Before Friday night’s game with Fairmont, the Centerville High football players stood at attention on their sideline, new “FH” decals affixed to the backs of their helmets, their eyes focused on the center of the field.
A minute or so earlier, 24 black and gold balloons — Centerville colors — had been released alongside 28 green and gold balloons that signified Wright State. That’s when the Elks’ band had begun the national anthem.
And then — somewhere around “The rockets red glare” — two lone black balloons suddenly rose up from the field into the pale, blue evening sky. They stayed side by side on their lofty ascent, headed in the same direction, never once bumping.
They represented the two young men being remembered that night — 24-year-old Francois Hagenimana, an assistant Centerville coach and former Elks player, and 28-year old Jason Fricke, a Wright State grad with an electrical engineering degree who lived in Westerville.
Like those two balloons, their fortunes had been soaring until the early hours last Sunday morning on Interstate 70 near Springfield. That’s where the 2005 Scion driven by Hagenimana slammed head on into the 2003 Honda Accord driven by Fricke.
The violent impact killed both men.
Each had just been visiting friends. Hagenimana’s day had begun in Naples, Fla., where the Elks had won a thrilling, double overtime game against Naples High Friday night. After an early Saturday practice and a few hours on the beach, the team took a charter flight back to Dayton and a bus that got them to the Centerville stadium about 9 p.m.
Hagenimana had told some fellow coaches he was going to Columbus to help a friend celebrate his birthday and supposedly after that he had begun his trip back to his home in Kettering.
Fricke, a supervisor at Sonoco Plastics in New Albany, had worked Saturday and then come to Dayton to see friends. He was returning home when he was hit by Hagenimana, who was driving the wrong way — heading west in the eastbound lanes — on I-70.
According to 9-1-1 calls received by police, Hagenimana had been driving the wrong way for some five miles and had nearly collided with other vehicles.
A knock at the door
The collision happened about 3 a.m. and 5 ½ hours later Ullery said he and his wife, Lara, were at home getting ready to go to Sunday morning services at Parkview Church of the Nazarene on Far Hills when his cellphone rang.
It was a state highway patrolman who said he was on the front steps.
“My heart just sank, but I said I’d be right out,” Ullery said. “I wasn’t thinking clearly and when my wife asked, ‘Is something wrong?’ I said, ‘No, Honey, the state patrol just wants to ask a question.’
“Well, she literally fell to her knees. She has four kids, I have four who are grown and the state highway patrol doesn’t come to your front step in Centerville unless somebody’s dead.”
Outside the patrolman asked Ullery if he had someone named Hagenimana on his staff.
When Ullery said that was the name of his first-year cornerbacks coach, he was told Francois had been killed in an auto accident. They had identified him by his wallet, but they couldn’t find any next of kin. They did find some Centerville football clothes in his car.
About that time Lara opened the door and asked quietly “Is it one of ours?”
When she found out it was not one of their children, she was momentarily relieved, but then quickly became unsettled again.
“I knew some other mother would be getting that call,” she said.
Amidst the shock came the swirling questions and the inevitable speculations: How could someone drive the wrong way for a few miles? Was alcohol involved? Did he fall asleep? Was there a medical issue?
Ullery said the patrolman had no definitive answers, accept that there was no evidence of alcohol at the scene. But toxicology reports would come later.
The first thing Ullery focused on was his team, which had gone to bed that night on a high after a great trip and now would be plummeting into a far different experience.
“As impossible as it sounds in this age of social media, I wanted our coaches and players to find out word of mouth from us,” he said.
He called his assistants, who in turn called their players to a noon meeting at the stadium.
“I sat at home praying, asking to have the strength to face the kids and then say the right things,” he said, his voice now breaking as he relieved the moment. “And I thought I was pretty together when I got there. But then I turned around to face them and every face was looking right at me as if to say: ‘Help … Tell us how we should feel. How we should act. Tell us what happened. What happens next? Tell us why this is happening.’”
“Right then the room … pheeew … the room was really, really rough. We had 90 players and 13 coaches and if anyone in there wasn’t sobbing, wasn’t holding onto each other, I didn’t see them.”
A relentless worker, role model
Francois and most of his family fled the genocidal war in Rwanda when he was small.
His older brother, 28-year-old Aphrodis Tuyishimire Rafael — who got separated from the rest and didn’t escape until a few years later — said the others’ long odyssey took them to Zaire, then Senegal and finally Wisconsin before coming to the Dayton area.
At Centerville High, Francois wrestled, ran track and was a cornerback — and a team captain — on the football team. He was known for his work ethic, his appreciative manner and an ever-present smile that 26-year-old brother Adolphe, who now lives in Huber Heights, said “Just lit up a room.”
Current Elk Jared Weyler — a 6-foot-5, 280-pound senior lineman who’s headed to Bowling Green next season — grew up watching Centerville football. “Francois was a guy I looked up to my whole life,” he said. “He was what a Centerville player is. He was just a relentless worker.”
Hagenimana played mostly special teams at Ashland University and graduated in the spring. He got a job at KK Motorcycle Supply, enlisted in the Navy with the goal of becoming a SEAL next year and was hired by Ullery to mentor the Elks’ cornerbacks this season.
“Here was a guy who came from Rwanda, but appreciated everything everyone had done for his family and wanted to make a career in the U.S. Navy,” Ullery said. “He trained for that every morning. That speaks volumes.”
And that’s why this has all been so difficult.
A guy whose life seemed headed in the right direction ends up going the wrong way and he’s not only dead, but he killed an innocent guy in Jason Fricke.
Once everyone got to school Monday, there was a crisis team in place to help students and staff and the coaches themselves visited classrooms where they knew certain players were struggling.
Before each day of practice last week Ullery spoke candidly with his team about what he knew. It was Tuesday when one player stood and asked the elephant in the room question: “Was Coach Cois intoxicated?”
Ullery was truthful. No one knows right now.
“One mother told me she told her son this needed to be a learning moment,” he said. “She said she told her boy, ‘You know this was an avoidable accident caused by your coach?’ He understood.
“The thing is we all make mistakes — but some — some are huge.”
Two lives remembered
Ullery had hoped that Friday’s game would allow the players to return to some semblance of normalcy. But as the week went on he knew that was wishful thinking.
As people were deciding how to honor Hagenimana at the game, Ullery — sensitive both to Jason Fricke’s family and the news that could come later — pushed more for private embrace, but public understatement.
And so the idea of putting Hagenimana’s picture, initials and old No. 28 on the video scoreboard, was shelved. “We didn’t have a picture of Jason Fricke and I felt both should be remembered,” Ullery said.
The balloon send-up was perfect. There was also a half-page remembrance of Hagenimana in the game program, the helmet decals and before the game someone taped a homemade poster to the stadium bell tower that read “R.I.P. Francois. Legends Never Die.”
Francois’ brother Aphrodis — a 2005 CHS grad — showed up wearing his younger brother’s No. 28 Elks jersey: “His Senior Day, because our dad isn’t around, he gave it to me and I wore it as I accompanied him on the field.”
When the game started Aphrodis, Adolphe and a few cousins and friends huddled together near the south end zone where they — and several Elks players and coaches — would hold an impromptu vigil for Francois after the game.
But in the first half, the unbeaten Elks played like a burdened team. A physical bunch, Fairmont is a lot better than the 1-4 record it brought into the game and it took an 84-yard kick return for a TD by Damian Popp and a two-point conversion in the final seconds of the second quarter for Centerville to salvage a 15-15 tie at the half.
“At halftime it hit us that we’re playing football again and that Francois wouldn’t have wanted us to just lay down,” said Weyler.
The Elks regained their stride in the second half and ended up winning, 35-21.
“This was a tough win under these circumstances” Ullery said as he stood outside the dressing room afterward. “These are 15-, 16- and 17-year-old kids who have been dealt a rough hand this week … And I know we’ve got another tough week ahead.”
Hagenimana’s wake will be held at Schlientz and Moore Funeral Home Wednesday and his funeral Mass will be Saturday at Emmanuel Catholic Church in downtown Dayton. He’ll be buried in the Centerville cemetery across from the school.
Fricke’s family — which is holding funeral services for him Monday in Chantilly, Va., his former home — hope to have a memorial service at or near Wright State on Oct. 19.
“If you think as an educator — whether you are a teacher or a coach — you want everything to be a vehicle to teach kids about life, too. But this has been tough on them,” Ullery said.
Scott Lander agreed. His son Cameron is a senior cornerback for the Elks. Hagenimana was his position coach.
“I remember Sunday morning when he got the news, he was so quiet but you could see how hard it was for him,” Langer said. “You could just see how hurt he was.
“Then Monday after practice, he sent out a tweet (to his coach) that said: ‘I missed you today.’ That brought tears to my eyes.”
And this week — down in Virginia and here at Centerville High — there will be many more.