Moments after his team won the Class 5A state football title, a Columbus East junior carried the jersey of a fallen friend and teammate through the medals line, wiping away tears.

While that jersey weighed mere ounces, the emotional weight that 6-foot-1, 180-pound Jonah Wichman was carrying was far heavier.

Nine months earlier, Wichman was behind the wheel of a sport-utility vehicle when his close friend, Abbott Garn, was struck and accidentally killed Feb. 18 in Columbus.

Wichman wore the jersey number — 12 — that Garn had hoped to wear this season as a junior for the Olympians, a tribute that East head coach Bob Gaddis approved.

Story continues below gallery

“He was going to be on the field somewhere this year,” Wichman said of Garn. “He could have been there with us. It’s his ring. It’s his title, too.”

Wichman said he wanted to carry on Garn’s memory, which the entire team embraced throughout the season by wearing the athlete’s initials “AG” on a helmet decal.

The Olympians went 14-1, eventually winning the Nov. 25 state championship at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Just prior to the state title game, East athletics director Pete Huse gave Wichman the No. 49 jersey that Garn wore during the 2016 season, which is the one he clutched after the game.

New kid in town

Garn grew up in Brown County, where he attended school before transferring to Central Middle School in Columbus for seventh grade. While Garn did well in Brown County schools, his mother Jackie said she and husband Adam wanted their son to have cultural experiences they felt were more readily available in the larger city.

Garn, who had played football in Brown County, also joined the football team after enrolling at Central.

That’s where he and Wichman met through a mutual friend, Nathan Fairchild, who now attends South Decatur High School.

Wichman and Garn quickly became friends, which continued through their time at Central and into their first two years at Columbus East High School.

They bonded over sports, as football and baseball teammates and in basketball pickup games, but the boys’ friendship went beyond that.

The teens went to Grouse Ridge near Grandview Lake to fish a few times.

After Wichman received his driver’s license in October of their sophomore year, he would take Garn and Jarrett Springhorn to lunch almost every day, often to Rally’s or Dairy Queen. They talked about football, girls, everything, as Wichman put it.

“I could tell him anything, and he’d listen,” Wichman said of Garn. “He gave me good advice. He was awesome. He was funny, energetic and always had a smile on his face.”

Tragedy strikes

Feb. 18 — a Saturday — was an unseasonably warm winter day. Temperatures in Columbus reached 64 degrees. Wichman, Garn and Nash Murphy — all three of them sophomore honor students and teammates in football and baseball — went to Lincoln Park to play basketball that evening.

As Wichman, then 16, was taking his friends home in a family vehicle, he pulled over on Franklin Street, north of 25th Street, about seven blocks west of Columbus North High School.

That was about 9:30 p.m. — so that the three of them could change clothes, Wichman told police officers afterward.

Wichman said he started to pull away and accidentally struck Garn, who had been a passenger and was either getting in or out of the vehicle, according to the police report. The official report indicated some type of horseplay was involved. Wichman declined to elaborate.

Wichman and Murphy were not hurt, but Garn’s injuries were serious. He received medical attention at the scene and was transported by helicopter to the closest trauma center, Indiana University Health Methodist Hospital. That’s where Garn, 15, died at 11:53 p.m.

Wichman, who said he had a tough time sleeping that night, learned the dreaded news from his parents the next morning.

The teen knew where he had to be that Sunday.

Wichman and Murphy went to the Garn home to talk to their friend’s parents. Wichman said he was carrying a tremendous emotional burden of grief inside.

“It was really hard,” Wichman said. “I remember going to see them and breaking down in tears. They were really supportive of me and Nash. The next week, it was just an overflowing amount of love.”

Since then, Wichman has made it a point to stay close to Garn’s parents, with visits at least every other week. They talk about Garn, and they support his sister, 9-year-old Ella.

The Garns have made it clear from the beginning that they hold no animosity toward Wichman.

“It was an accident,” Jackie Garn said. “I don’t know how you couldn’t be (supportive). He was Abbott’s friend. I couldn’t turn my back on his friend. Abbott wouldn’t turn his back on him. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

The grieving process

While the Garns have grieved, so has Wichman. The aftermath of losing his best friend has left him searching for answers.

In that time, Wichman has leaned on several people, including Gaddis and East assistant coach Eddie Vogel, as well as his own parents and three older brothers. Church members offered faith-based support, while Wichman’s friends helped keep his mind off the accident.

His mother, Cathy Wichman, said her family has had to lean on each other in order to cope. Cathy said she and her husband Brian learned about giving their youngest son space when he needs it and how he can get strength from the right people at the right time, including his older brothers.

“If I needed to talk, or if I wanted to let something out, I could tell them,” Jonah Wichman said of his brothers. “They were always there and told me they loved me.”

Brian Wichman said the thing that’s helped Jonah the most has been staying in contact with the Garns. The love and support and encouragement coming from them has helped tremendously, Wichman’s father said.

Jonah Wichman and the Garns also have leaned on Brandon Andress, a lay minister who leads the house church, or small-group Bible study, that the Garns attend. The Wichmans met Andress through the Garns, and Andress has provided support to both families.

“It was beyond difficult,” Andress said. “It was no question that it was the hardest thing I had ever been through, that the Garns had ever been through. The ripple effect of this thing was so dramatic. Even the other day, I told my wife, everything in the last nine months is unknown territory.”

Andress said the most monumental thing that could have been done, and was done, was when Wichman came to the Garns’ home the day after the accident. The Garns held him in their arms and gave reassurances that their son loved him, and that Adam and Jackie love him and his family.

No matter how hard things were at the beginning, they were resolved to work through it together, Andress said of the families.

“When we think about all the things that happened over the last nine months, it’s easy to see the love of Christ in people,” Cathy Wichman said. “Every time we interact with Jackie Garn, that’s all we feel.”

Playing for a friend

During baseball season in the spring, Jonah Wichman realized how tough it was playing without Garn. Having seen him every day, going to lunch with him, working out with him after school, it was hard for Wichman to imagine him not being there physically.

Football season was even harder.

Since Wichman and Garn were defensive backs and wide receivers, they always seemed to be going against each other in practice.

“(Abbott’s absence) opened my eyes to everything around me, and it helped me realize that even if we didn’t want to (work hard) for ourselves or do it for each other, I was doing it for him,” Wichman said. “In the weight room, if you could do one more (repetition) and think of him, just do it for him.”

Garn’s parents went to the first two football games this season, but then stopped because — as his mom said — it was overwhelming realizing their son was no longer part of that.

Remembering Abbott

Cathy Wichman has a church bulletin from Garn’s funeral that her son sometimes takes out. It includes a passage about the wind blowing through the trees and a bird chirping at a window.

Now, anytime Jonah Wichman hears a bird chirping or the trees blowing, or anything in nature, he said he thinks of Garn — and the days of innocence they once shared.

Garn also comes to mind whenever Wichman plays or watches sports, recalling how athletic his friend was, he said.

Jackie Garn said her family went camping over Thanksgiving and will go to the Bahamas for Christmas to get away from home on the first of those major holidays without their son.

“He lived life to the fullest,” Jackie Garn said of her son. “If you hear people that were completely loving every moment, that was Abbott. I want to continue that for him. I think that every day was an adventure to Abbott, so I try to not miss any moments with anybody and be fully there with them and say ‘Yes’ to things that I normally wouldn’t.”

Around Thanksgiving, Jonah Wichman made a post to Instagram about the things he was thankful for — friends, family and football, for helping get through a difficult circumstance. He thanked God for the people of Columbus and how they have come together in the hardest of times.

Wichman also was thankful for the memories he made with Garn, as he chronicled the post:

“This season was for you, Abbott. I thank God every day for the time I got to spend on this earth. I will see ya soon buddy. I miss you to the moon and back. #49”

Jonah Wichman

Name: Jonah Wichman

School: Columbus East

Year: Junior

Height: 6-foot-1

Weight: 180

Sports: Football, baseball

Family: Parents Brian and Cathy, older brothers Brian (B.T.), Christian and Noah

Football notables: Led the area with seven interceptions, while also seeing spot duty on offense and being the Olympians’ holder on extra points and field goals. He was named Class 5A Junior All-State by the Indiana Football Coaches Association.

Future plans: Wichman wants to follow in the footsteps of all three of his brothers and play either football or baseball in college. Several schools are looking at him for baseball, including Division I Eastern Illinois and Wright State.

Pull Quote

“I could tell him anything, and he’d listen. He gave me good advice. He was awesome. He was funny, energetic and always had a smile on his face.”

— Jonah Wichman of friend Abbott Garn

Pull Quote

“It was no question that it was the hardest thing I had ever been through, that the Garns had ever been through. The ripple effect of this thing was so dramatic.”

— Lay minister Brandon Andress

Pull Quote

“I couldn’t turn my back on his friend. Abbott wouldn’t turn his back on him. We wouldn’t have it any other way.”

— Jackie Garn, mother of Abbott Garn

Author photo
Ted Schultz is sports editor for The Republic. He can be reached at tschultz@therepublic.com or 812-379-5628.