"There's something about the sunshine that makes everything better," Maryanne Abbate said, as she gazed out of her dining room windows. "Luke's funeral was a dreary day. Those days are hard to get through."
And although the Abbate home is abuzz with the sounds of emails, phone calls, and text messages over the national attention the family has gained recently as the subject of the feature film, “The 5th Quarter,” the family would trade it all to have their Luke back.
Luke Abbate was 15 — a sophomore at Harrison High School in west Cobb — when his ride home from lacrosse practice had to cancel and he accepted a ride with three other friends on Feb. 15, 2006. Luke barely knew the driver, and Maryanne said they have been told that as soon as the teenage driver began to drive recklessly and speed close to 80 miles per hour on a vacant road with steep hills, he and his friends pleaded for the driver to let them out. But within minutes, the car crashed into a ditch and within hours, their vibrant, athletic, kind-hearted son had passed away.
“I still don’t know why he didn’t call me to pick him up, like he always would if he needed a ride,” Maryanne said. “I guess I’ll never know.”
Following the death of Luke, the family struggled to find happiness, reasons and faith. Maryanne and Steven also have three other children — twins Rachel and Adam, 27, and Jon, 25. Rachel and Adam were born premature, and Rachel has used a wheelchair all of her life, but her disabilities did not keep her from becoming Harrison’s Homecoming Queen in 2002. Maryanne fondly recalled Luke helping her pop wheelies in her wheelchair and protecting her as her fun-loving and caring brother.
Luke was also close with Adam, who was just months shy of graduating from the University of Georgia when he was killed, and who spent two years at home before fulfilling his dream of going to law school because of the intense sadness and loss he felt after the accident, Maryanne said.
But the sibling probably closest to Luke was his big brother and football star, Jon.
“He always followed Jon, wherever he would go. He wanted to wear his jerseys, big clothes. So big sometimes they would go down to his ankles and all you could see was his shoes,” Steven said.
Jon was a sophomore linebacker at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., when the family lost Luke, and he used his baby brother as his inspiration during the school’s triumphant 2006 football season.
Jon switched his jersey number to Luke’s number, five, and began holding up five fingers before the fourth quarter, naming it Luke’s quarter — the fifth quarter. The trend caught on, and soon, all of Jon’s teammates and the Wake Forest fans began doing the same. That season was incredibly successful for a team that is usually not considered a front-runner in the Atlantic Coast Conference. So successful, the team went 10-3 and beat Georgia Tech in the ACC Championship game, earning a National Coach of the Year award for head coach Jim Grobe and All-American and first team All-ACC distinctions for Jon.
The story of the family’s loss and Wake Forest’s inspirational season is depicted in the film “The 5th Quarter,” which was released in theaters on March 25. The movie was also filmed in Winston-Salem, Maryanne said. Since its release, Maryanne and Steven have traveled the media circuit, even landing on The Today Show, and have booked several speaking engagements to raise money for the foundation they started, the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation. The foundation raises awareness of the consequences of reckless driving and has given worthy Harrison graduates close to $50,000 in college scholarships.
Luke was an organ donor, and five of his organs were successfully transplanted into other people who needed them. One was a heart, which went to a single mother in New York who is also depicted in the film.
Steven is vice president of sales in the Southeast for Coram Specialty Infusion Services, while Maryanne said she stays home to look after Rachel. Jon is now a middle linebacker in the NFL for the Houston Texans and Adam is set to graduate from law school at UGA. Steven said the movie is 99 percent accurate, and the family was able to have input on the script thanks to their relationship with director, producer and screenwriter Rick Bieber.
“He spent probably a year and a half with us, just getting to know us, talking with us one-on-one, having phone conversations, then he sent us the script, and it was so accurate. We had a few things we wanted changed because we wanted it to be as true as possible, and he changed them,” Steven said.
“We wouldn’t have signed an agreement with him allowing him to use our story if the script wasn’t as accurate as possible. And it’s raw. It’s how true believers react when they lose their most precious gift — their child,” Steven said, referring to his family’s Christian faith. “It’s about how you get through it with each other and with God. It may not be pretty, but you get through it.”
Maryanne said she focuses on her writing. She keeps a journal and writes for various Christian magazines and blogs, while the movie has become more of Steven’s focus.
Steven said he has watched the film “probably 30 or 40 times,” because he does not want to forget anything about their story, or about Luke.
“If I stop feeling the pain, then I’m not living anymore. I don’t want to ever feel like he’s completely gone away,” Steven said.
Watching the film for Maryanne is harder, she said.
“It’s hard to relive. It’s the event that broke my heart,” Maryanne said. “It’s hard to see it on the screen. It’s painful and it scares me a little because it is so heart wrenching. But I hope that it can make people look at things differently and understand the consequences of reckless driving. Kids forget that if something happens to them, their parents are the ones left hurting.”