INDIANAPOLIS — Somewhere at the bottom of that pile is her son. That’s what they’re saying in the Roncalli bleachers. It isn’t a conversation, more like a murmured question, a single word making its way through the crowd.
Quebe … Quebe … ?
The word makes its way to Laura Quebe (pronounced KWEE-bee) as she watches the referee peel players off the pile. He peels off one from Roncalli. Now one from Martinsville. Another from Martinsville.
“I’m terrified,” Laura Quebe is remembering. “Have you seen those kids? They’re men. They’re giant.”
At the bottom of the pile, Max Quebe has his hands on the football and he’s hanging on for dear life. An offensive lineman from Martinsville is trying to rip it away, but this is why Max Quebe goes so hard in the weight room, why he never skips a practice rep, why he runs onto the field in the first place.
“I want to make big plays,” he’s telling me later. “I want to cause havoc.”
The referee peels off one more player, and there he is at the bottom of the pile. Now he’s standing, holding the ball aloft. On the radio, Roncalli play-by-play man Rob Brown is asking, “Is that Max Quebe?” His color commentator, a 2012 Roncalli graduate named Joey Mulinaro, doesn’t respond. He can’t. He’s laughing maniacally.
They’re saying that word again in the crowd at Roncalli, but they’re not asking anymore, not murmuring. They’re yelling. They’re chanting.
Laura Quebe is watching her son return to the sideline, where he is mobbed. Roncalli’s players pick him up and start throwing him around. Floating on the hands of his teammates, Max Quebe bounces around the sideline like a beach ball.
He is 5-2. He weighs 135 pounds. He is quite possibly the smallest nose tackle in the state, and he has just recovered a fumble for the No. 1 team in Class 4A. Now the sideline is chanting along with the rest of the stadium.
Up in the bleachers, Laura Quebe is watching her son, her boy, her $20,000 Russian miracle. And she is crying.
* * *
When he takes his three-point stance, his left hand on the ground and his eyes on the lineman opposite him, Roncalli’s Max Quebe kicks one cleat up and down. The effect is that of a bull, pawing at the dirt before going on the attack.
That was my first look at Quebe, kicking at the ground, ready to attack late in the Scecina game last month. He was lined up at nose tackle against a Scecina center listed in the program at 6-1, 260. One of them looked uncertain what to do next.
And it was not the bull.
On his first snap of the game, Quebe ducked under the Scecina center and dove straight ahead. He landed in the backfield like a speed bump, and the Scecina running back barely made it past Quebe’s clawing hands before being stopped at the line of scrimmage. Quebe didn’t make the tackle, but he made the play.
“The whole team respects him,” says Roncalli senior quarterback Derek O’Connor. “He plays on our scout defensive line, so he goes up against our biggest guys every day in practice. He never complains. Very quiet, he goes harder than most people on the team, and he just works his butt off. When we see him get in and make a play, it makes us happy that his hard work pays off.”
Only a sophomore, Quebe plays junior varsity — but Roncalli coach Bruce Scifres insisted he dress with the varsity, too. Scifres has had his eye on Quebe for years, since Quebe was at Our Lady of Greenwood, attending Catholic Youth Organization camps at Roncalli.
“He made an impression on me,” Scifres says.
And now, others. After games opposing players seek Quebe out and little kids ask to take a picture with him.
In one-on-one drills at practice, Quebe goes against players literally twice his size. “I don’t get intimidated that easily,” he says.
As that punishing drill was wearing on this week, players on both sides were slower and slower to get back in line. Not Quebe. After 247-pound senior Ben Walesky pancaked him to the ground — then leaned down and snatched him to his feet in the same motion — Quebe hurried back to get in line.
“There are so many measurables in the game of football,” Scifres says. “The roster shows you the height and weight. You can measure their 40 time and bench press and vertical jump and wingspan, all those things.
“I don’t have any idea how you measure desire and a willingness, toughness, courage, but there’s nobody on our roster that possesses those immeasurables any more than Max.”
* * *
The first time Laura Quebe saw her son, he was 13 months old.
Max was at an orphanage in Kursk, Russia. At home in Greenwood, Laura and Deron Quebe saw pictures of the chubby little Russian carrot-top, and fell in love. They flew to Russia and spent a month there navigating the red tape of international adoption.
“There’s so much politics involved: Big bad Americans vs. Russians,” says Laura, who figures she and Deron spent close to $20,000 on the overall process. “We were told not to tell the locals what we were doing, so we stayed in our hotel and said we were on a business trip. We saw Max twice a day in the orphanage and brought gifts and money to (Russian) officials, as we were told to do. They love anything with American flags on it. Coffee cup, ashtrays. Shot glasses.”
In grade school Max was diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, on the higher-functioning end of the autism spectrum but something doctors said would keep him from grasping “the concept” of team sports. Max came home in fourth grade and announced that a friend had said, “Dude, let’s go out for football.”
Says Laura: “I wasn’t going to tell him no.”
“He knew nothing about it, but the coaches at Our Lady (of Greenwood) took him under their wing, showed him how to do the exercises, put him in place, and he fell in love with it,” she says. “Next thing I know, he’s got an entire football team rallying round him, probably because he’s so small and really didn’t know what the heck he was doing. But he was always so positive for everyone else.”
Says Scifres: “As much as any kid in our program, he has earned the respect of the upperclassmen and coaches. Guys don’t take it easy on him — they get after him. He never quits. What I admire most about Max is he has an innate desire to do the very best he can, every play, with what God has given him.”
In a JV game earlier this season, Roncalli defensive end Drew Strader was hurt and Max Quebe was the first player running onto the field. He wanted to carry his 6-2, 211-pound teammate off.
“He doesn’t have any clue how small he is,” Laura Quebe says. “Max was trying to get in there to help, and somebody handed him Drew’s helmet: ‘Yeah buddy, here’s the helmet. Carry this.’ And he comes trotting off the field with the helmet.”
He is not like most high school football players, this tiny Roncalli nose tackle, because of one very obvious difference in dimension:
Other kids, bless ’em, don’t have Max Quebe’s king-sized heart.