LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Sometimes it’s a text message late at night, when one of them can’t sleep. Or a phone call when the pain is intense or the sorrow overwhelming.
Renee Hill and Karen Sadler are living a shared experience they wouldn’t wish upon anyone — navigating life in the years after losing a child. You likely remember their sons.
Mike Sadler died five years ago this coming week in a car crash in Wisconsin where he was working at a kicking camp. Mylan Hicks, the son of Hill, was shot and killed two months later at a club in Canada, where he was playing for the Canadian Football League’s Calgary Stampeders. Both were 23 years old. Both former Michigan State football players. Each beloved by their MSU teammates and cherished by their families.
Through unbearable grief, their mothers have formed a bond, leaning on each other to get through the toughest moments of a never-ending nightmare the Lansing State Journal reports.
“We’ve become sisters, because of the worst possible tragedy,” Karen Sadler said. “And unless you lose a child yourself, you can’t really understand that, that grief and that loss. We know what it feels like on the birthday. We know what it feels like on the day of tragedy. We know the void, we know the pain.
“Renee is very strong and determined. ... I admire her strength,” Karen said of Renee.
The two rarely go more than a month without connecting in some way. They don’t have to put on a front for the other. There’s no pretending it’s OK. They know what the other is feeling. They know how unfair it all is. They’ve coped with many of the same emotions.
“The anger,” Renee said. “Karen is angry. And she has a right to be. We feel like we were robbed (of our sons).
“I just get it. When you talk to someone that has gone through experience, that’s walked in your shoes, who better to relate to? We both get it. She doesn’t get on my nerves. I don’t get on her nerves. It’s real for us.”
That’s present-tense real. “Second by second,” as Renee put it. Five years of it. Five years of a gaping hole. Five years of grieving and remembering and, sometimes, when it gets to be too much, calling the other.
“Sometimes you just need that person that understands,” Karen said.
Five years of trying to celebrate and honor the sons they lost.
This Sunday, five days before the fifth anniversary of Mike Sadler’s death, is the 5th Annual Mike Sadler Legacy Celebration — from 12-3 at Atwater Brewery in Grand Rapids. Proceeds from the event go to the Mike Sadler Foundation, a cause which Karen Sadler has thrown herself into.
“It’s my mission 24/7,” she said. “It’s all I do.”
The goal of the foundation — with programs in Forest Hills Public Schools in Grand Rapids and with scholarships at MSU and elsewhere — is to help young people build their own legacies through good decisions. Their signature program trains high school students to mentor younger kids in classrooms. The plan is to expand to other areas and states in the years ahead.
“Sometimes we don’t think about how much our actions define us,” Karen said. “We started doing the foundation because of Mike’s legacy. He didn’t know he would die when he was 23 years old. But he did and, thankfully, he made really good choices in building his legacy. He wasn’t perfect. He was far from perfect. But he built a legacy.”
The foundation gives Karen purpose. It keeps her close to Michael, as she often calls him. Her daughter Katie is what keeps her upright.
“She’s what gets me through, and she’s really the reason why I’m here,” Karen said of Mike’s younger sister, a brand manager at Whirlpool Corporation. “She’s fought through this nightmare from a different angle, suffering the loss of her only sibling and yet she continues to grind. She’s an incredibly talented young lady. She’s established herself in the business world. In the community, she’s very active. She’s active in the foundation. She brings joy to so many people. She’s a light in the world, just like Michael was.”
Mike Sadler was as popular a punter as you’ll ever see in college football — a four-time Academic All-American (the first to ever accomplish the feat at MSU) with a warm personality, an accurate leg and, memorably, a go-to option on trick plays.
“The hardest thing is the void,” Karen said, “knowing that I’ll never see my son again, and learning to deal with that, learning to cope. But I make it a point to find three things I’m grateful for every day.”
There is nothing that can ease her pain, she said, but this particular anniversary — five years — is perhaps more significant than others.
“I’m slowly emerging from what they call the five-year fog,” Karen said.
That term is something Karen first heard from a father who’d lost his son in an accident.
“I said, ‘What does this look like? How do you get through this? Do you ever recover?’ And he said, ‘It took me five years.’ And that’s where he came up with a five-year fog term. He said you’ll hear it a lot when you talk to parents who have lost their kids. It is significant because it turned out to be exactly right around now that I’m starting to emerge and really understand my new norm.”
For Renee, it might take longer to feel five years into it.
“She’s still fighting through it, to get to a closure with Mylan’s trials,” Karen said.
The 19-year-old man who shot and killed Mylan Hicks was sentenced to life in prison in June of 2019. It’ll be 18 years before he’s eligible for parole. Renee and her husband Reggie, Mylan’s father, sat through the trial and gut-wrenching details about Mylan’s final moments at a club in Calgary, Alberta, after an argument over a spilled drink escalated. The killer’s appeal was rejected last September.
Renee and Reggie filed a lawsuit against the nightclub, which closed its doors in November of 2019.
“One moment, I’m OK. The next moment, you may catch me welling (up),” Renee said. “One moment, I have a good attitude about some things. And the next moment, I’m probably off the grid. It’s an emotional roller coaster. And there’s no closure for me because, as we speak, I’m still battling with Canada. I have a wrongful death lawsuit (paused for the trial and then the pandemic) that was filed some time ago, five years ago. So there’s really no closure to date. I still don’t have my son’s death certificate.”
Mylan Hicks, a heralded defensive back recruit out of Detroit Renaissance — and an important recruit in MSU’s pivotal 2010 class — didn’t have the career he hoped in East Lansing. He wasn’t a household name among fans like Mike Sadler was. But to his teammates, he was special. That was clear in reporting a column on Hicks in the days after his death.
Renee recalled being in the car with Mylan after an MSU game when one of his teammates called upset about his own playing time.
“I heard him say, selflessly, and I quote him verbatim, ‘Just take your time. That don’t mean nothing, whatever that was. Stay true to yourself and you’ll see the field. Don’t sweat that, don’t sweat the small stuff.’ And then whoever it was began to thank him for his encouragement. (Mylan) was like, ‘You don’t owe me any thanks. This is what I do.’ I knew that was a character trait of his because it’s the same one that he gave us. That was who he was. They felt about him like the community here feels about him to this day.”
Mylan, the fourth of six children and oldest son, was so trusted by Renee and Reggie that they put many of their most important next-of-kin documents in his name rather than each other’s. He was just that solid.
There is a Mylan Hicks Memorial Scholarship endowed through MSU and a memorial fund Renee and Reggie set up, which helped to send Mylan’s old youth football team to their championship game.
“Mylan was a giant and still is in the community,” Renee said. “He’s irreplaceable. From mother to son … I just pray that no other mother or father has to go through this.”
Keeping the connection to their sons
There is of course one other mother who is going through many of the same things. Renee and Karen weren’t close before their sons died. They knew each other, tailgated with the other MSU football parents and sat in the parents’ section at Spartan Stadium.
Together, now, they’re watching their sons’ old teammates grow into men — new careers, weddings, children. Some of them keep in touch. Some are still very close.
“Karen and I will often discuss as we watch them grow and enter into other directions of their lives,” Renee said. “I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a grandbaby by Mylan, and neither was Karen by Mike and we often bring that up. (Former teammate) Lawrence Thomas, I was sharing with Karen, how he made me an honorary grandmother for his daughter. And it was painful to deliver that to her because I felt her pain when she said, ‘You would be so blessed. None of that has happened for me yet.’ And those are the things that she desires just like me, because it keeps the connection.”