BELOIT—A former prep baseball coach, Todd Feiter always gets excited this time of year with the first pitch of the Major League Baseball season just around the corner.

A diehard Milwaukee Brewers fan, he always looked forward to the sparring he could expect from his buddy from his Beloit Catholic High School days, Cubs fan Jason Walker.

Instead, he could hardly believe it when John Fiorello informed last Thursday of the tragic news. One of Todd’s favorite former Crusaders, Walker, had died of complications during open heart surgery in Beloit. He was just 47 years old.

“John was devastated when he called,” Feiter said. “He and Jason were close friends. He immediately jumped in his car and drove (from Madison) to Beloit to be with Jason’s wife and daughter.”

Amy and Jacey always came first with Jason, but his extended family—people he worked with and played with—loved him as a big, happy-go-lucky, faithful friend.

Fiorello and Walker were close.

“We’d been friends since the third grade at OLA,” Fiorello said. “We hadn’t always played on the same teams. In Pop Warner, he was a Steeler and I was a Chief and in basketball he was OLA Blue and I was OLA White. But once we got to Catholic, we were inseparable. Jason really loved everybody.”

They were seniors when Feiter was the Crusaders’ 31-year-old first-year baseball coach in 1991.

“Jason was really a goof on that team and I mean that in a good way,” Feiter said. “It was a team that enjoyed playing and had a lot of fun and that describes Jason perfectly. The guys really looked up to him. He could be funny, but he also worked his butt off. When it was time to be serious, he was serious.”

Fiorello said he and Walker tested their coach’s patience when they spent their spring break on a vacation trip to Alabama and missed a few practices.

“When we got back, we were practicing across the street (at Summit Park) and Jason was playing first base,” Fiorello said. “I was playing second and I kept saying, ‘Look out Jason, Coach is mad.’ Then Todd hit some rockets at him.”

Feiter remembers that practice.

“I thought he was fielding kind of lazily so I started hitting shots at him that he had no chance to field,” he said with a chuckle. “He looked at me like he was angry and I looked at him like I was angry, and then I said, ‘Now are you going to work?’ and he said, ‘Yeah, coach,’ and everything was fine.”

That May, Feiter’s Crusaders trailed Burlington St. Mary’s by 10 runs in a WISAA regional game only to rally to win, 12-11, and punch their first state tournament trip since 1972. With the words “State” scrawled under the bill of his cap, Walker unloaded what would be the winning go-ahead home run with Fiorello aboard in the fifth inning.

“That game is what I really remember the most about that season,” Walker commented for an article last May commemorating the 30th anniversary of that trip to state. “Coming back and winning that game and getting (to state) in the first place was really special.”

The magic ended with a loss in Wausau, but no matter.

“That was just a great time with a great team,” Feiter said. “Being at state, even losing, was an awesome experience.”

Plus, once a Crusader, always a Crusader.

“The best part of Facebook was that I got to reconnect with those guys,” Feiter said. “Walker and Fiorello loved the Cubs so we’d go to a Brewers-Cubs game together along with a few other guys off that team. We’d have a blast.”

Jason’s love of sports rubbed off on Jacey. Her personal coach/catcher/No. 1 fan, he helped her become an ace pitcher at Beloit Memorial. This spring, she’s a freshman pitching for Bryant & Stratton College in Milwaukee.

Jacey wrote a heartfelt tribute to her dad on Facebook. Some excerpts:

“...I wish more than anything that I could go pitch with you in the gym at 4 a.m. before school or blast RATT on our two hour drive to softball practice,” she wrote. “I wish for one more pizza night (your favorite thing ever), for one more opening day at Wrigley Field watching the best team in baseball.”

“…Thank-you for always being my biggest fan and always showing me right from wrong. You’ve taught me so much in these 18 years. You were the absolute best dad a daughter could ask for so thank you for being mine.”

Finally, Jacey wondered “how I’m going to navigate through this life without you.”

Fiorello said, for one thing, she won’t have to do it alone.

“Jacey calls me Uncle John,” he said. “From here on out, all of his friends and teammates are going to be her uncles. I know how much she loved her father and he can’t be replaced, but we are all going to be there for her.”

• A funeral service for Jason will be at 11 a.m Thursday in the Daley Murphy Wisch & Associates Funeral Home and Cremation, 2355 Cranston Road, Beloit. A visitation of remembrance will be from 5-7 p.m. on Wednesday in the funeral home. There will also be a visitation from 10 a.m. until the time of service Thursday in the funeral home.

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