Ron Engle was at a ballgame. There was maybe no place he would rather be. Everything seemed perfectly normal.
As the van he was traveling in approached Byrd Stadium for Saturday’s University of Maryland football game against Minnesota, Engle even teased traveling companion Lew Loving about not being able to properly hang the parking pass on the rearview mirror.
There was no sign of what was about to befall the Middletown legend, one of the true icons in Frederick County athletics.
As he had for nearly a decade, Kyle Pritts, of Middletown, drove to Engle’s nearby home to pick him up, so they could go to the Maryland football game. It was 9 o’clock on a bright and cool Saturday morning. Engle was ready, toting a cooler behind him.
The men had been friends for more than 40 years. Engle was the best man when Pritts got married. His children and grandchildren played for Engle when he coached basketball at Middletown High School.
“He was my best friend,” Pritts said.
On this day, they were being joined for the Maryland game by mutual friends Don Rieneke and Loving. Pritts drove them in his van.
On the way to the game, the men enjoyed everyday conversation between friends. After they pulled into their parking spot around 10:25 a.m., they set up a modest tailgate.
Engle was sure to thank Pritts for providing most of the food. Since he did not drink alcohol, Engle sipped a soft drink, maybe a Coke, Pritts said.
“He was like normal,” Pritts said.
But that was about to dramatically change. As the men prepared to enter Byrd Stadium around 11:20 a.m. for the noon game, Pritts noticed that Engle was in the security line to the left of him.
Pritts had a security wand passed over him and entered the stadium. He turned and noticed Engle had not come through yet. So, he waited. And he waited some more.
Eventually, he walked back toward the security area, peered around the barrier that had separated the lines and noticed that Engle was on the ground, with medical personnel attending to him after he collapsed.
“They were telling everyone to step back,” Pritts said. “I said, ‘I am not going anywhere. Wherever he goes, I am going, too.’”
Pritts accompanied Engle on the 15-minute ambulance ride to Washington Adventist Hospital in Takoma Park, where Engle died a short while later. Pritts overheard medical personnel say that Engle, 75, had gone into cardiac arrest.
“When I saw him lying on the ground [at the stadium], I wasn’t sure he was going to make it,” Pritts said.
News of Engle’s death traveled quickly and shook the Middletown community to its core.
After decades of service, he was practically a hero around town.
“When I heard about it, I hit the floor. I didn’t want to believe it,” said Wanda Atkins, a friend and coaching colleague of Engle’s since the early 1980s. “He is such an iron man.”
If there was a sporting event going on in Middletown, Engle was likely there. He loved sports on all levels that much.
He started a youth league in Middletown in the late 1960s. He arrived at the high school in 1967 as a physical education teacher and boys basketball coach, winning more than 300 games and 11 league titles over 22 years. The Knights were the state runner-up in Class C under Engle in 1973 and ‘79.
“I had never seen anyone like him. He was fiery. He had a passion,” said Bill Miskell, who became a team manager for Engle as an elementary school student.
Miskell played for Engle on the ‘79 team that fell to Valley High School, 54-51. Later, after a career in officiating, Miskell became the girls basketball coach at Middletown. He brought Engle and Atkins onto his staff as assistant coaches.
“The one word that Ronnie exemplified was class,” Miskell said. “You can learn so much from a guy like that if you are just willing to listen. He did the right thing all the time, not just when it was convenient. For a guy who shared the same kind of passion for basketball, he was right down my alley.”
Engle served as the school’s athletic director into the mid-1990s and hired other Frederick County coaching luminaries, such as Bob Sheffler (boys soccer), Tim Ambrose (football) and Don Boyer (track and field).
The school’s press box is named in honor of Ambrose. The track is named in honor Boyer and his wife, Sharon. In 2007, the basketball court in the school’s gymnasium was dedicated to Engle and, prior to that, a holiday basketball tournament at Middletown bore his name.
“He was such a humble person,” current Middletown athletic director Mike DeSimone said. “It was never about him.”
Ambrose learned of Engle’s death on his way back from Towson University’s football game at Dartmouth. Ambrose’s son, Rob, is the head football coach at Towson.
“I almost started crying,” Ambrose said. “I was real upset.”
Ambrose took over as Middletown’s athletic director in 1995, succeeding Engle.
“He was a great role model, a great guy, just a pleasure to be around,” Ambrose said.
Engle, who was born in Frederick and graduated from Frederick High School and what was then known as Shepherd College, is survived by his wife of 53 years, Dottie, and their two children, Ryan and Robyn.
Roughly a month from now, Engle was set to begin another season as the junior varsity coach for the girls basketball team at Middletown.
Right up until the final moments of his life, he maintained his passion for working with young athletes.
“People describe him by saying, ‘He is Middletown,’” said Kevin Kendro, the supervisor of athletics for Frederick County Public Schools. “There’s just a great sadness knowing that we lost one of the best.”