Coach and Me is a series of stories during the 2021-22 school year that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021
THE CORNER OF HIGHWAY 91 AND HARD WORK — Howells is just far enough off Nebraska Highway 91 that you don’t go through it, you just drive by. A left turn just off the highway if you are heading east.
A town that goes about its business. They don’t ask for your attention, they earn it. It’s the only way they know.
The trophy case at the school is full. You name the sport, boys or girls, and Howells won it. Joined with Dodge, who also won plenty on their own. Now, they do it together.
In 2021, it was a year that was extra special. An improbable run to the Class D-1 state title game in basketball and a perfect fall in football, the Jaguars won their first football title since consolidation.
In the middle of it all, were two leaders and best friends who have been through more than most of us see in a lifetime. This is a story of faith and hard work. And chopping wood.
Blake Sindelar and RJ Bayer tell the story almost the same. Makes you wonder if they can finish each other’s sentences.
They were inseparable in pre-school and Blake went off to kindergarten. RJ stayed back. When they spent a year apart, Blake did a second tour of kindergarten so he and RJ could stay together for the rest of school.
“Mom and dad held me back in pre-school,” RJ said, “and then Blake got held back in kindergarten so we could be together.”
“Since before school, we were best friends,” Blake says. “I am sure our moms had something to do with it.”
Maybe they didn’t know how much they needed each other. While they were in pre-school, Blake’s father, Brad, passed away after battling a brain tumor. He was 29.
While he was very little when it happened, Blake remembers his dad well. A hard-working, simple man who loved to be on the farm.
“There were a lot of times, I didn’t want to go to school, and I’d wake up really early so I could go out and work with dad,” Blake tells me. “I just remember a lot of the simple things with him.”
A few years later, Blake’s mom, Becky remarried. Then an ag teacher and now the H-D principal, Blake’s new dad, Jordan Brabec, also a hoops assistant, came with something special.
“He had a key to the gym,” Blake said, with a smile. “I have treated him like my dad since day one. He’s been a big help to my game.”
Kevin Janata came home — he graduated from Howells in 2007 — to coach basketball for the 2018-19 season. He was excited about a good group of seven seniors that year.
“But everyone kept telling me about these two freshmen who might be some of my better players,” the coach remembers.
Blake Sindelar and RJ Bayer.
“You could almost tell from that first practice they would be ready to go. We tried to keep them level headed and ease them into it. They didn’t start, and everyone thought I was crazy.
“After Christmas, they were in the starting lineup.”
By that time, Ryan Bayer, RJ’s dad, had been battling a brain tumor for nearly two years. He was taking experimental treatments. Doctors didn’t think he would survive a year on initial diagnosis. But, he was fighting.
That March, the Jaguars defeated Freeman in overtime in the district final to advance to state. RJ keeps a picture on his phone. They would lose in the first round at state to eventual champion BRLD.
RJ and Blake were key contributors as sophomores on the Jags football team for coach Mike Spiers. With another group of seniors, they won 10 straight before losing to champion Osceola/High Plains in the quarterfinals that season.
“We kind of threw them to the wolves, so to speak, as sophomores,” Spiers said. “They have been a huge part of our program and its success over the last four years. They have always been positive and were leaders from the beginning.”
RJ remembers scoring a rare touchdown that season, his dad’s health was in decline.
“He’d watch the games from our Suburban,” RJ says, “and I scored and he was honking the horn like crazy. I am not sure if he was supposed to be doing that.”
After football and as basketball was grinding through — just two weeks after his 40th birthday — Ryan Bayer’s fight with a similar brain tumor that also took Brad Sindelar ended. Almost two years ago now.
In his first game back, RJ Bayer scored 32 points. But Howells-Dodge finished the season 14-11.
The next fall — through Covid — the Jags football team finished 7-3. A success in most communities, but maybe, some hard defeats were lessons learned. They continued through basketball.
After a 1-4 start they started to figure things out. Beat pesky BRLD. Got one against Humphrey St. Francis. Tried to survive their way through the gnarly East Husker Conference and did it.
In sub-district play they defeated top-ranked Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family. They didn’t lose again until the state finals — to the same HLHF team. The Jags had a fourth quarter lead before losing 52-47 in overtime.
When Blake wasn’t scoring his tournament high 79 points in three games, he was usually passing to his wide-open best friend in the post. Surely Brad and Ryan were somewhere smiling.
At the beginning of the season, Janata had given his team a simple saying — chop wood. Simply, it meant doing all the little things every day. Get better. The results will take care of themselves.
“RJ and Blake are just blue collar kids,” Janata said. “Our summer weights are at 5:00 in the morning so they can go to work. They love being on the farm, at the feedlot or the sale barn.
“They love to work.”
The duo laughs about the work, too. They bought, bred and sold some cattle this year.
“We made a little money,” RJ jokes.
Blake, just a bit more conservative. “We didn’t lose any money,” he says.
In the moments of battle, Blake Sindelar and RJ Bayer know their dads would be proud and can feel them watching as they pursue their senior goals.
More tough news came this summer, when Blake’s mom was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer. But Blake says she has been fantastic through it all.
“God only picks the toughest ones,” he says. “She has been great, always smiling. Our news has been mostly good, the cancer seems to be shrinking.”
The dads had to be there, in the bitter cold of a perfect semifinal football win over Burwell. Blake knows his dad had a hand in one of the biggest plays of the D-1 state football championship game.
Blake Sindelar comes up with an incredible fumble recovery in the red zone to keep the Cougars from scoring pic.twitter.com/fDGf668dQO
— Nebraska Public Media (@NebPublicMedia) November 22, 2021
“I could just feel him there, you know?”
RJ hears him in the stands when the fans are going crazy in a tight game. When he points to the sky as he runs onto the football field or in the basketball starting lineups.
“My dad liked to get after it.”
And he sees him in younger brother Jestin, who finished second at 170 pounds in Class D state wrestling last year and is unbeaten so far in 2021-22. He played fullback on the football team.
“Dad put us in wrestling and basketball as kids,” RJ said. “I hated it, but he loves it. And, he can still shoot it pretty good, too.”
Their coaches likely reflect exactly what the community sees in them as well.
“It was so special to get to coach them and see their success. As good of athletes as they are, they are better people,” Speirs said. “And each has a younger brother that will be a huge part of our team next year.”
Janata sees it in a film session, or a practice or the tight moments of a big game.
“I think those two have taught me more about handling adversity than anyone else could have,” the coach said. “Sometimes I’ll beat myself up, but then you look at them and what they have had to handle.
“It’s just a game, you know? It’s supposed to be fun. We try to keep that in perspective.”
RJ and Blake aren’t done yet. There is still work left. But you won’t see them out anywhere promoting themselves on social media.
There is too much else to do. More work in the classroom. More work on the farm. More work in the gym. More wood to chop. And honoring their fathers is in the work.
“I know they’d be super proud of us.” RJ said. “They wanted us to be successful. They wanted kids that worked hard and committed to doing well in everything they did.”
For as much fun as they had in 2021, Blake Sindelar and RJ Bayer — and their teammates — made many proud.
The new year gives them a new commitment to continue to honor the men who taught them life. And to realize that the joy, is all in the work.
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