Lee and Sandy Amato
Tabot Funeral Home
Someone is missing from the Fort Lupton High School boys basketball team bench this season. Coach Jim Roedel knows exactly whose clipboard occupies an empty seat and who his team salutes after every huddle on the bench.
Roedel may even stencil Lee Amato’s name on the gym floor for the balance of the season.
Amato, 73, and his wife, Sandy, 66, died together in May. Sandy Amato was a French teacher at FLHS for 26 years until she retired because of a brain tumor. She met her future husband when they worked together as substitute teachers.
Coach Lee Amato graduated from Fort Lupton High School in 1967. After serving in the Army in Vietnam, he went to the University of Northern Colorado and earned a teaching degree on the GI Bill.
Amato had also received an offer to teach and coach. But his father died in 1976, and Amato took over the family dairy farm. Amato sold the cows, farmed hay and started a commercial beef herd that grew to include 50 momma cows. He also coached boys' basketball at Fort Lupton High School for 47 years.
One of his players was Jim Roedel.
“It was an emotional night for me, first night at home. For me, it was the national anthem. It meant so much to him as a veteran. He would stand there with pride, and he would teach our kids. Our kids don’t know what D-Day means. He would make a point of it to share a story about what it means,” Roedel said as his voice cracked.
“When you hear things like that, that’s what breaks you down, not that he wasn’t there,” Roedel said. "It was knowing that the legacy he carried on for so long was not there.”
Roedel said Amato was one of the kindest people anyone could hope to meet “in the roughest kind of body.”
“He was an old farmer, a war veteran. So when you hear those things, you think rough and tumble,” Roedel said. “The emotional side of him and how he cared about people and kids and what he dedicated his life to? I don’t know that you’ll see that in a coach like that.
Roedel played for Amato in eighth grade and played for him as a freshman in high school. Sixteen years ago, Roedel took the head job, and Amato was one of his assistants.
“He was very quiet about it,” Roedel added. “If a kid needed help, if a kid needed shoes, if a kid couldn’t get to practice, if a kid couldn’t get to camp, (Amato) was like, ‘Coach, I’ll help you out. I’ll do this. I’ll do that. Don’t talk to anybody about that.’ That quiet, gentleness to him people probably wouldn’t understand.”
Amato's patience extended to the coaching staff.
“I coached an entire year, and I had so much to learn. I didn’t really ask, but he wouldn’t tell,” Roedel said. “He let me live through my mistakes the entire first year. That takes a lot for a coach with that kind of experience and background and knowledge to know I needed that as a coach and it wasn’t his job as an assistant to tell me what to do.”
Roedel recalled one story that happened late in his first year of coaching the Bluedevils.
“I came into the locker room, and he says, ‘Coach you do a great job at halftime, You tell them what they are doing wrong, but you never tell them how to win,’” Roedel said. “And I said, ‘You waited until now to tell me this? And he said, ‘You never asked.’
“He understood I was the head coach and I needed to learn from my own experiences. It was his job to help mentor me. It was that Army-ness in him. He was a rank-and-file guy. That’s unprecedented,” Roedel added. “When I started, he had 30 years of experience. He had that quiet leadership approach to letting you as an individual, whether you’re a kid or a head coach, make mistakes. If he told me what to do, it wasn’t going to be as meaningful for me to go through the process.
“He taught more about life than he did about basketball,” Roedel added. “Every kid who walks out of this program, their favorite coach isn’t going to be me. It was never going to be (former coach) Kerry Brunton. It was never going to be anybody else but Lee Amato. It’s just fact. You’re a 14-year-old young man playing freshman basketball, and you’re going to learn more about life than you did about basketball, hands down. You’re going to learn about how to be a person, how to respect people, how to work hard, how to show up every day. "
The team will remember Amato during a foundation game against Erie High School Tuesday, Jan. 3. The ceremony will be between the junior-varsity and varsity games. The first game begins at 5 p.m. All of the proceeds from the game will go to a memorial scholarship in Amato's honor.
“The man was here for 47 years. He was like a father, so that was tough,” Roedel concluded. “We keep an open chair. His clipboard is there. It’s a reminder for us when we break every huddle with ‘Amato.’ He taught values and character more than x’s and o’s.”