CROWN POINT | When most in "Da Region" were still sleeping, Spike Albrecht and his grandfather, Frank Brunski, would grace the new dawn with eyes wide open and a collective pulse beating heavily.
Like an orange basketball pounding on a hardwood floor.
Brunski would drive through Crown Point to pick up Spike. The two would find a local eatery and enjoy breakfast together. Norman Rockwell easily could've put a brush to this scene.
Spike called Brunski what everyone in C.P. did with a loving smile, "Grandpa Frank." But few around here knew him like Albrecht, who will be suiting up for Michigan today in the NCAA Final Four.
Brunski watched Spike and all of his grandkids play at least a million games from Tee Ball through high school. But he won't be in Atlanta when the Wolverines play Syracuse.
The bricklayer of 43 years had beaten cancer. But the day after his last chemo treatment, he died of a massive heart attack on Sept. 1, 2012.
Fittingly, he watched his freshman granddaughter, Hannah Albrecht, play a volleyball game the night before. Without question he walked around to friends and strangers and handed them a wintergreen Lifesaver in the little plastic wrapper.
"He did that all the time," said Chuck Albrecht, Spike's father.
"He did that all the time," Crown Point boys basketball coach Clint Swan said.
Last Saturday inside the Dallas Cowboys' stadium, Michigan and freshman Spike Albrecht shocked the world by upsetting Kansas and Florida to win the South Regional championship.
The over-achieving Albrecht made plays that ended up on ESPN and dropped the collective jaw of America. The Little Engine that could -- did.
"Spike played really calm in both games," said Chuck Albrecht, who was in Texas last weekend. "He told me he could feel Grandpa Frank in the building, on the floor.
"I know it sounds corny and trite, but everyone in that stadium who knew Frank could feel his presence," Swan added.
Tammy Albrecht spoke with tears in her eyes about her father on Tuesday night. Throughout the long bout with chemo, there was one thing that kept him going.
"He wanted to see Spike play for Michigan," Tammy said.
The Albrechts are like royalty in C.P. athletics. Chachi, Stephen and Spike all hooped for the Bulldogs. Hannah is expected to do great things for coach Anne Equihua in the coming years.
Stephen played his last game at Brown University this spring. He left a ticket for Brunski at the will call window to show his love and respect.
For a decade in the Crown Point boys hoops programs they asked each player who was their biggest influence. Every Albrecht always typed in, "Grandpa Frank."
"Me and Tammy were like, 'Hey, what about us?" Chuck said with a joke.
Brunski brought joy to all those around him. And he probably cost the Lake County Fair thousands of dollars over the years. He volunteered at the front gate where folks with special passes were allowed in free.
"He let me in free," Swan said. "And while he and I were talking he let four or five families in, too. If you knew him and he liked you you weren't paying."
Grandpa Frank said one thing over and over to Spike through the years, "You got that right." That's how he ended each sentence in a conversation. It was his exclamation mark.
Now, when Spike sends texts to his folks, he often types in "You got that right."
"Last week Spike told me that 'Grandpa gave me a little help tonight,'" Chuck said. "I know he did."
At the countless C.P. games through the years Brunski sat in the same seat, the highest bleacher in the lower level. He would pass out Lifesavers and talk basketball. And life, while looking down at the ones he loved.
As much as he wanted to he will not be in the Georgia Dome today. Physically. But Michigan's No. 2 will know he is there nonetheless.
"He's got the best seat in the house," Tammy said.
And I guarantee while Michigan is playing for it all there'll be some wintergreen Lifesavers passed around in the bleachers. A fresh, clean reminder about all that is right in this world.
"You got that right," Chuck added.
This column solely represents the writer's opinion. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.