LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - Bryce Heitmann is in sixth grade at Holy Trinity.
He's the quarterback and safety for a team with one goal: getting to the Toy Bowl. It's the Super Bowl for Catholic grade school teams in Louisville.
And his dad, Erik, was fully invested. We're talking about a dad who watched game film.
"All Erik talked about was football and the Toy Bowl and the thought that something like this would, you know, stop that, or stop Bryce from playing. I couldn't even imagine it," Susan Heitmann said, reflecting on a decision that no one ever imagines having to make.
This is the story of a father, a son, their dream for a team, and how God's plan intervened.
"I coached his oldest son, who is at St. X, and we won a Toy Bowl, but this was different... his last son, Toy Bowl right here and he's the quarterback," Holy Trinity 5th and 6th grade football head coach Jeff Maddox recalled.
That quarterback is 12 year-old Bryce.
"It meant a lot to him, he just loved to see me play, loved everyone on our team, it meant a lot to him," Bryce said, when recalling how much his dad loved the game.
Erik Heitmann was a UPS pilot, and a few weeks ago, he started feeling under the weather. At first they thought it was pneumonia.
"Next thing I know they're rushing us to ICU. They said he had encephalitis of the brain," Susan remembers.
Erik's temperature skyrocketed to 105.8. There were good days and bad days.
After initially keeping the kids isolated, letting them stay busy with their sports, Susan brought them to the hospital to visit with their dad.
"Bryce would come in and he'd want to talk about football and the Toy Bowl, and Bryce loved talking to him about that," she said. "I told him Jeff, you know, no pressure, but if you can get these boys to the Toy Bowl - by then we figured that he'd be in rehab - the doctors say that they'll give him a day pass and he'll be able to make the Toy Bowl."
Overnight, things changed.
"He had some left side weakness, but everything was getting better," Susan said. "He was walking, and then you know, that night, everything kind of fell apart and we just never got him back."
Erik Heitmann left this earth on October 28. He was just 55-years-old.
Family and friends packed into the ICU at Baptist Health Hospital. They formed a line to say goodbye.
Coach Maddox was there.
"It was a powerful moment," Maddox said. "There were so many people there to support Susan and the kids, and on top of that they wanted to be there, you know, I think for Erik."
Maddox had a playoff semifinal to coach the next day, with Bryce as his quarterback and free safety. The message he got from Susan was crystal clear.
"For some reason I could see him down at the end and he was crying," Susan recalled. "I just hugged him for awhile, we both hugged each other and I just said, you know, we've got to go to this game tomorrow, Bryce is going to be there, and you know, you've to got to take him to the Toy Bowl."
Maddox got the message. "She leaned over and said, Jeff, Bryce is going to play, Bryce wants to play, I want him to play, Erik would want him to play, let's go play football tomorrow."
"He would love me to be there, no matter, he just wanted to see me play," Bryce said when reflecting on what his dad would have wanted.
The game was on Sunday, October 29. Holy Trinity against St. Margaret Mary at St. Rita.
Maddox wasn't sure how to treat his quarterback.
"You're looking at a 12 year-old little guy that is out there and you just wonder, how is he gonna react out here in the game today?" Maddox wondered.
Early on a fumble on a fourth down brought the emotion bubbling to the surface.
"That broke my heart, because I was watching him and you know I had said from the beginning, this could go one of two ways," Susan said. "He doesn't like to talk a lot and I didn't know where he was when I saw him the spike the ball, which is not his personality."
Bryce remembers the moment well.
"I got a little emotional in the beginning, but I just told myself to clear out everything, just kind of go and play my game, so I guess it worked," he said.
On the very next play, the Eagles free safety made a play he'll remember for the rest of his life.
"I didn't really realize I did anything until after I scored the touchdown," Bryce said. "I was kind of in shock, didn't really know what I did."
What he did was intercept a pass and return it for a touchdown.
"I saw him kind of running cause he was out of position and he was moping around a little bit cause he made a mistake," Maddox remembers. "Well I see him start to take off, when he gets going faster and faster and faster and they throw this kind of lazy swing pass out there to the outside and he grabs this thing and takes it 60 yards the other way for a pick six."
Thirty, sixty, whatever it took, and he wasn't finished.
"I built my confidence up, got my brain set, kind of knew what I had to do from there," Bryce said.
More touchdowns followed, the end result was a 24-0 Holy Trinity win and that trip to the Toy Bowl that his dad had been so focused on.
Bryce still talks to his dad. "After that I don't think he would say much at first, he would just smile and hug me and then after we'd probably talk a lot about that."
"He never said they had to win the Toy Bowl, he said they had to get to the Toy Bowl, but just the fact that you know, these kids were able - half that team was in the hospital with us one day and then the next day they're out on the field," Susan said. "I think everybody just needed it, needed something good to happen."
It is a moment and a game that everyone there was caught up in.
"That's what I've told Bryce once if I've told him 100 times, and I know I told him after the game, at least three times, your Dad would be so proud," Coach Maddox said. "I don't think he would have said anything, I think Erik would have just smiled. That strength in Bryce comes from somewhere, you know, that doesn't just come on it's own. Erik did a good job and I felt Erik on the sideline you know with us that night. There's no doubt that, it was very special."
For Susan, who lost her husband and the father of her three children, the moment offered some comfort through the unimaginable grief.
"It was amazing, it was just like he was doing it for his dad. People felt like his dad was there because the sunset. It was really dark and all the sudden the sunset and it was really pretty out there," Susan said. "It just kind of felt like I don't know, he was part of it and Bryce was doing what he had to for his dad."
Holy Trinity did not win the Toy Bowl. They lost 10-2 to St. Mary.
But that doesn't matter.
Because for a few hours on that afternoon, one day after a family lost a husband and a father, Bryce Heitmann's performance helped them get through the first of what are sure to be many difficult days.