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Remembering A Giant

Ljubomir "Lube" Stamenich, football star at Langley, U-Va, died after short battle with leukemia

A man among boys. A force to be reckoned with on the football field. A father figure to his younger brother and sister.

"He wasn't anyone but himself," said Bill Renner, a former Langley High School football coach of Ljubomir "Lube" Stamenich, a Langley and University of Virginia graduate and football star who died suddenly on Aug. 18 at the age of 26, after a two-week battle with two rare forms of leukemia.

Renner, now a coach at West Springfield, remembered Stamenich as "a tremendous person. The thing that struck you about him is that he had friends of all races, nations, styles...that's unique. It's really unique to see a kid have that kind of impact."

When now principal William Clendaniel first arrived as an assistant principal at Langley High School, Stamenich had the reputation of "having a rough start" at the school.

"Bill Renner did an incredible job taking him under his wing and turning him into a man through football," Clendaniel said. "He started off as a big wild child, but by his senior year he was such a gentleman. At the end of his last game here, I remember they couldn't get him to walk off the field."

Stamenich, the oldest of three children born to Serbian immigrants, grew up fast at home after his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis when he was young and his father, 60 years older than Stamenich, was unable to care for the family.

"He held the other two together," Clendaniel said. "He was such a rock. This loss has been heartbreaking for all of us who knew him. It's hard to lose a kid like that."

For Anne Richey and her family, Stamenich and his siblings were like their own children.

"My son was two years ahead of Lube in school and one day they got into a pushing match in the cafeteria," she said. "The coach called and told us what happened and said that he had a rough home life."

Richey said she asked what her family might do to help Stamenich and the coach mentioned that a tutor might help him do better in school and focus more in his life.

"We gave him some tools but he used them and made everything happen for himself," she said, voice quaking and eyes flooding with tears. "Everything just happened so fast."

THE RICHEY FAMILY assumed a surrogate parental role for the Stamenich children, helping them out however they could, but "Lube," as everyone called him, was the key figure who held the family together.

"He was so proud of his brother and sister," Richey said. "They looked up to him, too. This is going to be a tough couple of months for all of us, but they have great survival skills. They'll get used to the idea that he isn't coming home," she said, her voice once again overcome with emotion.

The pain will eventually ease for her family as well, but she is grateful for the opportunity not only to have known Stamenich, but his entire family.

"The gift he left behind for us was his family," she said. "We can be here for his parents now... and we love his brother and sister so much. We were fortunate to have the 12 years with him, but it turned out that he helped us. What he gave back to us was just priceless."

After playing football side by side for four years at Langley, Mark Dreber remembers his friend as a "gentle giant" who was "quiet to anyone he didn't know, but once he let you in, he was so outgoing and caring."

The difficulties he faced at home only made him more determined to succeed in life, Dreber said. "It made him very responsible and allowed him to overcome everything," he said.

When the two first met, Stamenich "had a little bit of a chip on his shoulder," Dreber said. "He would harass the older kids in school. He was a great guy, he just needed some guidance."

Stamenich, as a freshman, was included with the varsity football team's practices. "Whenever he'd get knocked down, he'd jump up and ask the older guys if that was all they had," he said. "Failure wasn't an option for him."

Dreber recalled one game in which Stamenich had a 25-yard start on a player from another team. "He hit that guy harder than I'd ever seen someone get hit, it knocked him out," he said. "He was small for a defensive end, but he was a powerhouse."

Following his career at U-Va, Stamenich went on to play professional indoor arena football with the Albany Conquest and the Columbus Destroyers, he said, but was not able to be drafted in the NFL because of a shoulder injury he sustained in high school. Dreber had recently helped Stamenich get a job at IBM, where he was impressing his bosses with his ability to quickly learn his job.

Despite being somewhat reluctant to open up to new people, over 400 friends, family members and former classmates attended Stamenich's funeral services, Dreber said.

"All of us who spoke talked about the same thing, his stubbornness and ability to overcome adversity," he said. Following the memorial service, the hearse driving Stamenich to a private burial had the license plate MEK 91-- Stamenich's number at U-Va.

"It was a sign from him telling us that he was OK," Dreber said.

Saturday afternoon, a group of about 40 friends and classmates, both from Langley and U-Va, drove to Scotts Stadium in Charlottesville where a moment of silence for Stamenich's memory was planned during the opening game of the season.

"We're going to celebrate his life," Dreber said, who had worked with the football office at the university to arrange the memorial.

He remembered watching one game and a friend asked him why the crowd was booing Stamenich. "They were chanting 'Lube! Lube!' and he didn't understand," Dreber said. "I hope they'll chant for him one last time."