There will be an empty seat in the visitors’ bleachers tonight at Center Grove.
In it, Castle’s most ardent supporter and biggest fan would have sat. Or, more likely, stood as she rang her cowbell and shouted encouragement.
But Krista Hurt, wife of coach Doug Hurt and unofficial team mom to all the Knights players who knew her, didn’t live to see this game.
The 35-year-old mother of two passed away in early September, just as Castle was embarking on an undefeated season that has taken it to tonight’s Class 5A regional championship.
“Krista was so vibrant and had such a passion for life,” Castle athletics director Leah Roop said. “Even in the midst of her pain, she was just the most energetic, passionate woman. She truly was such an amazing example for our young men of a good wife and mother.
“She was always out there supporting her husband.”
Krista Hurt’s battle with brain cancer, fought valiantly for nine years, reached its end Sept. 4. Just a few days earlier, she had found the strength to watch one final game, as the Knights defeated Evansville Reitz to move to 3-0 on the young season.
“She’s the first one to yell, to cheer for us. She was our biggest fan, and we loved her for that,” senior football players Grant and Mitch Carter told an Evansville television station at the time.
As Principal Andy Byers recalled, “After every game, Krista would go down on the field and greet ‘her boys,’ as she called them.”
Krista was where she wanted to be and whom she wanted to be with.
She and Doug were high school sweethearts at Castle in the mid-1990s. He was a strapping defensive end and center who was co-captain of the 1994 Class 5A state champion Knights. She was a standout volleyball player, playing under the watchful eye of mother Ginger Lutterman, one of the state’s most successful coaches.
After college, the two were married, and Doug rose up the coaching ranks at Castle. He took over as head coach in 2006.
During that time, Krista was diagnosed with brain cancer, the treatment for which was complicated by diabetes.
“It was a hard fight for her, her family and the Castle family,” said Byers, who said Krista fought the disease tirelessly with the support of many in the community.
With her sense of humor undaunted, Krista named the tumor “Fred” as she prepared for radiation treatment, and the school joined with special “Fry Fred” T-shirts to display their solidarity.
It worked, at least at first.
“We thought it was taken care of,” Byers said.
With the cancer in remission, the Hurts got on with their lives. Two children, Gretchen (7) and Bo (4), soon joined Krista in cheering on the football program.
Cruelly, the reprieve was only temporary.
Early last year, the cancer came back with a vengeance, Byers said, taking its final toll just nine weeks ago.
“Obviously, we all grieved and mourned,” Roop said. “Krista was special to our entire community. Within the sadness, though, there was also a celebration because she lived a great life.
“She was like a mom to these guys.”
The impact she had, especially on “her football boys,” was profound, Byers said.
At the funeral, in a sign of respect unplanned by anyone but them, the entire football team silently walked one-by-one to place her favorite flower, a Gerber daisy, on her casket.
It was a fitting sign of devotion to one who had taught them much about faith and courage.
“With Krista, the way she moved through her walk during her last year with us, she was a testimony to her faith,” Roop said.
The story could end there. No one would have blamed Doug Hurt if the pain of the moment and the responsibility of two young children caused him to walk away from football.
“I can’t imagine what he has gone through,” Roop said. “Doug has not wavered at all.”
No one would have thought twice if the distractions and grief caused the Knights to stumble on their football path.
But it did not. Indeed, as those in the Castle program decided, it would not.
“We always want what is best for our coaches,” Roop said. “We are a family. Without a shadow of a doubt, Krista would want him on the field and coaching. That is what he felt he needed to do, too.”
It is a feeling that many in the Center Grove program may understand, as the Trojans continue to deal with the passing of teammate and friend Tyler Genneken three years ago this week.
Indeed, they may not know one another on the field in terms of X’s and O’s, but these two teams may understand the shared emotions from tragedy that have left an imprint on both.
So, the Castle team soldiered on, with Hurt determined to make this moment last.
“Doug is one of the classiest men I know,” Byers said. “He was able to keep his kids focused on football and academics. All the boys knew that when they went out on the field they were playing not just for them, but for her, too.
“It is heartwarming to see our boys and how they have rallied around Doug.”
From the Week 3 win against Reitz, the Knights have continued to knock off foes, seemingly getting better with each week. They have put up an amazing 52 points a game in the tournament so far.
“All of the guys have just rallied upon him, and he, in turn, has been such a strong leader,” Roop said. “He is a testament to his faith. It is so tragic and difficult, but he has had a peace and a steadfast way about him.”
As with Genneken’s passing at Center Grove, the tragic moments turn into growing experiences for those who remain.
“Our boys have had to grow up quickly,” Byers said. “Our team leaders have developed leadership skills that they would not have gotten. Athletics is our front porch. Our boys have done tremendous job of being role models.”
That is not surprising, Byers said, given the strength of coach Hurt.
“Doug has grown into an amazing leader,” he said. “His mantra to freshman parents is ‘Give me your boys and I will return them as men.’”
He does that, Roop says, by “walking strong in his faith.”
So tonight, as two very good teams take the field for the right to move on and play another week, one will be called a winner and the other not.
That may be true on the scoreboard, but nowhere else.
Both teams have been blessed with something far more important in the lessons taught by those who have departed too soon.
Look at the Center Grove tunnel, where junior tight end Genneken would emerge and jump into the pregame huddle.
Look at the Castle stands, where Krista Hurt would be ringing her cowbell and sending her energy to “her boys.”
Wish they were here, but know also that in many ways their spirits carry on as two very good football teams play for them.
“There are so many life lessons to learn in sports,” Roop said. “Knowing Krista’s heart and love for the game, I can only see her smiling more at their success. Krista and Doug were a team at this together.
“Of course, it would mean more if she could be here sharing in all this, too.”
Bob Johnson is a sports correspondent for the Daily Journal. His columns appear Tuesdays and Fridays. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.