Linda Hemmila rides her bicycle into the village, often to the grocery store, every day.
Joel Hemmila works Monday through Friday, but makes time to visit the pub one village over. The Oliver Cromwell, he says, is one of the best places in town to get a pint.
The Hemmilas grow vegetables in their garden and make good use of their sprawling backyard and greenhouse.
They often visit a nearby church, built in the 1300s. There, together, they pray.
The Hemmilas lost their only child a year ago when Arizona offensive lineman Zach Hemmila died in his sleep following an accidental drug overdose. They’re still grieving as they navigate a new life more than 5,000 miles away from their Chandler home.
“We’re in probably the same place” emotionally, Joel said by phone Monday from his new home outside Cambridge, England. “Distractions are good. The distractions help out. We see his picture every day in the house … It never gets easier. You get distracted every now and then, but he’ll always be a part of us.”
The Hemmilas’ new life began to take shape in December. Joel Hemmila, an engineer, learned of a program through his employer to spend three years living in the United Kingdom. Rather than retire, which had been his plan before Zach’s death, the Hemmilas decided to move. They relocated in May.
Joel and Linda agreed the timing was right. There were too many reminders of their son in Chandler — and in Tucson.
“Everywhere we went in Arizona we were reminded of him, so now we can have a little peace of mind still thinking about him,” Joel said. “You still cry, you still get emotional.”
So do Zach Hemmila’s former teammates.A sudden, shocking loss
The Wildcats are practicing at night at they prepare for the upcoming season, chancing the monsoon rains and lightning. A year ago, coach Rich Rodriguez ran his workouts in the morning.
The UA’s fourth practice of camp took place on Aug. 8, a Monday.
Zach Hemmila didn’t arrive in time for the 7:30 a.m. start. By 8 a.m., Rodriguez and athletic director Greg Byrne knew what the rest of the Wildcats would learn shortly later: The senior center had died.
An autopsy determined that Hemmila died from a toxic combination of oxymorphone, an opiate painkiller, and alprazolam, an anti-anxiety medication. He was wearing a gamer’s headset and had a video game controller in his hand when his cousin found him at 7 a.m., sheriff’s deputies said.
“You’re out at practice one morning expecting him to be there. The next thing you know he’s not there,” quarterback Brandon Dawkins said last week. “The next thing you know they call practice short and tell you he’s dead. It’s not something you wake up and expect (to happen).”
Rodriguez canceled the following day’s practice. The Wildcats then spent two days at the Arizona Cardinals’ headquarters in Tempe, away from the bad memories at home. The team took part in a rosary the night before Hemmila’s funeral, then honored their teammate the following day.
Hemmila’s memory stayed with the UA for most of a frustrating 3-9 season. The offensive lineman was named an honorary captain for the season opener. Joel and Linda Hemmila were presented with a plaque and helmet. Coaches kept Hemmila’s locker intact, unchanged, all season. Teammates left his chair open in the offensive line’s meeting room.
Running back Nick Wilson said there were “a lot of different feelings” immediately following Hemmila’s death. The Wildcats finished the season 3-9, the worst mark in Rodriguez’s time at Arizona.
“Not a lot of people have lost a teammate right before the season starts. That’s something that’s hard to deal with,” Wilson said.
Added guard Christian Boettcher: “There was just a hole in our hearts.”
Senior left tackle Layth Friekh said Hemmila’s death brought the offensive linemen together, though they were left with unanswerable questions.
“We saw that as … we missed the signs too. We could have helped him out, but we didn’t,” he said. “Everybody loses relatives. But losing someone that you’re there every day with — you’re there for hours on end. You see him every day lifting. You sit next to him on the plane rides. You kind of think about it a lot.”
The Wildcats see their old teammate’s name, memorialized in the south end zone at Arizona Stadium, every time they walk out of the tunnel.
“It’s still hard,” offensive line coach Jim Michalczik said.Staying close
Joel doesn’t know how , but he’s going to watch the Wildcats this season. The Hemmilas live in a different time zone, eight hours ahead of Arizona, so it may mean waking up in the middle of the night.
The Hemmilas say they’ll always have a fondness for the UA.
Before moving to England, Joel was invited by some of Zach’s former teammates to come back to Tucson. He had lunch with some players and staffers, toured the stadium and visited McKale Center. He visited a memorial brick etched with Zach’s name; Byrne had one placed outside the arena before he left to become the athletic director at Alabama.
The Hemmilas still keep in touch with Matt Dudek, former UA director of recruiting, who left last month for a job at Michigan.
Joel and Linda Hemmila will return to Arizona in three years, but probably not to Chandler. Joel has plans to build a cabin in Northern Arizona, where he and his wife will retire.
They’re able to talk about Zach now, but the pain is still fresh. Linda’s birthday was Monday, but the couple did little to celebrate.
A year later, the Wildcats are still trying to move forward while still remembering their former teammate. Hemmila’s locker remains intact. He still has a spot in the room during position meetings.
“Zach would have been a senior (last year). This is a new team,” Michalczik said. “Just like when you lose a parent, they’re always going to be in your heart. They’re always going to be a part of you. But life keeps going forward. You remember them.
“You’ve gotta grieve, but you’ve also gotta keep moving forward, because that’s what they’d want you to do.”