Tailgaters embraced Chiefs fan before he died

Posted at 4:48 AM, Oct 12, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-12 04:48:43-04

CINCINNATI  - How many pictures are really worth a thousand words?

This one is worth many more to Ed Vodicka's family. It shows the Kansas City Chiefs' fan front and center in the yellow ballcap and captures the instant bond he made with a friendly group of Bengals fans tailgating in stadium Lot A last week.

Vodicka's family says they are forever grateful for the photo because it shows Ed was having "the time of his life" during his final hours - before he collapsed and died in a restroom after the first half at Paul Brown Stadium.

"It's just so good that we have that to remind us he was doing what he loved. It's such a gift," said his sister-in-law, Teri Edmonds Vodicka.

Ed Vodicka is center, wearing yellow cap. Phil Amrein is right, wearing red-rimmed sunglasses.

Teri thinks it was more than chance that Ed, who worked in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and drove 5-1/2 hours by himself to get here, would walk up to Phil Amrein's tailgate party in search of a game ticket.

"It was meant to be," Teri said.

So does Amrein, owner of Amrein Diamonds, who has been hosting a pre-game party for 13 years.

 "I'm Catholic. I believe in God. I know this sounds hokey," Amrein said, "but this nice gentleman walks up to us.  We never have an extra ticket. That week, we had an extra ticket. He offered to pay extra for it and we said, 'No, come join us.'

"For the next 3-1/2 hours, Ed just totally assimilated into our group. He was as nice as could be. He made the rounds and shot the breeze with everyone. He was a great conversationalist."

Ed had a margarita or two and may have helped himself to some of the gourmet burgers or Montgomery Inn meatballs, Amrein said.

"He loved the food. He loved the drink. He loved the music. I think he enjoyed every moment of it.  And all of us enjoyed being with him," said Amrein, 54, of Hyde Park.

"He just blew us away."

As game time drew near, the group was chanting, "Ed, Ed, Ed" and "USA, USA, USA," Amrein said.

Then something "surreal" happened before the party broke up and they went into the stadium for the kickoff, Amrein said.

"We set up speakers and we play '70s classic rock and Ed, being from Missouri [originally], said we need to have the Ozark Mountain Daredevils on our playlist, and then he said we should play, 'If You Wanna Get To Heaven, You Have To Raise A Little Hell.'

 "We all laughed, and then right before we left [to go into the stadium], he said, 'I want to get one last picture of me with you guys.'

"He wanted somebody to take the picture with his phone."

Once in the stadium, Ed sat next to Amrein's son, Andrew, and texted his life's companion, Christa, and his boss during the game. "Guess where I am," he wrote to his boss. He also posted a few photos and updates on Facebook.

Just after halftime, Andrew would take Ed's number off his phone, find some of his relatives on Facebook, and message them to call Cincinnati Police.

'Happy Birthday, Brother'

Two nights before he died, Ed Vodicka called his brother Greg in Missouri to wish him Happy Birthday.

"This is the time of the year when we're the same age. We were born 11 months apart," said Greg, who turned 58, same as Ed.

"He told me he was going up to Cincinnati for the game. He was excited about it. He loved the Chiefs and he loved to go to games."

Greg said Ed was the outgoing one in the family of four boys and one girl.

"He had the gift of gab. He was a big," Greg laughed.

"Ed was loud and proud and bigger than life. He never met a stranger," said Teri, Greg's wife. "He lived a full life."

Ed grew up a Chiefs and Cardinals fan in Springfield, Mo., Greg said. Ed, Greg, Martin and Kerry liked to fish and hunt, but Ed mostly loved football, baseball and even hockey,  and it wasn't unusual for him to drive a long distance to watch them or University of Missouri football. Ed wore a yellow Missouri Tigers cap to the Bengals game.

"One thing my dad just said, 'Ed was always full of balls,'" Greg said.

Greg remembered the time Ed took a road trip to watch St. Louis Blues hockey.

"A puck hit him in the chest," Greg recalled. "He was sitting just above the glass. I remember he said, 'That thing just about killed me.'

"He worked in Kansas City for a while and that's when he turned into a big Royals fan."

When Ed and Greg were kids, they sat in the backyard with their dad and listened to Harry Caray and Jack Buck call the Cardinals games. Their older cousins had a huge baseball card collection and gave it to Ed.

"They outgrew it, but Ed never outgrew it. He had everybody's card. He could tell you everybody's stats. He could tell you everything," Greg said.

Ed had thousands of cards in dozens of shoeboxes stuffed in his closet. But when Ed joined the Navy when he was 21, his mom threw all of his cards away, Greg said.

"I don't remember how that went over, but I'm sure he wasn't happy," Greg said.

Listen To The Music

Ed traveled around the world with the Navy, but when he was stationed in San Diego and Chicago, he got to pursue another favorite interest: music.

"He went to all the big concerts. He loved the Allman Brothers, Steely Dan, Doobie Brothers, Chicago," said Greg.

"He loved all kinds of music. He even followed obscure music," said Teri.

Ed Vodicka and Christa Childress (Family photo)

Decades later,  Ed and Christa drove to see the Allman Brothers and Steely Dan this year, Teri said. Ed and Christa met when Ed came home from the Navy and they were together for 34 years. They had one child, Alex. Ed was also stepfather to Christa's son, Derek.

A few years ago, Ed retired from a long career in auto financing – or so he thought. A long-time business associate and friend, Ben Roberts, convinced Ed to join him at a dealership in Chattanooga. Christa didn't want to leave Springfield – Alex was still there, but he was supposed to get transferred out of town – so Ed went to Tennessee and Christa stayed behind.

That was hard on both of them, Teri said. Ed called Christa "my North Star" and "the love of my life."

"They always expressed their love for each other," Teri said. "The night of the lunar eclipse, she posted, 'I sure wish I was there with you,' and he posted, 'I sure wish I was there."

When Ed called Greg for his birthday, Ed also talked to Teri, who works in real estate.

"He wanted to ask me about putting their house on the market. Alex was transferring to Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Christa was planning to move down to Chattanooga by the first of the year," Teri said.

'Best Job I Ever Had'

Near the end of his work day Saturday, Ed was watching the Missouri Tigers on TV and the clock on the wall. He was planning to leave right from work for Cincinnati – a 5-1/2-hour drive up I-75.

"It got to be 4:30 and we told him to go on and go," Roberts said.

After taking the job in January, Ed fit right in at Mountain View Chevrolet. For one thing, his co-workers found him friendly and dependable. For another, the dealership had a fantasy football league and plenty of people to talk sports.

"Ed came in and hung out with the sales people and went out to dinner with people and to games. He even went to a sales guy's birthday party for his 1-year-old," Scott Hartmann said. "Ed made a quick impression on everybody."

"Ed was just passionate about everything he did, whether it was talking about football, talking about the Royals or talking to the sales department at morning meetings. He was just a fiery guy," said Roberts.

"He got us to start rooting for the Royals, and this is Braves country," Hartmann said.

Ed told Christa it was "the best job he ever had," Teri said.

"He loved his job. He loved his co-workers. He was so happy."

Ed was a serious player in the fantasy league, Hartmann said. He named his team the Bohemian Brewmasters after his Bohemian heritage. When Peyton Manning and the Broncos beat his beloved Chiefs on Thursday Night Football last month, Ed dumped Manning.

"He traded Manning immediately after he beat the Chiefs," Hartmann said. "Nobody takes Manning in a fantasy football league, but Ed did."

Not surprisingly, Ed took the Chiefs defense and Cairo Santos, who kicked seven field goals against the Bengals.

"Santos got a lot of points for Ed that day," Hartmann said.

Cincinnati Or Bust

Nobody knows what music Ed listened to on his drive to Cincinnati. Maybe the Allman Brothers or Steely Dan. Maybe the Ozark Mountain Daredevils, since he was going to root for the Chiefs.

Ed's family said he drove straight through and stayed in a hotel overnight. He probably stayed in touch with Christa by phone or text, according to Ed's sister, Pamella Vodicka Harter of Columbia, Maryland.

"They were in constant communication," Pamella said. "Typically they would go to games together."

But Christa was in Missouri. Ed asked some of his co-workers to go, but everyone had other plans, Roberts and Hartmann said.

Ed appeared to be in good spirits and good health when he drove off, they said. But they knew that Ed had lifelong health problems.

Amrein said he couldn't remember if Ed said much about his drive except that he ran into fog in the Cumberland Gap.

"I think he was planning to drive back right after the game," Amrein said.

'Where Did Ed Go?'

Amrein said his seats are in Section 231, rows 2 and 5. He and his wife Shelley sat in Row 2, and Ed sat with their son Andrew in Row 5.

During the game, Ed texted with Christa, who was watching the game on TV in Missouri. But Christa got mad when the Bengals went ahead 14-3 and turned the game off, Teri said.

The Chiefs kicked three field goals in the second quarter to make it 14-12 at halftime, and Ed's boss sent him a text, conceding defeat in their fantasy matchup. Ed didn't text back.

At 2:42 p.m., Ed posted a photo of the PBS scoreboard on Facebook with the message, "Down 2 at the half! We get the ball to start the second half! Go Chiefs!"

"That was Ed's last message," Teri said.

Ed didn't talk much during the first half, but he didn't look to be in distress, either, Amrein said after talking to his son. According to Teri, the family was told that someone saw Ed get up "abruptly" from his seat and walk toward the men's room.

"The game got interesting and I don't think anybody noticed he was gone," said Amrein, who was sitting three rows in front of Ed. "I finally said to Andrew, 'Where did Ed go?' He said he had been gone about 50 minutes, but the lines were long.

"Then the police came."

Ed had collapsed in the men's room.

"They said he had a heart attack. We were floored. They said it didn't look good," Amrein said.

"My wife and I started making plans to go to the hospital. This is Cincinnati. That's the way we are. I know if I was in a strange city and I woke up in a hospital, I'd want to see a familiar face.

"Then they said Ed had passed."

Pamella and Teri say they don't know for sure how Ed died. Ed had severe asthma since childhood, they said.

"Somebody said they saw Ed use his inhaler before he collapsed," Teri said.

"When you're having a heart attack, you have shortness of breath," said Pamella, a captain in the U.S. Public Health Service.

"If someone saw Ed pull out his inhaler, Ed probably thought he was having an asthma attack. We really haven't been told what the cause of death was."

Amrein said first responders did a "yeoman's job" trying to save Ed. "They brought him back once," he said.

Teri found consolation in knowing Ed wasn't alone in a hotel room or driving back to Chattanooga when he had his fatal attack. Or even at home by himself.

"I don't think Ed could have gotten help faster if he had been home," she said.

'It Was Like Hitting A Brick Wall'

Amrein said he and his wife were devastated.

"I hate that Ed had to die on the damn bathroom floor by himself," Amrein said. "I wish if he wasn't feeling well, he would have been more forthcoming. We could have called the EMTs."

As it was, Amrein had to go back to the tailgate party after the Bengals won and tell his friends what happened.

"It was like hitting a brick wall. Nobody knew what to say. Everybody else in the parking lot was celebrating and having a great time," he said. "We hung around for about 30-40 minutes and talked about what a great 3-1/2 hours we got to spend with him and what Christa and his family would say."

They also formed a search party and went looking for Ed's car.

"We found it in the pay lot next door. It didn't take long. We just looked for a car with Missouri plates," Amrein said. "We took a photo and emailed it to the police so they knew where it was."

A Toast For Ed

Amrein said his group of 40-80 tailgaters planned to toast Ed at Sunday's party before the Seahawks' game.

"It’s going to be the first drink of the day – margarita or beer," Amrein said.

They also planned to play and sing along with "If You Wanna Get To Heaven, You Have To Raise A Little Hell" in his honor.

"I'll tell you this: He had a helluva good time in his last four hours," Amrein said. "I wish we had a video to show Ed's family. I'm grateful to have been part of it."

"I knew Ed was having a blast. That's a comfort to us," Teri said.  "If we could have told Ed that scenario, I think he would have said, 'Fantastic.'"

Orange And Black Flowers

Amrein said he reached out to Ed's family and offered any assistance he could give. So did the Bengals, Teri said, and the Chiefs' general manager also contacted them.

"We are so grateful for all the kindness and support," Teri said. "Ed would be so proud."

Pamella said she and her husband are coming to Cincinnati this week to pick up Ed's car and to meet Amrein and thank him and his tailgating group for their kindness.

"Some people think we did something extraordinary, but it was just Cincinnati people helping people," said Amrein, a West-Side native who graduated from Elder High School and Miami University.

Amrein said he has been in touch regularly with Pamella and he warned her that he would bring flowers, but they would be orange and black – the Bengals' colors.

After talking to Amrein, Pamella said she plans to add the Ozark Mountain Daredevils song to her brother's services.

"Christa asked Teri and I to pull the services together. I would say, it's maybe not an appropriate song for a funeral, but I'm going to ask my husband to download it to an iPod and maybe I'll make copies of the lyrics and we'll pass them out as we leave the cemetery," she said.

Services for Ed Vodicka will be held Thursday at the Missouri State Veterans Cemetery in Springfield. See the poem that will be read at the services.

In lieu of flowers, the family asks for remembrances to the Wounded Warrior Project.