By WCCO-TV Staff

MELROSE, Minn. (WCCO) – Derek Schmitz did not play a lot of minutes for Melrose basketball, even though he loved his team. He almost didn’t go out for his senior season.

“My dad talked me into it, and I just really enjoyed being around them, my teammates. That was a fun experience.” Derek said.

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His father Aaron Schmitz refereed his kids’ games.

“He’d sometimes ref my soccer games and stuff, and he’d run back and forth. If he was on the side I was at, I’d yell at him, because he’d almost call me on a foul” said Jaden Schmitz with a chuckle.

Credit: Schmitz family

Aaron went into the hospital to have his appendix removed, but it didn’t heal after developing a blood clot. His goal was to make it to Derek’s senior night game. But he didn’t make it, and died in late February, five days before the game.

The 46-year-old’s team was the volunteer fire department, a place where bonds become bigger than teammates. Three months ago, he was named firefighter of the year.

“We went into house fires together. We went into structure fires and building fires together. He had my back, I had his,” said Melrose Firefighter Tom Budde.

So when the basketball team held it’s traditional pre-game ceremony, with parents accompanying their children to the middle of the court, Aaron’s teammates stepped in and Derek walked, surrounded by firefighters.

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“There was not a dry eye on the court, in the fans, including me,” Budde said. “To know that we could support Kim and Derek and the family, we’ll do what we gotta do to make that happen.”

“To me it meant that I have people who care about me and people would have my back and be there for me when I needed them,” Derek said.

When he wasn’t refereeing or battling fires, Aaron worked at the Melrose Area Public Schools. He was in charge of food services, but his role was much bigger than that; he connected with the students, talking with high schoolers about sports and activities.

“It was hard. He was a good boss so it was very emotional for all of us because we never got to say goodbye,” said Bonita Scholz, from Melrose Area Public Schools.

His wife Kim will miss the love of her life.

“Nights are the worst. Nights I don’t sleep, cry a lot. He was my soulmate,” she said.

His family will try to honor him by trying to be like him: helping everyone, staying generous, and supporting the community.

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“You knew, when he said ‘I’m here for you,’ he’s here for you. And he’s not here for us anymore. He’s watching over us now,” said Budde.