When Greg Butler thinks back on the team of young baseball players he coached back in 2008, one word comes to mind: invincible.
The team from Don Bosco Preparatory High School — a private Catholic school in Ramsey, New Jersey — were state champions. They went 33 games undefeated, a near impossible feat. Local news outlets heralded the team, known as the Ironmen, as perhaps the best the state had ever fielded.
“That team was invincible,” Butler told BuzzFeed News. “They felt they couldn’t be beaten and they weren’t.”
Catcher Ben Luderer was the group’s quiet leader. Always selfless, Luderer put others first. They were a team, after all. “The reason they were champions was because of the attitude of Ben and so many others,” Butler recalled. “He really embodied that spirit.”
Butler wasn’t surprised to learn that, after completing a baseball scholarship at Marist College in New York, Luderer became a special needs teacher in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. He also began coaching baseball, working to train the next generation of young varsity athletes. “I think he realized the power you have and the influence you have,” Butler said. “I think he wanted to give back.”
On Monday, Butler received a call informing him that Luderer had died earlier that day of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. He was 30 years old.
Butler said the news of Luderer’s death left him stunned.
“The irony of the whole situation here,” Butler said, “is the team that was invincible can be defeated with this invisible virus that’s out there.”
Luderer’s death was confirmed by Cliffside Park superintendent Michael J. Romagnino in a letter to families Monday.
An only child, Luderer leaves behind his parents, Elaine and William, and his wife, Brandy, who is also a special education teacher and athletics coach for Cliffside Park schools. The pair met at college.
Brandy told BuzzFeed News she tested positive for COVID-19 on March 19, two to three days before her husband began showing symptoms himself. On Friday night, he went to a hospital for treatment and was prescribed medication and briefly placed on oxygen. However, she said he was advised to return home in case being admitted to the hospital worsened his condition. He had no underlying health issues.
By Sunday, Luderer was feeling better, Brandy said, and was able to leave his bed and hold a conversation. But that night, as Brandy isolated herself from him on the couch, he texted her from his room saying he was struggling once again. "I went back to see what I could do. I tried as much as I could," she said. "He was sweating through his clothes. He was scared."
When Brandy checked on him at 6 a.m., he was dead.
Cliffside Park athletic director David Porfido declined to speak with BuzzFeed News about the death of his colleague, but he told NJ.com that he had told Luderer’s players about his death in a video conference Monday. “We all live by rulebooks and manuals, but there was nothing for this,” Porfido said. “When I told the kids there was nothing but silence.”
On Facebook, district staff remembered Luderer as a consummate educator. “Thanks for being a great coach, teacher, friend,” they wrote, “and always a mentor and role model for your students.”
Mike Orefice, who played baseball with Luderer at Marist College, where they won the 2009 Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship, also paid tribute online to his late teammate. “When times got tough, you were always there for a witty joke to break the tension,” Orefice said.
Michael Apreda, another member of the 2008 Don Bosco championship team, told BuzzFeed News that Luderer was a great leader in the dugout and on the field. “He wasn’t a big rah-rah guy. He was more of the guy to talk to people one on one,” Apreda said. “Say if I was struggling, Ben would be right there and giving you some feedback and things you needed to hear.”
The two men had grown closer since high school and both worked in club baseball, with Luderer starting the New Jersey Aviators in 2015 and Apreda beginning his own team, the Titans. He said Luderer was set to begin another program aimed at getting baseball players college scholarships. “Ben was going to be someone great,” he said.
Leon Matthews, who also coached Luderer in his earlier years at Don Bosco, recalled a 2006 county championship game when Luderer was still a sophomore on the varsity team. Matthews wanted to reward the young player’s season-long commitment by putting him in the game, but Luderer demurred so that a senior student could play on. “The senior had no problem coming out of the game, but Ben just asked that I let the senior finish out his high school year,” said Matthews. “That’s the kind of person Ben is.”
Matt Marotta played with Luderer on the 2006-07 Don Bosco teams, recalling his friend as a gritty and super-competitive player who loved the camaraderie of baseball. “I think Ben really just loved being around the guys, playing the game he loved, and competing at a high level,” said Marotta. “To him that was fun.”
Although they remained close and spoke almost every other week, Marotta said Luderer never let on that he was starting to feel sick. “That really describes Ben,” he said. “He’s just always positive.”
Marotta now owns the Power Arm baseball training facility next to Don Bosco, where Luderer would sometimes come and assist young players.
Despite the many years together spent playing baseball, Marotta said his fondest memory of Luderer was off the field — at his 2014 wedding to Brandy. “Just seeing him on that day being so happy, it felt like he got everything he wanted,” Marotta said.
“All he really wanted was to marry her and to move into a house and become a teacher and coach,” said Marotta. “He accomplished all those things.”
Brandy recalled the moment she and her husband saw each other in their formal attire for the first time on their sunny wedding day at a friend's vineyard in Saratoga Springs, New York. "Handsome, like always," she said.
"He touched so many lives," she said. "Whether it be a coworker or an administrator or a player or a student, he always went out of his way to help people. He was a stand-up guy, a stand-up man."
Butler, the 2008 championship coach who now works as the athletics director at Northern Valley Regional High School at Demarest, said receiving the news of Luderer’s death had made him call his own two children and urge them to take the virus outbreak more seriously.
“My recollection of all of those guys were they were just invincible — this couldn’t happen to any of them,” he said. “Then you come to the reality that we’re all vulnerable.”
“Hopefully, this tragedy can help get a message out to the younger population,” he said, “that this is a war against all of us.”