TOPEKA — It has become tradition for Sabetha football.
After every game, home or away, the Bluejay players gather at midfield with their opponent that evening for a postgame huddle. Sometimes a Sabetha coach gives a short talk. More times than not, it’s a player, with senior Isaac Sunderland requesting to take the lead this season.
The message is usually the same and follows a mantra Sabetha head coach Garrett Michael has based his program around: “Faith. Family. Football.” The order of the “Three Fs” is not random, but purposeful.
“I just wanted our kids to know this game of football is going to be over for most of them in four years,” said Michael, who credited his father, Tom, as well as former Sabetha coach John Garber for instilling the values on which he’s based his program. “I want them to be good Christian men, good husbands, good fathers, because you’re going to be that for 40, 50 years of your life and maybe play this game for four, eight years. I want them to make sure they have their priorities in life straight. And that was from day one when we took over, and I’m glad we did that.”
Saturday afternoon in Hutchinson, football took center stage as Sabetha captured the third state championship in program history with a will-testing 7-6 victory over Marysville in the Class 3A title game.
Saturday night, faith and family once again pushed football aside when the program was rocked by tragedy. Just hours after starting offensive linemen Tanner and Carson Ukele celebrated the state title on the field with teammates and family members, the brothers lost three members of their family in a two-vehicle accident.
Their mother, Carmen, 42, and sister Marlee, 11, were killed in the accident, as was an uncle, Stephen, 62. Their father, Lee, 59, also was in the vehicle and was airlifted by Life Star helicopter ambulance to the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City, Kan.
As of Sunday, Lee Ukele was in stable condition after having surgeries overnight.
Michael learned of the accident while riding back from Hutchinson on the team bus. He called the Ukele brothers to the front of the bus to inform them there had been an accident and then made an announcement to the rest of the team explaining what had happened.
The Ukele brothers then accompanied Michael in an administrative vehicle to Stormont-Vail Hospital, while the rest of the team returned to Sabetha.
Immediately the team’s festive mood turned dour. But immediately, the Bluejays fell back to the faith Michael has preached since Day 1.
“We wanted to plant that seed so when tragedy happens in life, you have a good foundation to fall back upon,” Michael said. “Everybody knew something was wrong, and Tanner asked if we could pray.”
Tanner Ukele, a senior, began the year as the Bluejays’ starting center and one of only two returning starters on offense. He got hurt in the season opener but returned late in the season and started the remainder of the way at left guard. Carson, a sophomore, spent the season as Sabetha’s starting right tackle.
Both helped pave the way for an offense that cranked out more than 340 yards per game on the ground. And Michael said nobody was prouder of their successes than Carmen.
“The thing that hits me the most is their mom was such a vibrant person, the light in every room,” Michael said. “She just put a smile on your face, and she saw her two boys at the pinnacle of their athletic careers as far as the teenage years. That’s the thing I want them to remember, she was so bubbly and energetic and helpful and proud of them and the team and just loved this journey. She got to see them at their height.”
This isn’t the first time the Sabetha program has had to deal with a tragedy during football season.
In 2012, Sabetha opened the playoffs with a 28-8 win over Riley County, ending a string of three straight first-round exits from the postseason. But the victory was tempered when, after the game, Michael announced to his team that Tim Edelman, father of then-Bluejay sophomore Alex Edelman, had died after collapsing on the track prior to the start of the game.
Edelman had been a fixture on Sabetha’s sidelines, helping the Bluejay coaching staff film games, and was in his customary position helping get the equipment ready when he suffered a seizure and collapsed on the track. Paramedics were called, and he was rushed to the hospital with his family, including Alex, a starting cornerback and safety for the Bluejays, as well as Sarah Edelman, then a senior cheerleader.
But whereas the team was able to move forward as a group with another game to prepare for that season, this time there’s no more football to fall back upon for healing. This time, it’s truly faith and family that will help the Ukeles and the tight-knit Sabetha community cope with such a tragic event.
“Tanner and Carson are both wrestlers, and we have quite a bit of wrestlers on our football team, and quite a bit of basketball players, too,” Michael said. “They’ve got 50 brothers who are going to be surrounding them in our school. We’re going to give them room and go one day at a time, 10 minutes at a time, whatever they need — we’ll be here to support them.
“They’ve got a great support cast with their family which I saw that night. They’ve got great support in the community and great support at the school. Again, you lean back on your faith and you lean back on your family. Football is over, but if you’ve got those two top priorities, you pick up the pieces and life will go on.”