Ohio State's E.J. Liddell to play in front of '#1 fan' when Buckeyes host Illinois
Bentley Kreher needed some cheering up, and his great-aunt had the perfect idea.
In a span of a few months a few years ago, a debilitating work accident to his father and the deaths of two grandparents had taken a toll on young Bentley. So his aunt, Kim Lautner, decided to take him to a high school basketball game.
Then and now, Bentley was a big Ohio State fan, and a high school in Belleville, Illinois, up the road from Bentley's home in Red Bud, featured a senior star named E.J. Liddell who had signed to play for the Buckeyes.
By the time the young boy and his aunt had left the game, Bentley had a new inspiration, Liddell had made a lifelong fan and the two were headed down a path that led to Value City Arena on Saturday, when Bentley, now 10 years old, got to see his favorite player in person as the No. 7 Buckeyes hosted No. 4 Illinois.
Buckeyes men's basketball:Ohio State's E.J. Liddell inspires those back home in southern Illinois while winning with the Buckeyes
With Ohio State allowing family and friends at home games, Liddell’s father, Eric, helped arrange to get tickets for Bentley and his mother, Ashley, to cheer on a player who has built a relationship with the child that started with that postgame meeting more than two years ago.
“It’s been, as a mother, more than I could have ever hoped for him to have someone to look up to who is so incredibly humble and so kind and thoughtful with his time,” Ashley Kreher told The Dispatch. “I don’t know that I could ever repay E.J. or the Liddells for everything they’ve done for Bentley. It really, really helped him in a time when he needed something to focus on and it’s been his driving point moving forward.”
Liddell’s impact came at a time when Bentley needed something positive to latch onto. First, his father suffered a freak injury while working at a quarry, an accident in which both of his hands were crushed by a malfunctioning machine, requiring multiple surgeries and ongoing therapies.
Next, his maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Stage IV appendiceal cancer and subsequently died. Then roughly a year later, his paternal grandfather was killed in a farming accident when a nearby ammonia tank exploded.
Liddell knew none of this when he first met Bentley after his game. He just made time for a little kid asking for a moment.
“We took a picture with him and he was really sweet and took the time to talk to Bentley,” Lautner said. “He didn’t know Bentley or me from Adam, but he was that kind of guy. He took that time and Bentley has been his biggest fan since.”
The relationship has continued to grow. Bentley already had his room decked out in Ohio State gear — from pillowcases to a photo of Ohio Stadium on his wall — but bits of Liddell memorabilia began to accumulate. When Liddell was home for Christmas two years ago, his family arranged a surprise visit for Bentley at a local Burger King where he gave the youngster an Ohio State team-issued shirt.
That is now autographed and hanging in a frame, as are two photos of them together and an autographed program from that first meeting. Bentley also has a framed, autographed photo of Liddell dunking against Kent State with the inscription, “to my #1 fan!”
“I feel like every single thing that E.J. has touched (is part of) a collage that covers his bedroom wall,” Ashley Kreher said. “To have someone take that kind of time for your son, especially at a time where they kind of needed someone to look up to, someone to follow … Bentley has really become very attached following E.J.”
He might have to record games and watch them later, but Bentley has never missed watching an Ohio State game during Liddell’s career. He keeps his own statistics and puts his memorabilia collection near the television when the games are on “so he can cheer him on and bring good mojo for him,” Lautner said.
At the start of the season, the Kreher family purchased a cardboard cutout at Value City Arena so at least Bentley's photo could cheer on Liddell. Last month, on Bentley’s 10th birthday, Liddell sent him a video message.
It had the youngster beaming, but none of it topped his reaction when he learned he could attend the Illinois game.
“He was in awe,” his mom said. “He was super content with (the cutout), so now to think he actually gets to be there, he is beside himself.”
For coverage of Saturday's OSU-Illinois game, visit BuckeyeXtra.com.