HOLMEN — They weren’t chanting for Noah Risch, who had two sacks and played all night like a madman. They weren’t chanting for Dillon Martinez, who scored two electrifying touchdowns. And they weren’t chanting for Mitchell Dienger, who rushed for 134 yards and the game-clinching score.
They were chanting for Willy Stetter, a 6-foot-1, 303-pound sophomore lineman who saw the field for just one play — a kneel down — in Holmen’s 27-21 victory over Waunakee in the first round of the WIAA Division 2 high school football playoffs.
The Holmen students were chanting because after a week of unthinkable loss and unspeakable tragedy, nobody was enjoying this victory more than No. 79.
“It was one of the happiest feelings of my life,” Stetter said.
It came about 60 hours after his darkest hour.
On Wednesday morning, Stetter was getting a ride to school from his father, John. One minute, they were talking, a rather ordinary exchange between father and son.
And then ...
“We were driving down the road, going like 40, 45, rounded a corner,” Stetter said. “Then he eased off the gas and said ‘I can’t see.’
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“He slumped over, and that’s when he died.”
John Stetter suffered a massive heart attack. Willy called 911 and managed to get his dad’s foot off the gas and pull the car over to the side of the road. He pulled his dad from the vehicle and attempted to perform CPR. Two Holmen students stopped to help.
But it was too late. John Stetter was 61 years old.
“He was a great guy,” Willy said. “He always strived to make everyone happy and make their life better. One of the nicest guys you could ask for. Real shame he had to go this early.”
John loved the outdoors, according to his obituary. Along with his father-in-law, he built his family’s home in Holmen.
And he was a big Holmen football fan and attended every game of this magical undefeated season — well, except for the game in New Prague, Minn., which was a little too far away.
Willy was devastated and heartbroken. But he still had football. He still had his “second family.”
He didn’t practice the day his father died, but he was out on the field Thursday, and his teammates — his “brothers,” as he called them several times — welcomed him back with open arms. It was a chance for him to escape, to think about something other than the empty void that’s now in his life.
“I had to think about something else other than my dad,” Willy said. “School was kind of hard, because we’d have work time, and I’d start to think about it. That’s when it got tough. Football made it easier.”
He said he felt guilty, however, when his mom, Susan, picked him up from practice, and he’d been smiling.
“And she’s been getting calls and crying all day,” he said. “I feel bad that I’m happy when she’s so sad.”
Willy gave her — and the rest of his family, which includes brother Cale and sister Katie — something to smile about Friday night when he ran onto the field for his moment in the sun.
“It was a no-brainer thing to do,” said Holmen coach Steve King, who was reminded by an assistant to put Stetter in the game. “I know it means a lot to him, and I’m sure it means a lot to his mother.
“It was a great way to end this ballgame.”
King, 59, can’t imagine what Willy is going through. His parents are still alive.
“That’s a tough thing to ask anyone to do, but a 15-year-old kid, that’s real tough,” King said. “But he’s handling it great.”
He was the center of attention as the clock struck zero, and the Vikings won a playoff game for the second straight year. They’ll play Central at 7 p.m. Friday night at UW-La Crosse.
“My brothers played for him,” Willy said. “And played for me. They showed their true spirit.”
Willy didn’t come back to the team so he could get a little bit of glory in a big playoff victory. He came back to the team because of the pats on the helmet, the slaps on the back, the hugs, the support, the love.
“I got to go out and play with all my brothers,” Stetter said. “We got to win together as a team. That’s pretty much why I came back to this sport. I love it. So much.”