BLOOMINGTON — Phil Westfall always looked forward to fall afternoons at Memorial Stadium, the excitement that comes with watching a new Indiana football season unfold.
IU’s scheduled home opener Saturday against Western Kentucky, under normal circumstances, would have been no different.
“The fall brought great anticipation for my dad, without question,” his son, Chris Westfall, said by phone earlier this week. “I remember as a kid going to IU games, driving and seeing the leaves turn and going to Bloomington. It’s a beautiful time of the year, and it’s truly a tragedy that he’s not here to enjoy it.”
Westfall, a former Hoosier punter who went on to be one of the school’s biggest athletic fans, died at 77 after a brief battle with COVID-19 less than two months ago. The grief is still fresh to family and friends. After a successful career in sales and marketing, Westfall had just moved to Bloomington and was set to take over as president of the Indiana Alumni Association after more than 50 years of service to the organization.
“That Phil died before his term in office, which was also marred by the pandemic shutdown, is one of the greatest rip-offs of all time,” IU “I” Association Director Brian Brase said in an email. “This was to be Phil’s victory lap for a life well lived. He misses the great reward of all the pomp and circumstance that goes with the job as board chair.”
Westfall was more than just a football supporter. He could be found at all IU athletic events, basketball games at Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall, soccer games at Armstrong Stadium. In 2015, Westfall received the Zora Clevenger Award, the highest honor given by IU’s alumni association. If there was a banquet or fundraiser or something that needed to be done to support IU, for Westfall, the answer was always yes.
His death, like many of the 190,000 from the pandemic, came fast and unexpected. Chris Westfall said his dad had complained of a nagging cough and flu before testing positive for the coronavirus. He was admitted to a Bloomington area hospital and died less than 36 hours later.
“If there’s one message I can send to people, it’s you’ve got to take this seriously, and you’ve got to consider social distancing and wearing a mask and following these guidelines because if this coronavirus comes for you, at least my experience with my dad, it is swift. It is cruel. It is unforgiving, and you never know,” he said. “There’s a lot of stories of people who have beat this, and there’s far too many stories of people who haven’t, and my dad is unfortunately one of them.”
Chris Westfall, a business coach and motivational speaker in Houston, Texas, said the other difficult part of his father’s passing for himself and his two younger siblings was processing grief remotely.
“We created a little ceremony, a little service here,” he said. “There was a Zoom call that was created, and they called it sort of an Irish Wake that the (IU) alumni association put together. My brother and I jumped on there, and it was terrific. But it’s incredibly difficult to process your grief from a distance and to not have that kind of connection that helps people to heal. Luckily, my family is here, and they’ve been very supportive, and we’ve all been able to grieve together, and we’ve been able to process some things.”
The Big Ten is expected to vote this weekend whether to resume football after postponing the fall season for health and safety reasons in August. According to multiple reports, given advances in testing, there is a chance Big Ten presidents could approve a proposal to resume the season Thanksgiving weekend, or even sooner.
Indiana football shaped Phil Westfall’s life. In Westfall’s own words during a seven-plus minute video tribute played at his memorial service, he discussed how it made him more disciplined and understand how teamwork matters.
But Chris Westfall said he still feels the conference made the right decision in postponing the season based on the advice of medical experts.
“What’s more difficult than missing football games is missing a loved one,” he said. “If we can be patient, I think that that’s my takeaway, that patience is the right approach.”
The last football game Phil Westfall attended was historic. Last January, he was in the stands for IU’s first bowl game in Florida, the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, in which the Hoosiers suffered a gut-wrenching one-point loss to Tennessee.
For Chris Westfall, the heartache of losing his dad still lingers.
“Seeing IU play, I know how much my dad loved it,” he said. “That pales in comparison to how much I’d really like to see him, quite frankly.”