The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 15, 2021 1:00 am

Former Leo coach brings love to life, game

The special needs student he put on team spreads joy

BLAKE SEBRING | For The Journal Gazette

On Wednesday, Alabama football coach Nick Saban invited TNT “Inside the NBA” host Ernie Johnson to address his team. Johnson told the Crimson Tide about his adopted son Michael, from Romania, who has Muscular Dystrophy, emphasizing Michael's willingness to love others. Then he asked the players how they are going to follow Michael's example and “Be a better human today.”

Johnson also told how a basketball coach from Leo named Phil Bollier played a huge part in Michael's life, inviting the boy to be a part of the team. Bollier had left the Leo High School bench in 2005 to start a program at Mill Creek High School in Hoschton, Georgia. Always having a heart for others who may be overlooked, Bollier was walking the hallways one day when he stopped to talk with a group of special needs students.

“I'm so thankful I did because I almost missed this opportunity,” Bollier said. “I turned and talked to five or six kids in a special needs class and I shook hands with them and joked and laughed with them. I turned to walk away and I heard, 'Love you, too, Coach Bollier.' It came from Michael. I stopped, and said, 'What was that?' 'Love you, too, Coach Bollier.' I thought, oh my gosh, we've got to have that kid on our team.”

“Love you, too,” is probably Michael's favorite thing to say.

At the time, Bollier said he had little idea of what Ernie Johnson and his wife, Cheryl, were about or that they had adopted four of their six children, but he sent them a note saying he'd love Michael to be part of his team. When they met in the school parking lot, Ernie came out of the minivan and asked, “So what is this about?”

“I don't know. It's a big school and we're trying to put basketball in it,” Bollier said and then pointed at Michael. “And I know he's a big part of it.”

So Michael joined Mill Creek's first team, with a locker and a jersey and a spot behind the bench after he led the team onto the floor. Everyone was affected greatly by Michael, as “Love you, too” became a team cornerstone along with maximum effort, having a heart for others and it's not about me. Bollier calls Michael “The Founder” of the program they built.

“Little did I know,” Bollier says today. “How does God do that? How does that happen?”

When Senior Night came three years later, with his parents following Michael's wheelchair onto the floor, the entire Mill Creek student body section said “Love you, too” in sign language.

“What Phil did basically is take one of the least of these and elevate him,” Johnson said in a church video. “My wife Cheryl was like, 'I never thought he'd be chosen for anything, I never thought he'd be on a team,' and Phil made that possible.”

As part of Athletes in Action, Bollier has had opportunities all over the world to coach basketball and tell Michael's story, often with the people giving the “Love you, too,” sign.

“How in the world can a dude who is an orphan from Romania change the world?” Bollier wonders. “And he did it very simply with an example of Christ, and you have to love other people. When Ernie asks (in the Alabama video), how am I going to make somebody else's life better today, it comes down to you have to love other people.”

But where did Bollier ever get such an idea of including someone like Michael with all of his challenges? He says it's the examples he learned in Indiana from people such as his father, who graduated as a Harlan Hawk in 1942; from legendary high school coaches such as Richard Butt, By Hey, Will Doehrman, A.C. Eldridge and Glenn Parrish; and from the examples set by players such as Walter Jordan, Eugene Parker and Willie Long and the rest of his Bollier brothers. They all cared for people, Bollier said.

“Once you start that, the story is about all of us,” he said. “It represents all of us who love the game of basketball and love our families and each other and stand on the solid rock of God.”

Bollier is still dealing with the loss of his wife, Stephanie, in February 2020. He's retired as an official basketball coach at 63, but still coaching life. He's received dozens of phone calls and texts since Johnson's video went viral this week, but no one is surprised that Bollier was the coach who made this story possible.

“I think there's some deep stuff, but the one thing is I almost missed him and the whole experience because I was in a hurry,” Bollier said. “You can be busy because we're all busy, but if you are in a hurry, you miss a lot of blessings. I think you have to see and hear, and then it's not about me. If you don't do those things, man, do you miss some of life's fun. Because life is still tough, but you can't be in a hurry and you have to look and see and hear. It's not about me. It can't be.

“That's what I think 'Love you too' is. It's maximum effort, a heart for others and it's not about me.”

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