- By Tom Archdeacon columnist
The night before it happened, she saw her son, Joe, at his very best.
That’s made for an indelible image she now holds dearly nearly a decade later and one that’s prompting her to do what she’s now attempting for the Twin Valley South High School football program.
“It was Halloween and Joe’s friend and his little brother were brought to our house by their mom so they could Trick or Treat around town,” Laura Kasserman was recalling a few evenings ago.
“The little boy was about five and he had autism and sometimes he’d act out. His brother often would be embarrassed by him, but not Joe. He always took that little boy under his wing and would sit on the floor with him and play for hours.
“He loved that little guy.”
And the boy was little next to Joe, then a 5-foot-10, 300-pound lineman for the TVS football team whom everyone called “Kassa-Role.” It was the perfect moniker that gave a playful touch to both his name and his penchant for eating.
Jason Schondelmyer, the Panthers’ coach at the time, compared him to late comedian Chris Farley in build and mannerisms.
But the one thing bigger than Joe’s frame and appetite was his heart and that was on full display that Halloween night in 2008.
“The little boy had on a chicken costume and his mom had put Glow Sticks down in it so it shined,” Laura said. “Well, his brother didn’t want to take him around, but Joe said ‘Hey, I’ll take him.’
“I remember the two of them walking up the street – Joe in his letterman’s jacket and this little kid in his glow-in-the-dark chicken suit – side by side, holding hands.
“That was Joe, a big ol’ boy, but soft as a marshmallow when came to other people. He was just a generous, sweet kid who looked out for people. He took them under his wing and protected them.”
As she thought about that, the emotion began to well up and soon her eyes were glistening:
“That’s why I’ve tried to find someone to do a portrait of that scene for me. The two of them walking together – that’s one of the last memories I have of Joe. It’s the image that really captures him.”
A night later, Joe was dead.
That evening had begun with Joe and his brother Jesse – a year older and also a football player – at an end-of-the-season party south of West Alexandria. The gathering was meant as a farewell for a player who was moving out of the area, but it also was a bonding experience for the Panthers who would return next season.
And Joe had high expectations for his coming senior year. Coaches had told him to lose 50 pounds and he already had begun embracing that thought when the lady hosting the party suddenly caused him to juke step his diet.
“She had a big old crock pot of hot dogs and she kept saying. ‘They’re going to go to waste, somebody has to eat them,’” Laura said. “Well, Joe didn’t want that to happen. They tell me he must have had 10.”
She smiled as she imaged the scene: “So he was taking one for the team.”
Joe had said he’d start his diet “tomorrow,” but, sadly, tomorrow never really came.
Just after midnight, Laura – who had raised her two sons on her own – called Jesse to make sure he and his brother were heading home. The pair accepted a ride from one of Joe’s good friends, a sophomore who had just gotten his driver’s license.
As Jesse once explained to me, the car they were in and another carload of players were jockeying for position as they came north on Ohio 503, a rolling ribbon of asphalt that cuts through the Preble County farmland to West Alex:
“It was sort of a stupid race thing and when we pulled onto 503, the other car passed us.”
He said the boy driving them caught up to the other car and began to pass: “But he didn’t check first and a car was coming the other way. He tried to get over, but he over-corrected and almost went into the field. That’s when he swerved it back the other way and that’s when, you know …”
The car flipped seven times.
Jesse was thrown from the vehicle and knocked unconscious. The driver was severely injured and today – after spending his first nine months in a coma and being spared the crushing news of Joe’s death for over a year – remains paralyzed.
Joe — who was sitting in the back seat that night and was the only one wearing his seat belt – was killed.
He was just 16.
A sturdy new maroon-colored cross – erected last summer to replace the old one put up soon after the accident – marks the site of the crash just off the west side of pavement, two miles south of town. There’s a soybean field behind it and a towering cornfield just across the two-lane road.
A deflated, green Wilson football sits atop the cross looking like an old leather helmet and vines with a few white flowers have wrapped around the lower half of the roadside memorial. The crossbar is etched with Joe’s No. 70 jersey number – he was buried in his Panthers’ No. 70 jersey - and the dates of his life: 6-9-92 and 11-2-08.
“For Joe’s 25th birthday, one of our best friends, David Caplinger, redid the cross,” Laura said. “It’s really nice.
“David’s also a Demolition Derby fanatic and he has No. 70 painted on the sides of all his cars. He’s really remembered Joe. Last year he had a son and named him Kenson Joseph.
“Actually there are three or four kids named after Joe. My nephew had a son he named after him. And there’s a boy from the Philippines – his mother married a soldier there and they moved here when (the boy) was a senior – he’s another person Joe took under his wing.
“He didn’t know anything about football, but he joined the team and Joe looked out for him. That boy loved Joe so much and now he’s back in the Philippines and has named his son Rave Joseph. It’s pretty cool that Joe has a namesake all the way over there, too.”
The remembrances, though, have come with some heartache for Laura.
“I see all of Joe’s friends and what’s come of them now,” she said. “Some have graduated from college, some are getting married and having babies and getting on with life. I’d just like to see what Joe would have become. That’s the hardest thing – never knowing.”
For a good while she struggled with that.
“It’s embarrassing to talk about, but after a while I couldn’t take living there (West Alex) anymore,” she said quietly. “I couldn’t face life like that and kind of vegged out for a while.”
She left town in 2013, lived on a guy’s horse farm, took care of his horses and took classes at the Sinclair Community College branch in Mason.
In the past year she said things began to turn around for both her and her son Jesse, who’s now 27.
She met a fellow and lives with him on the edge of Enon. She works in Wilmington.
“And Jesse met a girl from Germantown – her name is Hannah – and she is the perfect complement to him,” Laura said.” She’s a blessing to our family.
“For a long time I didn’t care what happened to me…but Jesse,” she said as her voice began to break. “Jesse, he lost everything when his brother died.
“And now, for him to be so happy and be whole… This past year we just all bounced back. We’ve begun to heal. It’s a new beginning.
“But it’s not like we don’t think about Joe anymore. I think of him every day and Jesse does, too. We talk about him all the time….and that’s what has led to this now.”
Earlier this year she said she contacted TVS superintendent Bob Fischer – who is headed to National Trail High School this coming school year – and asked if there was any project the school was working on that she could help out with as a way of honoring her late son who had loved being a TVS Panther.
Fischer told her about the extensive two-year project the school was involved in to upgrade its athletic facilities without using taxpayer dollars. While many things had been refurbished or added new, he mentioned one remaining task that caught her attention.
“I told her we were looking to finalize our football field and update the goalposts, both the football uprights and the soccer goalposts,” Fischer said. “Right now they’re still the old, two-legged ones that look like they’re from the 1960s.”
Laura said: “I thought that was perfect. The football field was Joe’s favorite place in the whole world – well, except maybe for China Wok – but football was pretty much the center of his world back then.”
She has started a GoFundMe page – “TVS Goalpost Fund in Memory of Joe” – to collect donations. It can be found at: https://www.gofundme.com/tvs-goalpost-fund-in-memory-of-joe.
“I’m hoping to help raise enough money in Joe’s honor to get some new goalposts, maybe by the end of this season so they could go up close to the 10-year anniversary of the accident,” she said.
“That way I’d know there’s always going to be a part of Joe in that little town that meant so much to him and the other boys.”
Remembering that smile
This past Mother’s Day, Laura said Jesse and Hannah came over and left her puzzled when they walked in and handed her a big, black balloon without explanation.
“We had dinner and everything and then they said, ‘Are you gonna open your present?’” Laura said. “They gave me a little bag with a card that said: ‘Roses are red, violets are blue. Babies are sweet and we hope you think so, too.’
“As I read it, it finally dawned on me and I looked at Jesse and he was crying and Hannah was crying and I was crying, too.
“They are expecting in September and the present they gave me was a ring of sapphires. That will be the baby’s birthstone.
“Then they had me pop that balloon and pink glitter sprinkled out to tell me it was going be a girl. I’m telling you, it was the best thing ever.”
She said Jesse and Hannah have decided to name their daughter Lorelai Jo.
“That’s the only thing Jesse had been adamant about,” Laura said with a smile. “He wanted Joe’s name in there somewhere.
“And with me, I know it might be selfish, but I’m hoping when the baby gets here, it will have Joe’s smile. At least a little glimmer of it. That’s what everybody remembers about him – that smile on his face.”
Panthers football coach Clint Bartlett agreed:
“This happened long before I got here, but a lot of the kids still remember the accident and losing Joe. And it resonates even more with the teachers and administrators who were here. They have fond memories of him. They talk about how he was a good kid and brightened up a room with his personality. That’s why our program has continued to remember him, too.”
For years the football team didn’t issue No. 70 to anyone else.
And right after Joe’s death, a memorial stone was put in the ground along the path the players follow from their dressing room to the football field. Since then players have taken to reaching over and touching it before their games.
“We still do that every Friday night,” said Bartlett. “It’s a good way to remember a fallen brother. A way to keep his memory alive.”
The stone is engraved with the message:
“When someone you love becomes a memory, the memory becomes a treasure.”
And, if Laura Kasserman can make it happen, that memory soon will become a set of goalposts, as well.