Powder Springs family's story subject of "The Fifth Quarter" film

Adam Abbate sat in the dark theater, surrounded by strangers and watched the worst time of his life unfold on the screen.

On Feb. 13, 2006, his younger brother, Luke, 15, a passenger in a car driven by another Harrison High School student, was critically injured in a car wreck in Cobb County. He survived but died of his injuries a few days short of his 16th birthday. His organs were donated to save the lives of five others.

Luke's death devastated the tight-knit Powder Springs family, but helped inspire a community. His brother, Jon, a middle linebacker for the Wake Forest University's football team, was so overcome with grief that he considered quitting the team. Instead, he asked permission to wear Luke's football jersey number -- 5 -- and the whole team rallied around him. It inspired the Cinderella team through an amazing 2006 Atlantic Coast Conference Championship season and a trip to the Orange Bowl.

The Abbates' story of faith and inspiration is the subject of the independent film, "The 5th Quarter," directed and written by Rick Bieber.

"I saw it by myself," said Adam, a 27-year-old law student at the University of Georgia. "No one knew I was in there. When it was over people were clapping and cheering. It was a nice feeling, but also a very odd and weird feeling. I hope it spreads a message."

The Abbates still live in the same subdivision off Due West Road in Powder Springs. Their home is filled with photos of their four children -- Jon, Adam, Rachel and Luke.

Bieber was introduced to the family by a mutual acquaintance. He spoke with the Abbates by phone before flying to Miami to meet several members of the family when the Demon Deacons played in the 2006 Orange Bowl game.

Over dinner they discussed the possibility of translating their "very, very personal and intimate story into a film adaption," Bieber said. "I think there's always some degree of reluctance when you're exposing yourself to the world."

Ultimately, he said, the Abbates agreed in part because they wanted to make public statements about organ donation and to keep Luke's memory alive.

"The 5th Quarter" is so named because during the games Jon and his family raised five fingers in a salute to Luke. Soon, the whole Wake Forest team was doing the same thing. Eventually, it spread to people in the stadium, even the opposing team and their fans, almost taking on a life of its own. Jon said it took awhile for him to watch the entire film.

"Luke inspired me to be the best I could be when I played as a linebacker at Wake Forest," said Jon, who had a brief career in the NFL and now is an account executive for Raleigh-based SouthTech Orthopedics Inc. "It was a way of honoring him and his life. Honoring Luke also gave me the drive to strive for my dream of playing in the NFL. I try to remember that we can never take anything for granted. "

The film has been "bittersweet," said Luke's mom, Maryanne, who had to relive a parent's worst nightmare of losing a child. "It's hard to watch your story with flesh and color." One bad decision flipped her family's world upside down. "It's still so raw."

Steven Abbate, vice president of sales at Coram Specialty Infusion Services, said the family misses him "every second of every day. My heart aches for him." The Abbates think telling their story to Bieber was "cathartic."

Luke, who was sitting in the rear, didn't know the driver of the car very well. The driver, Travis Schmidt, was charged on several counts as a juvenile. The family said they never heard from the driver of the car, who could not be reached for comment. But the lawyer who represented Schmidt, Roger Rozen, said Schmidt did apologize to Maryanne at the hospital.

The Rev. Ike Reighard, pastor of Piedmont Church in Marietta, has known the Abbates for about 15 years. He stayed with the family in the hospital and spoke at the funeral.

"I learned a long time ago that life is tissue paper thin," he said. "One phone call can change the entire trajectory of your life ... They are a family of faith and faith helped sustain them."

Bieber and the family believe Luke was present in spirit during the project. Consider the number five, which Luke always said was his lucky number. There are five Abbates left. Luke's organs saved five lives. The family always sat in section five of Wake Forest games. During filming, a game went into overtime for a fifth quarter.

"These aren't coincidences," Steven Abbate said. "Luke is still in control even though he's not on earth."