When her seemingly indestructible 54-year-old husband Dan — “a real tough guy,” one son said — died in a freak fall March 26, Shari Yinger said her five kids, three of them Dayton Flyers football players, looked to her for answers.
“They all were like, ‘Well, what do we do?’ ” Shari said quietly. “And I was like, ‘I don’t … I don’t know.’ Our culture doesn’t really teach us that. None of us really knows what to do.
“For me, for the kids, it became not what everybody else wanted us to do. It was what worked best for us.”
For the Yinger family that included:
• Saturday’s gala Dan Yinger Tailgate Party at Welcome Stadium that drew a couple of hundred people before UD was beaten by perennial Pioneer Football League nemesis San Diego, 23-7.
• Dan’s wake and memorial service, which was at a Columbus-area pub, not a funeral home, and attended by family and friends from Springfield, where Dan was a North High graduate, Miami University, where he and Shari met, the Columbus area and especially DeSales High School, where each of the five kids has been schooled, and, of course, UD, including the entire football team, which arrived on two charter buses.
• A family picnic on Mount Baldy in Michigan where Dan’s ashes were spread and everyone toasted him with his favored libation — Ketel One on the rocks with blue cheese olives.
• And then there’s the one thing Dan was dead set against his entire life.
“Yeah, when the kids asked, I said, ‘Well, we’ll all get a tattoo,’ ” Shari laughed. “I’d always kind of loved the idea of a family tattoo. Something little, like an acorn or a pine cone that could represent so many bigger things, but Dan was always like, ‘Oh hell no!’
“And I’d go, ‘Oh come on. It doesn’t even have to be anything you can see,’ but he was like ‘No…no…no.’ He was a very conservative guy. He liked things simple, not showy.”
But after Dan’s death, Shari and the five children — Mitch, Max, Tucker, Drake and Tessa — decided to get a tattoo that would honor him.
They focused on his favorite saying to the boys.
“He basically had us playing football since we came out of the womb,” laughed Tucker, the Flyers’ redshirt junior running back who entered Saturday’s game averaging 107.2 yards, third best in the PFL.
“From first grade on up, he always told us, ‘Be the hammer, tot the nail.’ He’d text it to us before college games. He said it to us when he coached us in grade school.”
Drake, a redshirt freshman safety, explained: “My dad told me that my entire life. Basically, it means don’t take anything from anybody.”
He said his older brother Max — the one Yinger son who chose Michigan over UD and now lives in Colorado, where Tucker said he’s the family “hipster” — found the hammer and nail image they’d use and tweaked it to fit their family.
It would be an X pattern — a hammer crisscrossing a nail — and the hammer’s handle would include seven lines to represent the seven family members.
Max found a tattoo artist in Columbus and the family set up a date for their inking, but then right before they went the guy was injured in a motorcycle accident.
“I was thinking, ‘Oh this is a sign from dad’ because he wasn’t a big fan of tattoos,” Tucker said. “But Mom was like, ‘No, we’re doing this!’ ”
A second tattoo parlor was decided upon and Shari went first. Tessa and Drake followed and then, all of a sudden, the power went out.
“I said. ‘I really don’t know if this is a good idea, this could be Dad again,’ ” Tucker recalled with a grin. “But Mom insisted.”
They each got a hammer and nail on the inside of their forearm just above the wrist and Tucker said the image is perfect:
“It symbolizes Dad. It reminds all of us of him.”
‘Tears in Heaven’
Dan and Shari were together 33 years and married for 29.
“This is going to sound sappy, but they were more in love than any couple I’ve ever seen,” said Tucker, his voice suddenly wavering with emotion.
And the centerpiece of their romance was their kids, all of whom have shown athletic talent, including Tessa, a 16-year-old junior at DeSales who is a cheerleader and shows horses.
Mitch was the first of the boys to come to UD, where, like the others he studied mechanical engineering. He was a backup cornerback for the Flyers and an Academic All-PFL selection before graduating in 2014.
Tucker followed him to Dayton, the one school that looked at him as a running back rather than strictly a cornerback. And after redshirting as a freshman, he accounted for over 900 yards rushing and receiving his first year on the field and won second team All-PFL honors.
Although hampered by injuries all last season, he still averaged 100 yards a game rushing in the six games he was healthy enough to play.
Drake — who said his Springfield relatives tried to convince him to go to Wittenberg, where several family members had gone — redshirted last season and plays on special teams.
Although fixtures at UD games since 2010, Dan and Shari sometimes embraced the experience quite differently.
“Dad was always in the stands and he’d say some funny stuff,” Tucker remembered. “Mom is a huge tailgater. She loves the social aspect of game days. There have been times she didn’t come into the game. She just stayed outside and partied.”
Two weeks before this year’s spring game, Shari and Dan were at their old home on a small farm just east of Columbus doing odd jobs.
“About 3 p.m. we had a massive downpour and Dan saw the downspouts were clogged,” Shari said. “When it stopped raining, we went out to throw hay to the horses.”
Shari then went inside to make a pound cake for a neighbor and prepare cheesy enchiladas for dinner.
Dan, a guy who always stayed busy, said he was going to clean out the spouts with a leaf blower, something, Tucker said, “he’s done a million times.”
“I pulled the cake out of the oven and went to the back room, sat down and Googled how to fix my enchilada sauce,” Shari said. “After a while I thought, ‘Where the hell is Dan? It shouldn’t be taking this long.’ ”
She went to look for him and found him on the ground.
He was dead.
“He must have slipped,” she said. “He fell from the second floor, the steepest part of the roof. Once he started to lose his balance, he must have overcompensated and he couldn’t maneuver. He had that landscaping blower on his back — it weighs about 30 pounds — and it accelerated his fall. He hit the concrete patio head first.”
The Yinger family’s world came crashing down as well that day, but since then Shari has tried to help her kids move forward.
“She tries to hide it from everyone here, but she’s still pretty heartbroken,” Drake said.
Tucker agreed: “She and Dad were absolutely best friends.”
Late Friday afternoon Shari talked about losing Dan:
“As much as I’d love to have him in the physical world — just to touch him, to kiss his cheek, even if he was a quadriplegic or (unresponsive) — I know Dan would not have been happy like that.
“So if I put my own needs aside, I can be grateful he died instantly. And he left me with memories of the best marriage I ever could have had.
“If you could choose your life beforehand, if God had come to me and said, ‘Sweetie, you can have an ass—— for 80 years or the best marriage for a shorter time,’ well I’m going for love, baby. And I certainly got it.”
And that’s why she and the family memorialized Dan as they did.
“We both felt we’d had a great life, a very blessed life and we told each other, ‘If something ever happens, please don’t be sad.’ ”
So they followed the memorial celebration at the Columbus pub with a family trip in June to Mount Baldy along Lake Michigan, where they regularly vacationed.
“We listened to Dan’s music the whole way up — Neil Young’s “Old Man,’ Led Zepplin, ACDC, Bob Seger’s ‘Simple Man,’ all that,” she said.
“We got to the top of Mount Baldy, spread his ashes and had a Ketel One in his honor. It was unreal.
“I said, ‘We need some music’ and I reached over and scrolled through Mitch’s phone and finally just hit a song. It happened to be Eric Clapton’s ‘Tears in Heaven.’ It was just an awesome moment.
“I remember we walked back about a mile along the beach and I told the kids, ‘You know, six months from now, a year from now, I might look back and say, ‘What was I thinking? We had a party? We had a drink on the top of a mountain? But we did it our way.
“And at a time like this, you show your love your own way.”
Plenty of support
Even though the game was a downer — the loss dropped the Flyers to 1-4 for the first time in five years — the Yinger family was lifted by their family and friends.
People started showing up at the special tailgate celebration almost three hours before the game. Shari had had 125 special blue t-shirts made up — they said “Be a Hammer” in small letters on the front and had a big hammer and nail logo on the back — and she ran out of them well before kickoff.
“I saw a lot of fans wearing those shirts today,” a disheartened Tucker said afterward. “It was rough for our team today, but our family still got shown a lot of love. And that meant a lot.”
Shari said there are other UD players on the team who have dealt with family tragedy, serious injury and other backbone-testing issues and yet they all find camaraderie and some healing at Flyers games:
“We meet every Saturday to play football and do something we enjoy in the face of adversity.”
And nobody has blossomed more this year than Tucker, who had been having a breakout season until Saturday. Because the Flyers got behind early, he was limited to nine carries and gained 34 yards. Even so, he’s still averaging 92.6 yards a game.
“I don’t quite know how to explain my mindset toward football before my dad passed,” he said. “It was something that was so important to him. I know how much he loved it and loved watching me play. And now that he’s gone, it’s really become more important to me.
“I feel pretty close to him when I’m on the field. It’s kind of a spiritual thing. So, yeah, football means a whole lot more now.”
And to deal with those added expectations, he’s found one thing that helps keep the moment from overpowering him.
“I think about my dad every day,” he said. “I try to talk to him before the game and during the game.
“And when I need to relax and take a step back — there are times now in school, in football, in life where I put real pressure on myself — I just take a deep breath and think, ‘What would Dad say?’”
And with that he smiled, rolled his arm and looked down at the new ink just above his wrist:
“It helps to have a visual. I see that and I can hear my dad:
“’Be the hammer, not the nail.’ ”