’s father, Chuck Hansen. “There’s almost too many to mention all of the wonderful things that people have done and continue to do for us. That helps us deal with the tremendous loss, all the positive things that the community has been doing for us.”

In addition to attending home games as they normally do, the Hansens have made the hour-long trek to Crawfordsville to meet with the team after practices on occasion. They also made a trip to have dinner with the team during an especially difficult week when the players were struggling.

“Chuck is incredible and Mary Hansen is the strongest woman I’ve ever met,” said Morel. “We could not have gotten through it without them and I hope to some extent that they feel the same way about us. We’re all in this together.”

Just as the Hansens are there for the Little Giants, the players want to be there for Evan’s family.

“We as a football team, every single one of us, are so worried about the Hansens and want to make sure they’re doing OK. When they come to our practices, they’re worried about us. It’s a really big thing to see them come to our practice and smile and be happy. It makes us happy when we see them and makes us want to perform better when we see them,” said senior captain Kyle McAtee. “At the end of the day, football is about the people and the community. The Hansens being there is another example of how great football is in giving you the opportunity to be around people like that. I’m absolutely honored to know the Hansens and see how strong they are.”

The Hansens have not retreated into solitude. They want to make sure that Evan’s life is celebrated and that his passing is a lesson and benefit to others who may be struggling. Young men, especially football players, are not accustomed to having the difficult emotional conversations that have now become part of the Little Giants’ daily routine.

“A suicide on a football team is just devastating. I couldn’t even try to describe emotionally and mentally what our team has been through. I would wish it on nobody. Our guys have been incredible,” said Morel. “At any point you can feel good, then two seconds later you’re crying. We got some really good instruction on what we were going to go through. For some of us, we’ll go through it for years before we get through it. Our football family understands that this is an emotional journey.”

There are reasons why more than 1,300 people attended Evan’s funeral and why the community continues to lift up his name nearly two months later.

“Why did that many people care about some kid from Indiana? It’s just that people remembered him and how nice Evan was to them and his character and the way he was. That’s why so many people cared about him,” said Chuck Hansen. “He has changed a lot of people’s lives both as he was living and now. I think people realize the importance of the way you live your life. We’ve also received a lot of feedback from people who had been silently dealing with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts. Now they’ve come out and realized that there’s no shame in admitting that you have these feelings and it’s good to speak out about them and get help from others. It’s not something you can solve yourself and it’s OK to get help from other people. We hope that is another legacy of Evan’s that will come out of this.”

Wabash players signed an image of the team mascot and presented it to the Hansen family. (Hansen family photo)
Wabash players signed and presented this to the Hansen family in memory of Evan.
Hansen family photo
 

Some of Evan’s friends and teammates have reevaluated their lives and goals. They have changed their majors or plans for their futures. They have changed the way they communicate with their friends, teammates, and families.

The impact has spread far beyond Wabash. B.J. Hammer recruited Hansen to Wabash when he was the defensive coordinator there. Now the head coach at Allegheny, Hammer brings his team to face the Little Giants this weekend. Matt Labus, the quarterback at DePauw, was a high school friend and teammate of Evan’s. Co-captains at Guerin Catholic High School, Labus (although sidelined by injury) will wear #32 in honor of Hansen when the rivals meet in the Monon Bell game in the regular season finale.

“There definitely is a sense of community and caring from all the people around us. Obviously it’s affected us very dramatically, but it’s affected a lot of people,” said Chuck Hansen. “I think people are now a lot more attuned to people who are struggling and who are in need. They’re having a lot more tough discussions with family and friends that may have not happened before. Out of this tragedy, a lot of positive things are springing up. I think Evan’s life planted a lot of seeds that he may not have seen sprout and grow, but his presence and the way he lived his life is having a big impact on where our community is headed for the future.”

Evan started at linebacker for Wabash since the second game of his freshman season. His presence is not just missed on campus or in the locker room, but also on the field. His teammates have done what they can to keep him part of their game day routine. Jackson Garrett, the new starting middle linebacker, wears Evan’s gloves. Several players write the number 36 (Evan’s former jersey number) or 32 (his senior year number) on their cleats or towels. Joel Janak, a fraternity brother of Evan’s and a student coach for the program, took over Evan’s locker.

“Anything we can do to have him on the field with us, it makes you feel like you’re unstoppable, like you can’t mess up because he’s with you, because you’re doing it for the right reasons for him. Evan would do the same for us,” said McAtee. “When we do our chant before games, we always talk about who we’re doing it for, knowing our why, and a lot of us feel Evan with us on the field on game day. He’s watching down on us, he’s with us. You don’t have to be a religious person to believe that Evan is with us.”

The players bring Evan’s jersey to the practice field every day. He is undoubtedly still a vital member of this team, and the team knows that it has all of its, and Evan’s, goals within its grasp.

“Seeing his parents and fraternity brothers be so strong really helps me so much. If they can get through this tragedy, maybe I can get through it, too,” said Page. “I received an outpouring of support from people in the community. Knowing that we’re one community, it’s not just been a team thing. Everyone has been helpful and caring. Naturally, your relationship is going to change when you’re dealing with more than just football. You see that the coaches are going through it, too. They’ve been great points of strength for us to draw on. I think we’ll look back and say I don’t know how we did what we did. We’re going to keep working.”

Having the support of the administration, professors, students, alumni, and the Crawfordsville community has helped ease the pain. It’s always understood if one of the Little Giants is struggling on any given day. The team that already had strong bonds and veteran leadership has only grown closer.

“It is tricky, tricky stuff. Our guys have done an incredible job of dealing with it. It is a tight community. We’re all going through this together,” said Morel. “It either rips a team apart or it brings you together. Our group was already really, really tight. Having the Hansens around has been a tremendous help. It’s about winning for everybody and coming out of it a healthier person.”

The Wittenberg win was an emotional benchmark for the Little Giants. For many players, it was the first time they were able to purely celebrate a victory. Of course, they still thought about Evan before, during, and after the win.

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“As of right now, I feel like we’re all in a good place. It comes in waves. After anything good happens, we immediately think of Evan. After anything bad happens, we immediately talk about Evan,” said McAtee.  “When we met up after we beat Wittenberg, Coach Morel said you’d be crazy if you didn’t think we had 12 guys on the field today.”

No matter what happens over these final two weeks, the Little Giants have proven to themselves, to one another, and to the world that they are overcomers. The lessons learned from this season will reverberate over the rest of these players’ lives.

“You have to remember these are young people that we’re dealing with. I have some life behind me to fall back on. For many of the kids on our team, this is the first death they’ve ever dealt with. You don’t know what you’re going to encounter.You have to live day by day. I got through yesterday, I can get through today,” said Morel. “Guys have been great about telling their buddies, ‘Hey, I’m not having a great day today.’ You just have to be really open and out front every day about how you’re feeling. It’s weird for a football team to have to talk about their feelings, but this whole thing is way, way bigger than football. We’re proving to ourselves what we can do.”

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There are so many worthy stories to be told and I can’t find them all on my own. Please share with me those stories that make you passionate about Division III football. If you have suggestions for next week's column, please reach out to me on Twitter at @adamturer or via email at adam.turer@d3sports.com. Thanks for reading!

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Adam Turer

Adam Turer graduated in 2006 from Washington and Lee University, where he was a two-year starter at free safety. He lives in Cincinnati and covers area high school sports in addition to his full-time job as an attorney. Adam has contributed to D3football.com since 2007 and is in his third season writing Around the Nation after spending four seasons writing Around the Mid-Atlantic.

2014-2015 columnist: Ryan Tipps.
2001-2013 columnist: Keith McMillan.

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