STEVE HANLON: Mike Hepp did fly like an Eagle

2014-02-20T17:00:00Z 2014-02-21T01:48:07Z STEVE HANLON: Mike Hepp did fly like an EagleSteve Hanlon Prep Beat nwitimes.com
February 20, 2014 5:00 pm  • 

What if Mike Hepp had coached at Andrean? Or Lake Central? Or Crown Point? Would the records or scoreboards changed much at those tradition-rich football schools?

I doubt it. Really, I do.

Hepp coached football at Lake Station for nine seasons. His teams went 29-63. He was the best coach with the worst record in Indiana history. He taught winning in a different way because he had to.

Hepp lost his life Tuesday at the age of 59, after a year-long battle with pancreatic cancer. But just like his high school coaching record, he won when many thought it was another L.

"He's in a better place," sister Cyndy Rastovski said Wednesday. "He wasn't real coherent the last week of his life. One of the last things I said to him was this. 'Mike, you're taking this into triple overtime. You fought real hard. Well played, coach Mike. Well played.'"

Former Lake Station athletic director Gayle Green and Eagles wrestling coach Dan Mora were with Hepp when he passed. They shared stories and laughs, remembering all the battles at the small school lacking in the privilege of other places.

On Super Bowl Sunday, Hepp showed Mora a picture of the 1998 sectional championship team, only the second one in school history. Hepp was more proud of his team than Pete Carroll.

"If he was your friend, you had a friend for life," Mora said. "He was the most generous person I've ever met. He cared about those kids. He wanted them to dream big and become contributing adults."

When Hepp coached golf, there was a young man who didn't have a penny in his pocket, but he wanted to play. With no one watching, Hepp bought him a bag, a set of clubs and some shoes. That experience changed the kid's life.

Hepp worked with underprivileged youth at Lost Marsh, teaching them the game of golf. If they were thirsty, he'd buy them some juice. If hungry, he'd buy them a cheeseburger.

"He really cared about kids who didn't have much," Green said. "He wanted to give them a chance. There wasn't a kid at our school who didn't have shoes if they wanted them. Mike would find a way."

Hepp was his own man. He loved kids but he didn't care much for what loud-mouthed adults would say, chirping in the bleachers. While sick in the hospital, his sister said he was still flirting with the nurses.

His illness, like his kindness, he kept private. He didn't want anyone to know.

The 1972 Highland grad worked at Lake Station for 35 years. He got ran out of the football job after the 2012 season. Petty, small-town politics showed him the door.

But what I loved about this guy is he said what he felt, not what he thought someone else would want to hear.

"I've spent 35 years in the same school district and some people will still treat you like (expletive)," Hepp said in May of 2012.

I will miss this guy, just like the thousands of kids who were taught by him. He was a light on dark mornings. He didn't care what his career record was, he did his best to help his kids learn how to win.

Mora said he told a former player about the death Wednesday and the now young man fell to his knees, broke down and wept for quite awhile.

A region legend had that kind of affect on kids, no matter what the John Harrell website says his record was.

Mike, I'm sorry I let everyone know about your generosity. I know you didn't want people to know. And I'm sorry we didn't get to speak one last time.

Maybe some day we can chat about that '98 team again while walking on golden lanes.

This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at steve.hanlon@nwi.com.

Copyright 2014 nwitimes.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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