By Lori Gottula
“We were just doing things the Sacred Heart way,” Doug Goltz, principal at Falls City Sacred Heart, said in a recent interview.
Goltz, who also serves as the head coach of the football and boys’ basketball programs, had just received an official certificate recognizing the school as a nominee for the Spirit of Sport award, sponsored by the National Federation of State High School Associations. He and the school had been nominated for the award by Ken Swanson, athletic director and head football coach at Emerson-Hubbard schools. The nomination was based on the outpouring of generosity that the Sacred Heart community had shown to one of E-M’s students after an incident that took place during a football game in Falls City last fall.
The day of the incident was a warm day, even for October. The sun was shining, and there was very little breeze. Sacred Heart and E-M were playing in Jug Brown Stadium in their first state playoff game of the season in Class D2. Sacred Heart was leading 36-3 when E-H’s kicker lined up to kick a seemingly impossible field goal—57 yards.
The Pirate blockers set in motion. The kicker sent the ball flying, right through the uprights, and broke the D2 state record. Celebration ensued. Irish players even congratulated the kicker.
Behind the line of scrimmage, E-H blocker Tanner Haberman lay on the ground, writhing in pain. His screams could be heard over the cheers and high-fives. Haberman had fallen backwards, over a player who had gone to the ground, and his leg had snapped into two pieces.
At the femur (the bone in the thigh is the largest in the body, and is not easily broken).
Tanner screamed as if his leg had been cut off. His excruciating pain was gut-wrenching. Coaches Goltz and Swanson ran out onto the field. They observed that the break was clean, meaning that Tanner’s skin was the only thing holding his leg together. Goltz knew then that something was terribly wrong.
“It takes a large amount of force to break the femur,” Goltz said.
“And there was no way that Tanner had been hit hard enough on that play to break that bone.”
Long story short—Tanner was stabilized by the medics at the game, then rushed to Community Medical Center. School Supt. Msgr. Robert Roh went out to the emergency room, as he always does whenever a player is injured, and offered his support.
“When a visiting player is injured, the family is in a strange place, and their relatives are sometimes far away,” Msgr. Roh said during a telephone interview. “I’ve discovered that people feel better—especially people of the Catholic faith—if I just stand around with a collar on, and shut up. It’s not the collar, per se, that brings peace and serenity, but the position of the priest. That position seems to bring hope.”
By “showing up and shutting up” (as Msgr. Roh said), he learned that Tanner was the oldest of nine children, and that his dad, Troy, was a teacher and the head girls’ basketball coach at Emerson-Hubbard. Troy was also one of the bus drivers, and had driven the spirit bus to the game that night. He’d had no choice but to leave to drive the student body home.
Tanner’s injury was so significant that he was scheduled to be transported to Lincoln by helicopter. Joan Magdanz, a Sacred Heart parent and CMC nurse, offered to stay with him so Tanner’s mom, Janelle, could get on the road. Janelle headed out so she could meet the chopper on the other side, and left her son in the arms of Falls City. The Sacred Heart troops rallied. After the game, several players and parents showed up at the hospital, wondering what they could do to help.
Their presence buoyed the injured player, so they stuck around just to provide moral support. They offered prayers and encouragement, food, lodging and anything else that the family needed.
When Tanner was taken by helicopter, the kids and their parents continued to pray. In Lincoln, doctors performed emergency surgery to place a rod in Tanner’s leg. However, the rod went into the bone way too easily, so biopsies were conducted, and Tanner’s parents heard some of the worst news that any parent can hear: Their 18-year-old son had Osteosarcoma. Cancer.
Goltz called Swanson, his colleague and long-time friend, the next day to check on Tanner and was taken aback by the news. He disconnected the call, then sent a message to his teachers, who relayed the message to their students. And suddenly, neither football games nor much else seemed to matter. A child—someone their age—had cancer. And everyone wanted to do something to help.
While Goltz kept in contact with Swanson and gave daily updates, the Sacred Heart community mobilized. The students sold T-shirts that read, “Teaming Up to Tackle Cancer.”
They sent shirts to Emerson-Hubbard, and the Pirates bought them, too. The FCSH Pep Club, sponsored by Barb Froeschl, organized a “Sweatpants Day,” where students donated money to wear sweatpants and sweatshirts for a day.
“The kids just felt moved to do something,” Froeschl, who also serves as the Guided Learning teacher, said. “They offered prayers, said The Rosary and sent cards, in addition to raising money. The support for Tanner, who came into our lives only by chance, was overwhelming.”
The Helping Hands Club and the Irish alumni also got involved. And soon, the entire Falls City community did, too. People donated gas cards, others gave food certificates, and many gave money. Dickey’s BBQ held a fundraiser and gave half the proceeds to the family.
Msgr. Roh was one of the priests who hand-delivered many of the cards and donations.
“We knew that our donations would be a spit in the bucket compared to the expenses that the family would incur, “he said, “but we had to do something.”
That something was much more than anyone on this side realized. Swanson was so impressed and overwhelmed that he contacted the Nebraska Schools Activities Association, and nominated Goltz for Coach of the Year. Upon receiving the nomination, the NSAA’s Ron Higdon called Swanson and told him that Sacred Heart’s response to another family’s plight deserved even more recognition. So Swanson nominated Goltz and the school for the national Spirit of Sport award, sponsored by the NFHS.
“The things that Doug Goltz and the Sacred Heart community did for Tanner and his family were way above and beyond the call,” Swanson said in a telephone interview.
“And because of their generosity and kindness, the two schools have formed a special bond. The relationship has been strengthened, and I think the whole thing has made us all much more aware of others.”
FCSH senior Abby Magdanz echoed that thought.
“Being a part of Tanner’s plight has humbled us a lot, and made us realize that, even at 18, life can change in an instant.”
Tanner’s life certainly did. After his initial surgery, to replace his hip socket, femur bone, and part of the knee, he was doing fairly well. He even played in the last 20 seconds of the Pirate’s final basketball game.
“His brother threw him the ball,” Tanner’s dad, Troy, said. “The other team knew what was going on, so they broke away and let Tanner score a lay-up. Both teams and their fans went wild. It was one of the most moving moments of my life.”
The news after that, however, wasn’t good. Tanner developed a staph infection, and ultimately had to make the decision to save his leg or risk his life. He made the decision himself to have his leg amputated. Two weeks later, he showed up at the Sacred Heart girls’ opening-round game in the state tournament. He also attended the Irish boys’ opening round game.
He wanted to show support for the people who have given so much. (He continues to fight his battle with cancer, and his family continues to remain hopeful.)
Regarding the Spirit of Sport Award, Sacred Heart didn’t win. The award went to a Connecticut student who continued to excel in three sports after receiving a liver transplant. But this was one award where it truly was enough just to be nominated.
Troy Haberman, father of five other boys and three girls, summed it up perfectly.
“There’s no award that anyone could receive that would do the school or the town justice. From the onset of the injury all the way through to this day, Doug Goltz, Msgr. Roh, Joan Magdanz, and people from both schools in Falls City have sent financial support and prayers. Kids in the grade schools have written letters. Many people continue to send cards. We were strangers to your town, but Sacred Heart, and the entire community just really adopted us and took us in. There are no words to describe it.”
Well, there really are. Like Coach Goltz said, Sacred Heart was just doing things the Sacred Heart way, and that way can be summed up with two words. Sacred. And Heart.
To send a card to Tanner or his family: Tanner Haberman, c/o Troy and Janelle Haberman, 1010 Winnebago St., Emerson NE 68733)