By Brad Spencer
Ten years ago Mike Amrhein told a Wednesday Journal reporter about his former high school basketball coach being one of his biggest influences.
"He's one of the main reasons why I am the way I am today," he said of Al Allen, former OPRF High School hoops coach. "He helped develop my maturity, and I've been able to carry over the lessons he taught me into baseball."
Amrhein was 26 at the time and playing for the West Tennessee Diamond Jaxx, a Double-A affiliate of the Chicago Cubs. He was a catcher, helping develop such up-and-coming pitching prospects as Mark Prior, but he was also on his last legs in pursuit of making the big leagues. A few months after Amrhein spoke to Wednesday Journal, he was called up to the Cubs Triple-A affiliate in Iowa. But he never did make it to the big leagues.
On this day, Allen, with a heavy heart and a voice on the verge of breaking, remembers his former basketball player.
"He was so fast and overpowering in the post, he would just leave defenders standing there. He was ferocious on the court but mild-mannered off it. He was just 6-foot-3 but he could dunk and he was a player who would just never quit."
It's difficult for everyone who knew Amrhein or came into contact with him or read about his athletic achievements to grasp why he took his own life on July 5. Allen won't talk about it, going so far as to say, "I only know that he passed away, and that's all I know."
Perhaps it's respectful of Amrhein and his family. But Allen knows the former OPRF High School athletic star killed himself, leaving his wife Jill, whom Amrhein met at OPRF and who was the manager of the basketball team when he played, and their two young children, Ally and Ella, without a husband and father. There might not be a definitive reason why he did it, but if there is, it's not for us to pry.
Allen's voice returns to its usual huskiness as he recalls how he and legendary OPRF baseball coach Jack Kaiser, who died in 2000, had to sit down and discuss how to keep Amrhein's competitive nature reined in.
"During the summers, Mike wanted to be playing in every single basketball and baseball game, which was impossible to do," recalls Allen. "I literally had to order him to play baseball at times. He was a good basketball player, but he was an outstanding baseball player. That's the kind of guy he was, the ultimate competitor."
Allen used to live down the street from the Amrheins, whom he refers to as a "phenomenal family."
"Mike's parents, Tom and Anne, are just wonderful people. I used to take my son, Kyle, down to their house long ago and Mike would show him how to hit. They'd spend hours hitting into the fence in the backyard."
Allen remembers this particular memory fondly because Amrhein was starring for Notre Dame at that point, yet there he was taking the time to coach a youngster on how to hit. "And that I won't ever forget," he says softly.
He also says he won't ever forget the fake drop-step followed by the jump hook that he dubbed the Amrhein Move. "He would nail it, and I would ask myself, 'How am I supposed to teach that to someone else?'"
Allen says he also won't forget the particular practice when he was disgusted with the play of some of his starters and told them so. "Mike came back into the gym later and told me I was right, that he'd been playing horribly. I was stunned. I said, 'Mike, I wasn't talking about you.' I spent a half hour convincing him he deserved to be a starter."
Allen and the sports brethren Amrhein cultivated over his 37 years won't soon forget the man who competed so fiercely on ballfields and basketball courts from Oak Park to Iowa and then taught what he knew at Downers Grove North High School the last six years. They're sure to remember and celebrate his life and try desperately to fathom his untimely death.
All that's left are the memories.
"They're going to have to chase me around the locker room to get my uniform," he told Wednesday Journal a decade ago when queried about the possibility of retiring from playing baseball. "I'm not going to give it up without a fight."
According to Amrhein's obituary by Knollcrest Funeral Home, services were held privately. Memorials for the benefit of Alexis (Ally) and Michaela (Ella) Amrhein can be made through any Fifth Third Bank branch.