Rarely over the past decade could you walk into the Hampshire High School gym for a girls basketball game and not see this strapping big man with a strapping big beard sitting right smack in the middle of the front row.
In fact, over the past 40 years or so, that same man was every bit a part of Hampshire sports and the Hampshire community as anyone.
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Don Heine was one of those guys you didn't miss. And now we'll miss him tremendously.
Heine, a 1974 Hampshire graduate who was one of the fiercest competitors you'll every find, passed away suddenly on Saturday. He was 56.
In the 1970s, when I was going to school at Burlington Central, I hated Don Heine. As a Rocket, it was your obligation to hate any Whip-Pur, and vice versa, but Heine was one of those guys you hated a little more than the rest. Why? Because he beat the snot of us all the time. Whether he was crunching one of our running backs from his middle linebacker position or driving the lane on the basketball court, you did your very best to get out of his way. If you didn't, you paid for it.
Time goes on and we get to today's era and I learned something. I didn't really hate Don Heine, I envied him. And fortunately I got to know the man he really was. A very kind and giving man, one who just plain loved his family, his school and his community. He was a farmer, a down-to-earth man who held other jobs while still running his farm so that his family could have a better life and his kids could go to college.
"My dad was the biggest influence for me growing up," said Jackie Heine, Don and Nancy's oldest daughter who was a Daily Herald all-area basketball captain her senior year at Hampshire before going on to play four years at Saint Xavier University in Chicago and is now a debt equity analyst in Chicago and an assistant coach at Saint Xavier, where she is also working on her Master's degree.
"He pushed us but he was so supportive and came to everything. He instilled the desire in us to be the best we could be. He definitely passed his competitive spirit down to us. I was always chasing his old accomplishments. He said he won conference and I wanted to win conference. He said he scored so many points a game and I wanted to score that. I wanted to be as good as him."
For the seven years Sue Ellett was Hampshire's girls basketball coach, she coached a Heine and she and her husband Doug became close friends with Don and Nancy Heine.
"He was a gentle giant," Sue Ellett said. "He was a man who had a tremendous work ethic and a sense of pride that was contagious. He had a great love for his community, his family, his wife Nancy and his high school. If your life crossed paths with Don Heine you were a better person in the end. Anyone who met Don learned he was a very honest and open man who always put the needs and wants of others ahead of his own."
In addition to running the family farm and working other jobs, Don also found the time to help coach basketball in the summer.
"He was a tremendous help to me over the years," Ellett said. "He'd be working a couple of jobs, farming, and still find time to coach summer basketball with his girls. His heart was as big as he was a man. He was a big part of our success."
Don's middle daughter, Chrissy, was a bit more timid as a player than Jackie. Don saw that and made sure it changed. Chrissy also became a Daily Herald all-area captain and is now a junior on scholarship at Saint Xavier.
"Words can't describe how much he impacted my life," Chrissy said. "He's always been there for me, Jackie, Missy and our brother James. I got the silent treatment sometimes but he taught me how to improve and that communication is a key. He'd give you good criticism but there would always be a compliment, too. He helped me so much on and off the court. We bonded over farming and helping others."
The overriding theme Don Heine's life became was that of a man who gave with no expectation of anything in return. He helped anyone he could with whatever he could.
"If there were tough times he'd talk about people who had tougher times," Chrissy said. "He left such an impact on all of us. My roommate lives in Crete and he helped someone from there with farming. It's so amazing how one person can make an impact in people's lives with one gesture but that's what he did. It's hard to move on. He was an amazing guy."
One of my favorite parts of covering all those Hampshire girls basketball games was being able to sit in that front row with Don, and many times with Doug Ellett and Milt Awe, and just shoot the breeze. Inevitably the conversation would get around to our high school days and we'd share some great memories. What I learned about Don through those years is how much he really truly cared about Hampshire High School.
"You could see how much he cared," Chrissy said. "He was dead center front row every game. He was a wonderful guy and I'm going to miss the heck out of him."
As will the entire Hampshire community.
•Visitation for Don Heine will be Wednesday from 4-8 p.m. at St. Peter's Lutheran Church on Plank Road in North Plato Center. The funeral service will be at 11 a.m. Thursday.