FRANKTON, Ind. – Jon Hatzell smiles now at his last conversation with his father. It was something inconsequential at the time. He needed help moving books in his social studies classroom.
“Something I probably didn’t want to do,” Hatzell said.
But it was normal. Normal is what Jon misses since he found his father on the morning of Dec. 26, 2017, in the home they shared in Frankton (Ind.). They lived there like bachelors, watching basketball and baseball games when Jon was not playing and Chris Hatzell was not coaching. Everything changed that morning, the day after Christmas, when Chris returned home after playing a pickup basketball game at the high school and died of a heart attack. He was 44.
For months, Jon played over in his head what he could have done differently. So did the basketball players and coaches who arrived at Hatzell’s doorstep immediately after hearing the news that morning to console Jon and one another. They returned to the basketball court for a home game two days later, but nothing felt quite right the rest of the season. In practice, coach Brent Brobston, so accustomed to having Hatzell by his side, would ask him to lead a drill. Every time, Brobston would apologize to Jon and the team, most of whom had been coached by Hatzell in youth baseball and basketball from age 8 or 9.
“It took such a toll on everybody mentally,” Brobston said. “Chris was so funny and such a good guy to be around. It wasn’t the same. We weren’t the same. I think we all felt worn down mentally.”
Frankton, after winning a Class 2A state championship in 2017, was upset in the sectional championship by Lapel last season. But the Eagles (25-3) are again one step away from a state finals appearance, facing Andrean in the semistate Saturday at Lafayette Jeff.
Chris Hatzell joked that he lived by three ‘Fs’ – food, Frankton and family. The latter two have helped in the grieving process. When Chris played for Frankton in the early 1990s as a vocal, intense point guard, his coach was Rex Bauchert – his stepfather. When Chris died, Bauchert, the all-time winningest coach at Frankton, returned to the sideline to take his spot and coach his grandson.
“I came back for Jon,” Bauchert said. “That was probably the only thing that was going to bring me back.”
Jon found a sanctuary on the basketball court, a place where father and son spent so much time together. He talked to his dad again on Saturday during Frankton’s regional game against Wabash. He does that sometimes in a big moment of a close game to calm himself down. “All right dad, here we go,” Jon said. “Let’s get it together.”
Jon takes comfort in knowing he has not had to go it alone. Frankton, a community of 1,820 in Madison County, sold more than 1,100 tickets Tuesday for its Class 2A semistate game.
“Basketball has been a safe haven,” Jon said. “This was his love and it’s what I love. To be here with my team, they are like a second family. They have been with me every step of the way. I know my dad is looking down on us enjoying this.”
The reminders are difficult for father and son.
Bauchert, 61, coached basketball at Frankton from 1985 to 2003, winning a program-record 216 games. He still teaches math at the school. Occasionally, he will look up from his desk at the end of the day and think he hears Chris bounding down the hallway.
“Chris and Jon would always pop in on the way to practice and say hello,” Bauchert said. “I’ll still hear something and think it’s him – but it’s not him.”
Chris was at the beginning of a second career. For years, he had worked for Wilhelm Construction in Indianapolis. But those close to him saw the way he connected with kids at the youth level on Jon’s teams. Teaching and coaching made sense. In 2014, he was hired as a teacher at Frankton. Brobston, who had known Hatzell since high school and watched him coach basketball and baseball, tabbed him to coach the eighth grade basketball team. The nex year, Hatzell became part of the varsity staff.
“I had always kind of pushed him to go a different direction because I knew how tough coaching could be,” Bauchert said. “But it finally came to a point where he decided he wanted to go that route. He worked at it and sacrificed to do that. It was kind of a dream for him.”
It was a dream for Bauchert, too. Chris was a 9-year-old when Bauchert first met him. He bought Chris a Frankton baseball cap. “A lot of what is inside Chris came from his mom,” Bauchert said. “She made him tough, hard-nosed. She gave him a lot of love, too. He was easy to coach. Jon is, too.”
But those reminders. Bauchert shared a prep period with Chris. He misses those chats. The normalcy of the day-to-day interaction. “There are days where I don’t do that well,” Bauchert said.
Being around basketball, around Jon, has helped. Every once in a while at practice, Jon will wrap an arm around his grandfather.
“This is such a big time in Jon’s life,” Bauchert said. “It’s still hard to believe Chris isn’t here.”
For several months, Jon was unable to visit his father’s classroom. He has moved out of the house he shared with his father and now lives with his mother, Jennifer.
“Coming back to school was probably the hardest part,” he said. “Being back in the school and the gym where we had spent so much time together was really hard.”
But over time, Jon has come to appreciate the time he did have with his father. He saw how teaching and coaching made him happier. He remembers the big high school games in the area they used to attend and enjoy together.
“He got to see me a lot more and I know he enjoyed that,” Jon said. “He loved coaching. He loved sports in general, especially basketball. We were always doing something with sports.”
Brobston renamed the hustle award after Chris Hatzell. There is a photo of Chris, his left arm leaning on a railing, on the wall inside the locker room door.
“This award is earned through toughness and hard work on the court,” a sign reads. “It exemplifies how Coach Hatzell played and coached the game. It is forever named in his honor.”
The award is won through an accumulation of deflections, steals, loose balls, dives, offensive rebounds and charges taken. Hustle plays. Jon, who is third on the team in scoring behind fellow seniors Kayden Key and Ryan Detling, is in second place for the award named in his father’s honor. One of his best friends, senior Brayton Cain, is in first.
“We all miss (Chris),” Cain said. “Him and Jon were like two peas in a pod. I know his dad would be really proud of the man he has become.”
After the regional championship, Brobston dedicated the win to Chris.
“These are memories I’ll never forget,” Jon said. “My dad has been with us all, I’m sure.”