COLUMBUS JUNCTION — March 30, 2019 started off to be a day Emma Milder had been looking forward to for a long time.
Milder, 16, a sophomore at Columbus Community High School, was going to her boyfriend's sister's baby shower that afternoon, then back to her boyfriend's house to watch a few movies.
Prom was just a week away and spring was in the air, a time for love and renewal.
Best of all, that meant the softball season was just around the corner, a time Emma and her father, Columbus softball coach Tim Milder, cherished.
Instead, it ended up being a living nightmare for Emma Milder, a day that turned her world inside out and upside down, a day that forever changed her life and the lives of those around her.
Tim Milder had gone up to work on the softball field, something he loved to do. He was getting things spruced up for the upcoming season.
Tim Milder never made it home. Milder, 55, died of a heart attack in the storage closet behind the home dugout at the field. His wife, Colleen, and Emma found him late that night.
The news hit the community like a tidal wave, leaving devastation everywhere in its wake.
So this season was not about wins and losses for the Columbus softball team. No, it was about Tim Milder, honoring his memory, playing the game the way he wanted it to be played, doing things the right way, making him proud.
Columbus did that and then some.
This season was for Tim Milder.
"It's been OK. Obviously it's been really hard just not having him, but it has pushed me a little more to do it for him. It's working well as a team together. It's been OK. It could be better," said Emma Milder, who pitches and plays outfield for the Wildcats. "Through this season I just pushed my self through. I knew I would have some breakdowns and it wouldn't be as easy. But I knew he was over me, watching me."
"He was what we call around here a 'Wildcat for life.' He was the epitome of it. He embodied all sports. He loved Columbus athletics. A lot of people come and go. 'Yeah, I was a Wildcat.' But Tim truly lived it," said Columbus coach Katie Coil, who stepped in as head coach after spending he previous four seasons as Tim Milder's assistant. "Just to see him support Emma and her friends. He would come on Friday nights and watch football. He would go to every basketball game, every volleyball match, every track meet. He even came to some soccer matches after my husband explained the game to him. He loved Columbus athletics. That's who he was. He was a good family man, a great friend and mentor. He was an all-around great guy."
Emma Milder had a sinking feeling that something was seriously wrong as that day wore on. She saw her father's truck parked at the field on her way to the baby shower. She saw it again on the way to her boyfriend's that afternoon, so she stopped in at the field to talk to her father.
"I was at my boyfriend's sister's baby shower. We left and I saw his truck here. I thought it was kind of late, but I figured he was working on the field, trying to get it ready for the season. He was doing home plate," Emma Milder said. "I actually came over here around three to see how he was doing. He said he was about to leave. I went on to the baby shower and we left. We drove by here and I saw his truck and I thought he ran out of gas. He left me on empty when he went to Texas a couple days before that, so I thought he probably just ran out of gas again. He probably just walked home because we live close to the school. I just carried on."
Later that night, Emma's worst fears became reality. It was the night everyone dreads. For Emma Milder, it came far earlier than she ever imagined.
"I went to my boyfriend's house and we watched movies. Around 11 I went home and his truck was still here. I was starting to get a little worried," Emma Milder said. "I went home and my Mom asked where my Dad was and I said, 'I don't know. I saw his truck there. Do you want to go look for him?' We went to look for him here. My Mom found him in the back, laying down on the floor. He was ice cold and unconscious. He was super firm so I didn't know what to do. My Mom called 911 and I called my boyfriend so he could come up here and help. The ambulance showed up and said that he was dead."
The news spread through the tight-knit community like wildfire. And it hit like a ton of bricks.
"It's the phone call that you never want to get. This would have been my fifth year with him coaching high school. To get that phone call that it's not going to happen this year was devastating to say the least," Coil said.
"At first it was hard to believe. You didn't believe it. You heard what happened or what possibly happened," senior Aubrey Duncan said. "Walking out here you see the softball field when I'm going to strength training. It's not easy. It's still not easy coming out here. Emma thinks about it every time she is out here, but she still comes out and plays every game. I'm the same way. It was definitely unfortunate. It wasn't the ideal season, but we pushed through it."
"I was cleaning my room one night. I was home alone and my Mom called me. I don't know how she heard it, but she told me what happened. I didn't believe it at first. I had to check with a few people to see if it was true. I kind of sat on my bed. I didn't know what to do. I didn't really know what the next season was going to be like," said senior second baseman Quinn Scarff, who attends WACO High School. "I had to realize that this year was going to be different, but I still had to play my best, even though he wasn't going to be here."
Emma Milder was at a crossroad. As she struggled to wrap her mind around all that was happening around her, her mind was spinning like a top, her emotions in turmoil. Softball was the furthest thing from her mind, yet it ended up being the best remedy.
"I didn't go to school for two or three weeks. It was hard every day. I had chorus and we were getting ready for a concert and I couldn't go into chorus because all I did was cry in there. I had to be absent from chorus for a really long time. Family and friends got me through most of it," Emma Milder said. "I was playing for ASA with the Wapello Chiefs. That's when I was playing with them. I wasn't going to the practices because I wasn't really about it. The coaches talked to my friend's Mom and told her 'I hope you can convince her to because it's going to be easier for her for the season.' So I did. Going through the ASA part was easier because I could just get through it. I did have some friends there who could help me through."
Milder struggled every time she saw the softball field, every time she walked into the dugout, every time she stepped foot on the field. Yet it all was part of the healing process. It opened her eyes to not only how much her father meant to her, but how much he meant to those around her. He impacted the lives of hundreds of people, in Columbus Junction and surrounding areas.
"Louisa-Muscatine helped out with the rock. It's in memory of him. IMS gave us money. There has been a lot of support from other teams. They really enjoyed him and playing our team," Emma Milder said. "He was a fighter. When there was a play, he would be on and they knew it. They really liked him. I know IMS really enjoyed him. I know Carrie (Wieland) from Highland really enjoyed playing him. They really had respect for each other."
"L-M softball and volleyball did the rock. The coaches in the North have purchased a tree in his memory. We're trying to figure out where to put it out here. The IMS team gave us money to have a night out and to get Emma out and get her mind off things. A lot of teams wear blue ribbons when we play them. It's amazing to see the support that little old Columbus Junction is getting," Coil said. "They wear bows in their hair. We had a memorial game against Wapello. The community came together and we had a big feast for everybody. Tim always would do that for the seniors' last game. We wanted to make it special for Tim and the family."
In the season opener at Mediapolis, Coil handed Emma Milder the ball. This one was for her father, and she played that game with all of her heart and soul.
"She's knows he is with her all the time," Coil said. "We had her pitch the first game we got to play against Mediapolis. It was an extremely emotional game. She came out and pitched an amazing game. We ended up winning, 11-6. After that last strikeout there were tears of joy. She left it all out there, but she did it for him. She knew she had to. There was no option. When I told her she needed to take the season off, she said, 'Coach, that's not an option. He would say no, get your cleats and get out there.' That's just who he was. She did it. I don't know if I could have mustered up the strength she did, but she is an amazingly strong young woman."
Tim Milder's love went far beyond the softball field. It permeated into the lives of those close to him. He treated his players and fellow coaches as family members. He deeply cared for them not only as athletes and coaches, but as people.
"We liked to play our music very, very, very loud on the bus and annoy him. But he would always turn around and sing a couple lyrics with us and dance. I was very glad I went out for volleyball this season because he was there. He worked with me a lot. He helped me a lot. I had never played volleyball in my life. He was there and he encouraged me even though I was awful. He's just a fun, exciting, loving guy to be around," Duncan said.
"The fact that he cared so much about my grades. I knew that I was having such a hard time with them and he was always there to help me out. When he heard that I got a B-minus on one of my tests and I could play softball, he wanted to hug me and he was really excited," Scarff said. "He gave me a great big hug because he was so proud of me. I will never forget that."
"We did everything together. We would always go to Iowa City and go the back ways so he could speed," Emma Milder said. "We had a really good memory. One time I was going to be late for an Iowa City ASA tournament. My Mom was just getting out of the shower and we needed to be up there. We went to Iowa City and my Dad took the back roads. He sped and we got there in like 25 minutes. We would come out here in the offseason and do a billion workout drills. In the winter we would be in the gym together. He really taught me the love of the game. He taught me a lot."
A season that started as a nightmare has become a season of special memories for the Columbus softball team, one that transcends the game, pushes the boundaries, goes far beyond the white lines, means far more than mere wins and losses.
This season was for Tim Milder, and the Wildcats did their fallen coach proud.
"I've had a couple instances in my life where you realize life is way too short. Being 19-years old now and seeing there are people surrounding you who love you and they can be gone any second. I've learned not to take anything for granted. There's lots of amazing people in your life you need to thank every chance you get because you never know what's going to happen," Duncan said.
"He's a great guy. He has a big heart and I love him," Scarff said.
"When we won that game against IMS in extra innings, I knew he was here. He was running alongside me as I was running Libby White into home. It's like magic. His presence was here," Coil said. "He was a great guy and he is deeply, deeply missed by everybody. He raised three fantastic kids and he has an amazing wife. The softball team wants them to know we are always here for them and how much he has impacted our lives."
"I write a 'D' for Dad if I'm pitching. I put it on the back of the circle in the white chalk. If I'm in the outfield I will do it in the dirt, right before the grass. I will put a 'D.' Right before we do everything I have a glove in there that has his name on it. One of the soccer girls' coaches gave it to me. I kind of breathe into it and then I'm good. I know he's with me," Emma Milder said. "One day I was playing ASA for the Wapello Chiefs I was in the outfield before the game and I said, 'Please, give me a sign.' He was a hunter and we always hunted together. After that practice my friend Michelle and I left and we saw a bunch of deer. I knew he was here.
"I want to do everything for him, no matter what. He always pushed. He never quit. I want to keep going with life, keep going for him. I want to push myself in everything I do and give it the best effort I can."