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MUSICK: Roach shows there is still good in sports

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Amy Henke’s voice cracked Wednesday as she spoke about her late husband, Sam.

She wanted to share his story, although it makes her cry.

“This is still hard to talk about,” she said.

Nobody is supposed to be a widow at age 28. Nobody should have to worry about exorbitant medical bills while grieving the loss of a spouse.

Nothing can bring back Sam Henke, who died last month at age 29 after a three-month battle with an unexplainable liver disease. But with the help of Bears linebacker Nick Roach, anyone with a computer can help Amy and her family while honoring Sam’s memory.

Most of us know Roach as the Bears’ dependable and versatile six-year veteran linebacker. He registered 84 tackles and 1 sacks in 16 games in 2012, which included a move from strong-side linebacker to middle linebacker after Brian Urlacher injured his hamstring.

But as he took over for Urlacher, Roach was thinking about far more than football.

His thoughts often drifted to the Henkes, his friends from Milwaukee Lutheran High School, years before he starred at Northwestern or reached the NFL as an undrafted free agent.

Like so many others, Roach and his wife, Anna-Marie, were shocked to hear that Sam Henke was terribly sick. One day Henke was healthy, and the next day he was fighting for his life.

“I thought about him a lot,” said Roach, who will become a free agent next month but hopes to remain with the Bears. “I prayed a lot with my wife about it. We were just hoping for the best-case scenario.”

Instead came the worst.

Three months is nothing. It’s a blink. It’s a speck. It’s a tiny particle of time.

It was all Sam had before his body shut down.

Sam died Jan. 2. He was a loving husband, son and brother. He coached kids soccer. He was a passionate sports fan who loved Manchester United and the Green Bay Packers.

Shortly after Sam’s death, the Roaches attended his funeral along with about 900 others in a packed church in suburban Milwaukee. Roach was inspired by the difference that Sam made in so many lives, and he was determined to help Amy in whatever way possible.

“Your heart breaks for her,” Roach said. “Amy is one of those people, she’s like the sweetest girl in the world. I don’t think that she’s had an enemy her whole life.”

But Amy and the rest of Sam’s family needed lots of help to cover soaring medical bills. Roach donated through a website, which gave him an idea.

First, he reached out to Amy to make sure it was OK.

“He said, ‘Amy, I want to do something,’ ” Amy said. “ ‘But I want to do a little more.’ ”

Amy was grateful and quickly agreed to the plan.

“I just kept saying thank you,” she said.

Instead of calling out plays on defense, Roach started calling people he knew. He, his wife and a friend began brainstorming prizes that could generate donations from Bears fans.

The group collected four tickets to next season’s Bears-Packers game at Soldier Field to give away to a winner. They added four tickets to a Cubs game, which includes on-field access for pictures after the game. They gathered golf bags and sports gear and massage services and VIP passes to Shedd Aquarium and all kinds of items autographed by athletes such as Roach and Urlacher and Johnny Knox and Ernie Banks and Anthony Rizzo.

Still, it wasn’t enough.

Roach offered to host lunch for four people and to pick up the tab. He volunteered to participate in a 90-minute training session with someone at his gym. He even offered to provide a voice-over for a lucky winner’s voicemail message.

An online donation of $10 to any prize category enters someone into a drawing for that prize. Each additional entry is another $10, and those interested can donate from now until March 2. A link to the fundraiser is available at NickRoach53.com or facebook.com/nickroach53.

In addition, Roach will send an autographed picture to everyone who donates.

Roach’s goal is to raise $25,000 by March 2. His site started accepting donations Monday, and by Wednesday evening, he had raised more than $3,100.

It’s a big project, especially for a quiet player who prefers to stay out of the public eye.

Important causes prompt him to speak up and to use his platform.

“If there’s no need to be in the spotlight, them I’m all for that,” Roach said. “But I think that there is a certain amount of responsibility that if you can use it for good, then you should.”

It’s easy to become jaded about athletes as one sordid story after another makes headlines.

But athletes, like all people, are complicated.

Some are good. Some are bad. Most are a little bit of both.

Roach's act offers hope for the good.

“What Nick is doing, it’s an incredible gesture of compassion and support,” Henke said. “It really does leave me speechless. It brings tears to my eyes.”

• Northwest Herald sports columnist Tom Musick can be reached at tmusick@shawmedia.com and on Twitter @tcmusick.

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