By DAVID CHING | Online-Athens
Adam Abbate waited until the movie already had been playing for about five minutes before he discreetly slipped into an Atlanta movie theater to see "The Fifth Quarter" last weekend.
It was Abbate's first time seeing the finished version of the movie that tells his family's story of loss, after his 15-year-old brother, Luke, died in a 2006 car crash where the driver, a classmate, recklessly sped down a steep rural road. Abbate preferred entering a darkened theater in his hometown to avoid encountering an acquaintance while reliving the painful events memorialized onscreen.
"I went alone, five minutes after it was supposed to start, and I left at the very end. I didn't want anybody to recognize or see me," said Abbate, a 27-year-old in his final semester at UGA's School of Law. "It was really strange, especially at the end when people were clapping and cheering. Nobody knew I was in there, so it wasn't for my sake by any means. That was cool in a sense, but it was also very strange to see people clap about your family's life story."
Despite its many tearjerking moments, the movie - which is playing in Athens at both the Carmike 12 and the GTC Beechwood 11 theaters, along with dozens of locations throughout the Southeast - contains a wealth of uplifting moments.
Luke and Adam's middle brother, Jon, was a star linebacker at Wake Forest when the accident happened. Longtime cellar dwellers in the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Demon Deacons had been picked to once again finish last in their division that fall. But playing in his brother's memory - a tribute that included changing his jersey number to the No. 5 that Luke wore at Harrison High School in Powder Springs - Jon led Wake Forest to an unlikely 2006 ACC championship and a spot in the Orange Bowl.
At the start of each fourth quarter that season, Abbate family members would hold up five fingers to Jon as a sign that Luke was there with them.
"My family's pastor, Ike Reighard, he started it," Abbate said. "At the high school games, he told all the students who were at Luke's funeral, 'Let's make the fourth quarter Luke's quarter and instead of holding up four fingers like they do at the Georgia games, hold up five fingers to symbolize this is Luke's quarter.'
"And then it was something that our family did to Jon at the start of the fourth quarter. He would look into the stands and we would hold up five, and that kind of symbolized that Luke's here with you and he's watching the game, whether you can see him or not."
As the season progressed, so many fans began to join in that at the ACC Championship Game matchup against Georgia Tech, most of those in attendance participated in the five-finger salute.
"The people behind us (at Wake Forest games) started doing it and then there was a big piece on ESPN about it, and that's how I think it caught on," Abbate said. "At the ACC championship, I don't want to say it was miraculous, but it was awesome. I was pretty astounded by the fact that not just Wake Forest fans were doing it, but the whole stadium was doing it. It was pretty moving."
Equally moving is the impact made upon the five transplant recipients whose lives were potentially saved when the family agreed to allow Luke's organs to be used in a transplant program. The movie depicts how the Abbates wrestled with the decision before finally opting to follow Luke's wishes from when he checked a box on his learner's permit paperwork saying he was willing to become a donor.
Like many people his age, organ donation was never a subject Adam had given much thought until Luke's death, but he appreciates its value today.
"As the movie actually portrayed, he and my mom had a pretty drawn-out conversation about it and why he wanted to do it," Abbate said. "At the time that we were making the decision for organ donation, it was definitely something that - I wouldn't say I didn't agree with it, but it's a very hard decision because not only are you losing your sibling, but then you have to make the decision to cut him open even more and have what I thought at the time was needless surgery because it's not gonna help him.
"In hindsight, looking back, I'm glad we did it because it impacted five other people."
It has been more than five years since the crash claimed Luke's life and yet the pain remains very real for Abbate and his family.
"The old saying that time heals all wounds is not true. At least it hasn't been in my case," he said. "Each day, it still feels very fresh. I don't think it's a wound that ever heals. You don't expect to lose your younger sibling, let alone any sibling, until you're older."
However, the Abbates have used their struggle as a platform to help prevent similar tragedies. They started the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation to raise awareness about the benefits of organ donation and to inform teenagers about the dangers of reckless driving.
The foundation also raises money to help students from Harrison attend college. Today, some of those scholarship recipients - including two of Luke's close friends, Kyle Clark and Haley Jackson, attend UGA.
"It's a daily struggle, but we're working through it and we're trying to bring awareness to other people on how it's affected us doesn't have to affect everybody else," Abbate said. "There are ways to prevent what occurred."
Thanks to the foundation that bears his name and the movie that tells his family's story, perhaps Luke Abbate will save many more lives than those of the five people who survived thanks to his decision to become an organ donor.
For more information on the Luke Abbate 5th Quarter Foundation, visit lukeabbate5thquarter.org.
For more information on "The Fifth Quarter," starring Aidan Quinn, Andie MacDowell and Ryan Merriman, visit thefifthquartermovie.com.