BELLEVILLE — It was Frank Antoine's last game. The final time he would know the joy of his passion, supporting sports at Althoff Catholic High School. It was a night of victory and tragedy.
The 80-year-old Antoine and two good friends, Nick Gehrs, 77, and Dave Pusa, 68, all of Belleville, became familiar fixtures at Althoff football games where they formed a three-member, volunteer "chain gang." These are the people who run out onto the field with the down marker or operate "the box," a device on a pole that allows spectators to see what down is being played.
Former Althoff head football coach Glenn Schott, who retired five years ago, remembers the three men and their dedication not only to football but to other sports, basketball, baseball, soccer, where they often showed up as loyal spectators.
About 10 minutes into the third quarter of a close game Friday night at Lindenwood Stadium with Collinsville, Antoine is believed to have taken a misstep that caused him to fall and hit his head just as a play ended along the sideline. Several coaches and physicians who were in the audience quickly attended him until an ambulance showed up minutes later.
Antoine died several hours later at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis after being transferred from St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Belleville.
"It is a sad and tragic event. That's what it is," Schott said.
"They were all dedicated men. They loved to see young students excel at sports. They were very loyal to Althoff."
Pusa said Antoine retired in 1985 after working for more than 40 years at the Hunter Packing Co. in East St. Louis and the three men got together often because of their dedication to the Althoff student athletic program. Antoine had also coached sports teams.
Althoff Principal David Harris said that Antoine may have been accidentally hit by a player or just stumbled when trying to get out of the way during a second half play along the sidelines in the season opener game narrowly won by Althoff 23-21. Harris estimated the injury occurred sometime after 9 p.m.
"He had been a volunteer for quite a few years. He loved helping out at sporting events including soccer. He had a grandson who was on the soccer team," Harris said.
Witnesses said that Antoine was "on the ground," after the play, but no one had seen whether he was "accidentally knocked down or simply fell," Harris said.
According to a Belleville News-Democrat sportswriter covering the game, it appeared the back of Antoine's head may have hit some concrete on the visitor's side of the field.
The game was delayed several minutes when the mishap occurred.
"He was just a really good guy who liked to help the kids," said Pusa, "He was a really generous guy."
Pusa estimated that Antoine had attended hundreds of games as a "chain gang" member, "He was always enthusiastic, running up and down the sidelines. Helping out."
Funeral arrangements are through the Renner Funeral Home in Belleville. Visitation is at St. Mary Catholic Church on Monday from 4 p.m. until 8 p.m. and again Tuesday from 9 a.m. until 10 a.m. A funeral Mass is at 10 a.m. Tuesday at the church and burial, with military honors denoting his service in the U.S. Army in Korea, will be at Green Mount Catholic Cemetery in Belleville.
Reporter Norm Sanders contributed information for this story.