FAYETTEVILLE — Austin Tate and his best friend would load their fishing gear, jump into the truck and escape from their daily duties as much as possible.
They were looking for new places to fish. At least, that was the excuse. The avid outdoorsmen didn’t always find a spot, but it didn’t mean it was a wasted trip.
Tate said there was still something special about rambling around the back roads in Arkansas, momentarily escaping the multitude of responsibilities for college football players. They’d drive, laugh and talk about everything and nothing.
It meant the world to both of them.
“There’s no telling how many gallons of gas I went through, the both of us,” Tate said. “That’s just kind of how we were. We didn’t really make big plans. Things just kind of happened and we just rolled with the punches. … I really, really miss that.”
Today marks one year since Tate lost his best friend. Former Razorbacks tight end Garrett Uekman was found unresponsive in his dorm room on Arkansas’ campus on Nov. 20, 2011, and pronounced dead at the hospital a little later. The official cause of death was complications from an enlarged heart, an ironic diagnosis considering everyone who knew Uekman will always remember him for just that — a big heart.
His death rocked the Arkansas football program, which will wrap up a disappointing year during Friday’s finale against LSU. Tate’s long pause when describing the carefree days with his “brother” last week is evidence of the profound impact his passing continues to have as the one-year anniversary sets in.
Time can ease the pain, but so many who knew Uekman well haven’t reached that point as they continue to cope with the loss. He was the friend who was living out his childhood dream of playing at Arkansas. He was the son who spent Thanksgiving Day hunting with his father. He was the little brother who always had time to listen.
So they all have heavy hearts as they look back on the day he abruptly left, all the while looking forward to make sure he is not forgotten as life goes on.
“It’s been a year since I’ve actually talked to my brother,” Uekman’s sister, Meagan, said in an interview late last week. “A year since I heard him laugh and saw him play.
“That’s the hardest to imagine. That I’ve gone - we’ve gone - without for so long.”
It’s the recurring theme for all who reflect on the last hours and days of Uekman’s life this week. They can’t believe a year has passed since he played in his last game, helping Arkansas beat Mississippi State in his hometown of Little Rock.
The void has been hard because there was nothing out of the ordinary about Uekman that night. Photos and video footage showed the redshirt freshman walking off the field. He was healthy. He was happy. So Meagan Uekman said it was hard to fathom the phone call her parents – Danny and Michelle - received the next morning.
Their son had been found unresponsive and was at a hospital in Northwest Arkansas. They ran out the door and began a stressful drive from Central Arkansas to Fayetteville. But the phone rang again with bad news as they reached Conway.
“It was like someone kicking you straight to the heart,” Meagan Uekman said. “All three of us were devastated. It’s like everything just stopped.”
The same disbelief circled the state when Uekman’s death became clear.
Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker was the last person to talk to him that Sunday morning. Uekman was sitting in a chair playing a video game. The roommates chatted for roughly 10 minutes, then made plans to grab some lunch when Hocker returned from a morning church service in Rogers.
Hocker, who always had his cell phone with him at church just in case of an emergency, noticed phone calls and text messages pouring in a little later. He initially figured it was a roommate or teammate wondering about post-service lunch plans. Eventually, Hocker grew concerned and stepped out of the service and listened to a voice mail from roommate and long snapper Alan D’Appollonio.
D’Appollonio had found Uekman. He had been taken to the hospital. Hocker raced back to campus, but when he arrived the worst fear was realized: Uekman had died.
“I was with Garrett 15 minutes or 20 minutes before he passed away,” Hocker said.
“That was the hardest thing to compile. I was there just minutes before he passed away. … I didn’t feel guilt about it, but I felt regret almost. It was all part of God’s plan. That’s all I can say. If God wanted me there 15 minutes later, he would’ve put something in front of me to stay there 15 minutes later with him.”
Hocker said the toughest thing he has ever done in his life was telling Uekman’s parents face-to-face about his last encounter with their son after they arrived.
It was all part of a dark day on campus. Former Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino announced Uekman’s death during an emotional team meeting a little later that afternoon. Players were in tears, embracing each other after it was over.
“You can’t ever take anything for granted,” Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson said Monday, looking back on Uekman’s death. “It makes you realize how much more there is to life. It kind of puts it in perspective a little bit.”
Arkansas did its best to swallow the heartache that week as it prepared for one of the biggest games in school history. The Razorbacks — No. 3 in the BCS standings — were playing at No. 1 LSU with national title implications.
They attended a heart-wrenching candlelight vigil on campus early in the week, where Tate and Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino spoke. They prepared for LSU on the practice field, looking at their teammate’s untouched locker as they went in and out of the locker room each day. They traveled without Uekman for the first time.
Tate — who even wore Uekman’s No. 88 during the LSU game — said he was “zoned out” all week. But he got through it by thinking about what his best friend would have told him: Quit crying. It’s going to be OK. Go win the football game.
Arkansas fell well short, of course, succumbing to the emotionally draining week in the 41-17 loss at LSU. Uekman’s memorial service, in which Little Rock Catholic principal Steve Straessle noted “letting go of an exceptional kid is almost unbearable,” was held in Little Rock a few days later.
The next several weeks were filled with Uekman’s friends and family sticking together, coping together. They’d tell stories – like the time Uekman landed on the ground with a thud after getting scared in a haunted house, or when he and his sister were kicked out of a sporting goods store for dunking basketballs.
Tate said he and his family, who had grown close to the Uekman’s because of their similarities, even accepted an invitation to spend Christmas with them.
“Their family welcomed us in and we felt like we needed to do that,” Tate said. “There’s no way I could fill the void for their family of being Garrett. Nobody can. But I feel like in a way I can be there to help. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”
Time continues to trickle by since those first initial weeks and bigger stories have dominated Arkansas football. Petrino was fired in April. John L. Smith was hired for the season that goes down as one of the most disappointing in school history.
But through it all, Meagan Uekman said there are so many making sure her brother isn’t forgotten, as a year eventually turns to two and two then turns four.
“Garrett was just the most easy-going, fun-loving guy,” said Arkansas quarterback Brian Buehner, who also was one of Uekman’s good friends. “He would take his shirt off his back for anybody. Someone he hardly even knew. He was a country boy. Loved to fish. Loved football. He cared about his friends a great amount. …
“We’ll never forget him.”
The Uekmans were approached by three of their son’s high school friends with a plan a few months after his death. They wanted to set up a foundation in honor of their son with the goal of raising awareness for heart disease research.
The Garrett Uekman Foundation soon was established and the results in less than a year have brought plenty of smiles amid the sadness. The Foundation sponsored heart walks in both Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock. There also is a seven-on-seven football tournament that bears Uekman’s name.
Then, in October, Arkansas and the Uekman Foundation announced it had pledged $100,000 for a scholarship endowment. So the Garrett Uekman scholarship will be awarded to a walk-on, and preferably a tight end, on an annual basis.
“I’m so excited about that,” said Meagan Uekman, who hopes the Garrett Uekman Foundation can match the Burlsworth Foundation’s success. “I hope that 30 years from now, when I’m 50, I’ll still get to award a scholarship to a kid Garrett’s age and say, ‘I know this is before your time, but this is how big of a deal this still is to us.’”
The Uekmans haven’t forgotten about their son’s love for his teammates, either.
Meagan Uekman admits it has been hard, but the family remains close to the program. They stop by the team’s hotel before games to say hello to players who have become part of their extended family through the tragedy. They’ve attended home games all season and will be on hand for Friday’s finale against LSU.
“It’s one day at a time,” Meagan Uekman said. “There are days that just are awful, I’m not going to lie. There are days that you don’t know if the sun is going to come up. There are days you can’t help but just cry in front of everyone. But you have to go through life saying, ‘This is OK. It’s OK if I cry. It’s OK if everyone knows why.’”
Said Hocker: “It would be hard for me to turn back and look at Arkansas football and want anything to do with it. They’re some of the strongest people I’ve ever met in that they’re still there for us and we’re still there for them 100 percent.”
Arkansas coach John L. Smith said the Razorbacks will remember Uekman this week, attending a function on Wednesday in which they’ll “say a prayer for him -- or for us -- for having been blessed to be with him.” Quarterback Tyler Wilson said Uekman was part of their conversations last week, preparing for Mississippi State.
Several players and former players have tweeted about him the past two days with notes that include the hash tag “GU88.” Tate hasn’t been one to take to social media in remembrance, but it doesn’t mean he has forgotten. Now a junior, the tight end is finishing the season without his friend and said he’s never far from his thoughts.
Every detail about their last night together, when Arkansas traveled back from the Mississippi State win in Little Rock, still replays in his mind. Tate said he always rode the first bus when traveling with the team, while Uekman was typically on the third. But something changed – for reasons he can only figure are divine – that night.
“I walked on the bus and looked and it just looked crowded,” Tate said. “So I said, ‘I know there’s going to be room on that third bus. I’ll go back there and ride with Garrett.’ I hadn’t done that all year. I just did it for that one day.
“I didn’t think anything of it at first. But now, looking back, I think there was something that was like, ‘You just need to go back there and ride.’”
It was a normal trip. They sat next to each other, talked, laughed and cherished the time. They called one of Uekman’s Little Rock friends. When they arrived in Fayetteville a few hours later, Tate gave his friend a ride back to the dorms.
As Uekman slipped out of the truck, Tate remembered saying something meaningful after their final trip together.
“I don’t know why, but I said, ‘See you buddy. Love you.’ And let him go,” Tate said.
Uekman has been gone for a year. It’s will be a tough anniversary to remember for friends, family and teammates who miss him. But Tate said there is solace in knowing there’s so many making sure he will never be far from their hearts.
“It makes me happy knowing that he didn’t just pass away, here’s the one-year anniversary, and that’s it,” Tate said. “His name is going to live on.”