BUFFALO, Wyo. — It was a week of bittersweet celebration for those whose lives were touched by Joe Tiller.
And among those associated with Purdue athletics as a fan, student-athlete or administrator, that was just about everybody.
Tiller, who passed away Sept. 30 at 74 after a 20-year battle with Fabry's Disease, was honored during Purdue's win over Minnesota on Oct. 7. Fans purchased commemorative buttons that benefitted causes close to the Tiller family. A special logo was created and T-shirts were worn by the family and the 1997 team — Tiller's first at Purdue, which was in for a previously planned reunion — and Purdue held a moment of silence before kickoff and showed a special video tribute at halftime.
Less than 72 hours after the Boilermakers' dramatic (and delayed) 31-17 victory over the Gophers, several hundred mourners gathered two time zones away from West Lafayette, near Tiller's home in Buffalo, Wyo., to say their goodbyes. Much like the life of Purdue's winningest coach, it was an event filled with jokes, laughter, reflection and tears.
"I felt so honored to have the chance to be here to say my final goodbye," said Travis Dorsch, an All-America kicker in 2001 who is now professor at Utah State, an eight-hour drive from Buffalo. "It felt good to share the memories, and we all came from a very different place in our perspectives of Coach, but it made for some great stories and reflection on the man that was so important to us."
An estimated 500 people either took part in Tuesday's visitation and/or Wednesday funeral Mass. On Tuesday evening at the conclusion of the visitation, it was story-sharing time.
Tiller's college teammates from Montana State (aka "The Decrepit Bobcats") and his former players from Wyoming, where Tiller served as the head coach from 1991-96, were there. But it was the former Boilermaker players who had the most to say.
Tiller alums Kelly Kitchel, Dorsch, Akin Ayodele, Chukky Okobi, Chris Clopton, Tim Stratton, Ed Clark (who played when Tiller was a Purdue assistant in the 1980s) and Stu Schweigert all took turns at the lectern. Their content ran the gamut from being emotional to raw, sometimes off-color, as Tiller's players were not intimidated by the fact they were standing on the altar of a Catholic church.
While there were many heartfelt stories, it was Schweigert who provided one of the more memorable moments of the evening. The former All-Big Ten defensive back arrived to the church in a "Boiler Up" T-shirt at the tail end of the session. But he had a good excuse.
The day before, Schweigert had just witnessed the birth of his first son, Alexander. Wife Krissy, a former standout Purdue track athlete, had given Schweigert her blessing to make the trip from his Michigan home to Wyoming.
"She knew how much this meant to me to be there," said Schweigert, who had to do some fast work on little-to-no sleep to make all of his connections and race up I-25 the final 120 miles from Casper. "I got here so fast that I beached my car on the grass near the entrance of the church. I wasn't sure I was going to make it, but I am so glad I did."
Purdue was also well represented in an official capacity as athletic director Mike Bobinski, board of trustees chairman Mike Berghoff and senior associate athletic directors Tom Schott and Ed Howat were among the official party in attendance. Greg Brohm, brother of head coach Jeff and football's chief of staff, also made the trip to pay his respects.
"We had to do this for (Tiller's widow) Arnette and the family, because they are family to us," Schweigert said. "It was special to have the Purdue football family so well represented and also pay respects to how much Arnette means to us, too."
It was an emotional evening for Tiller's wife of 50 years, a woman known for being a mom to so many of the players. In typical Arnette fashion, she hosted a party (of sorts) at the Tiller home after the visitation, allowing her to spend extended time with the former players from Wyoming and Purdue.
Despite it being game week, Brock Spack and Kevin Sumlin, two of Tiller's former players and assistant coaches, were in attendance for Wednesday's funeral. Spack is in his ninth year as head coach at Illinois State, Sumlin his sixth at Texas A&M.
"There will never be another Joe Tiller," said Okobi, an offensive lineman from 1997-2000, reflecting the sentiment of the two-day event. "Never. He changed my life."
Note: In the November/December print edition, there will be much more from the players and coaches who were impacted by the life of Joe Tiller as we do an extended tribute.
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