CHARLOTTESVILLE — It was the little things, those idiosyncrasies so integrated into the norm and innocuously assumed, that were the hardest to brush aside.
The hollow silence inside his Greenfield home reminded A.J. Muegge of what once was and what he and his family tragically lost.
Nothing seemed the same after his mother, Lisa, 52, passed away Jan. 28, 2016, and for the Eastern Hancock High School sophomore at the time, he admittedly struggled from within.
“It was the things we all take for granted. The dinners at home, the support, the ‘I love yous,’ ‘the good games.’ It’s random things like that that you expect, and then when they’re not there, it’s tough to deal with,” Muegge said. “You always think as a kid you’ll have your parents there for things. And when one of them isn’t there to tell you the simple things, it really gets to you.”
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Lisa Muegge was a passionate, faith-driven community activist, who many fondly remember for her radiating joy and encouragement of everyone she befriended. Lisa gave greatly, as was her nature, especially to her children, which left A.J. searching, more than ever after his mom lost her internal battle with depressive disorder.
When the reality became too overwhelming, A.J. Muegge said, he sought out serenity wherever he could. Initially, he found peace at the gym where he would shoot jumpers for hours to get his mind off of things. In the spring, the batting cage was his place of meditative release.
Football, however, was where he could breath again.
Under the lights, helmet and shoulder pads strapped on, walking onto the field with his friends and extended family within arms length, Muegge regained his footing en route to an all-state career and the title of 2017 Hancock County Offensive Player of the Year.
“It was a release, an outlet, a positive,” Eastern Hancock football coach Jim O’Hara remarked on Muegge’s focus. “What better way to get rid of frustration than to compete, play a game and go out there and try to beat somebody with your buddies.”
Muegge foreshadowed what he could achieve his junior season in 2016, and after overcoming, yet another tragic loss, this time of his good friend, classmate and teammate Riley Settergren this past July, sports helped him cope.
“It was definitely a huge motivator,” Muegge said. “The thing I want to hear most is that my parents are proud of me, and I guess that was my goal regardless. It’s to make my dad (Jeff) proud and my mom proud. That’s been my biggest focus no matter what I do. Whether I win or lose or succeed or fail, that she’ll always be proud of me.”
More Than Sports
A three-sport standout while at Eastern Hancock, Muegge is more than an athlete. He’s a student-athlete.
Ranked first in his class, the senior carries a 4.27 GPA and was awarded the 2018 Lilly Endowment Community Scholarship earlier this month. More than 60 county high schools students applied for the scholarship, but Muegge’s accomplishments off the field propelled him to the top of the list.
A member of the National Honor Society and student council, Muegge juggles athletics with advanced-level courses and has continued his mother’s legacy with Feast of Plenty, an annual event she started 12 years ago that provides a free Thanksgiving meal to more than 1,000 people in the area.
He also raised more than $28,000 for One Mind Institute, an international mental health research organization.
“He was like a warrior on the field,” O’Hara said. “But, if you think about his work in the classroom, he’s a pretty outstanding, well-rounded man. He’s going to be a great community leader some day.”
Master of All Trades
The Indiana Football Coaches Association named Muegge to the Senior All-State Football Team this winter as a defensive back, but The Associated Press pegged the Royals’ leading scorer best.
Chosen as an “All-Purpose” Class 2A All-State selection by the AP, Muegge won’t argue with the moniker.
As a kid cutting his teeth through the Greenfield Youth Football League for Eastern Hancock, he was a running back, played defense and was a receiver. His knack for accepting any role — and mastering it — never waned once he reached high school.
“I always wanted to be even all around, but this year, especially my defensive role, was more than it was. On defense, I was playing linebacker, playing corner or safety. I played a lot of different spots and took on a lot of responsibility,” Muegge said.
“It’s hard for me to say I just play one spot because I don’t want to look at myself like that. I want to look at myself as someone who can play wherever I need to play, and I feel like I’ve earned that label, which makes me happy.”
As a defender, Muegge posted career highs as a senior with 76 total tackles (50 solos) and three interceptions for 121 return yards. He had three fumble recoveries, nine pass defenses and one forced fumble.
On offense, as the Royals’ starting H-back, he scored 127 points with 1,443 all-purpose yards. Muegge rushed for 556 yards and 12 touchdowns to finish his career with 1,010 yards and 18 scores.
As a receiver, he hauled in 45 passes for 590 yards and four touchdowns, while completing his only pass in his four-year career this fall to Payton Wilkinson for 35 yards. He recorded his first career pancake block this season and amassed 176 total kick return yards.
For added measure, he compiled 1,466 kickoff yards as the team’s starting placekicker where he was 26 of 31 on extra-point attempts and 1-for-2 on field goal tries.
“He could have driven the bus,” O’Hara laughed. “But I don’t think he likes to get his hands dirty, so he probably wouldn’t paint (the fence).”
Playing for Riley
On opening night against Greenfield-Central, the emotions weighed heavy for all of the Royals, especially Muegge, as the team took the Cougars’ home field on Aug. 18.
Just weeks after the death of senior Riley Settergren, who was fatally injured in a car accident July 26, the team came into the game drained. For Muegge, the situation opened old wounds, less than two years after his mother’s death.
“When you go through a tragedy before another one happens, people say it’s easier, but it’s never easier. I think it’s harder because after you deal with one, it brings stuff back up that you’ve dealt with before,” Muegge said.
When Muegge lined up at cornerback, it was a crushing moment as he looked over and didn’t see Settergren in his customary defensive back spot at the opposite end.
“You look over and it hits you, we’re missing a piece of this team,” Muegge recalled. “It’s hard to think about that stuff when you’re trying to play and regroup, especially the first game. There was a lot of emotion regardless of the situation, but it kind of compounded.”
The Royals lost 28-14, but Settergren’s memory kept them going the next 10 weeks as the team finished 6-5 overall.
Refusing to say they were playing for Settergren, Muegge and his teammates instead preferred to say they were playing with him.
“It’s something you would never expect to lose a teammate and especially someone you’re close with. We were all really close with Riley. He was one of our best friends, and to go into the year with that emotional weight was very hard. But once again, you have to channel that energy and find a way to play for him and with him,” Muegge said.
A New Chapter
Muegge knows what he wants to be, eager to pursue chemical engineering as his primary major in college. The where, however, is still pending.
He’s applied to Notre Dame, Purdue and is eyeing Rose-Hulman where he could possibly play football as well.
His father, Jeff, and his stepbrothers, Joel and Nate Hungate, are supporting him along the way, in addition to his close-knit band of “goofy” senior friends.
Still, there’s someone missing, he says, but he thinks about her often.
“It’s a little quieter in the house. She was a talker,” Muegge joked affectionately. “But I’ve always been close to my dad, so as far as relationships go, I think we became even stronger as a family for it.”
That strength continues to motivate him as he prepares for the future.
“That’s the hard part about this year. People ask me, ‘are you ready for high school to be over?’ And I’m like, ‘high school probably, but sports probably not because there were times when I felt like that’s all I had,'” Muegge said. “Everyone says they would do anything to go back, and I can see why. I’m used to this time being basketball time, but next year when it’s football time, it’s going to be weird not strapping up for Eastern Hancock.”