Autumn reminds of early, tragic death of mentor, football coach

October: a time of changing leaves, cooler temperatures, football and pumpkin spice-flavored everything. This is what October has become.

October means all of that to me, too, but the month also serves as a time to remember someone I lost. Someone I will always hold close to my heart.

Believe it or not, I was an athlete in high school.

Okay, that’s deceiving. I played football my freshman year at Marmion Academy, an all-male high school.

I had never played organized football before that summer of 2008. Despite being 4 foot 11, I decided it was something I wanted to at least try.

It was on the football field that I met Dan Jackson, a new assistant for the freshmen team who himself had a fine athletic career when he went to Marmion. It was clear from the first day just how much he cared about the school and the team.

I’m not sure what it was, but Coach and I bonded almost instantly.

Maybe he could tell that I needed a mentor or maybe he was just being nice.

Whatever the reason, he quickly became my favorite coach, and not to sound arrogant, I believe I was his favorite player. If you could’ve seen us together, you would’ve understood.

Coach was like the big brother I never had growing up.

We would always joke around and he often gave me a hard time for being a Michigan fan (this was Rich Rod’s first season, mind you).

He always looked out for me during practices, games and in the weight room.

During one practice, a fellow receiver lit me up during a no-contact drill.

Coach chewed out the player in front of the whole group and made sure I was okay. He didn’t have to do that, but he did.

Coach even designed a play up just for me. Called the Walsworth Slant, it was as simple as it sounded.

We even used it, to little success, in some games.

The season dragged on but Coach and I remained close.

Then on Oct. 7, 2008, everything changed.

It was dark and rainy that day in Aurora, Ill.

I’ll never forget that.

I don’t recall what class I was in, but an announcement came over the PA system that all freshmen football players had to report to the Koch Theater during our mid-morning study hour.

Being the naïve freshman that I was, I assumed that the dean of students or, worse, the headmaster had been told that our shenanigans had damaged the locker room again. I expected a stern talking to. I was wrong.

Eventually we all filed in and took our seats. Most if not all the coaches were in attendance. All of them had cold facial expressions.

I thought to myself, “Man, what did we do this time?”

I kept wondering until Coach Thorpe, the head varsity coach, took the mic.

It took him a few seconds but then he explained to us, his voice cracking on several occasions, that Coach Jackson had died in a car accident early that morning. He most likely was on his way home from one of his other jobs. He was 25.

“We’ve lost Coach Jackson,” said Coach Thorpe.

The words stung like the bitter fall wind.

I was upset. Then I was angry. Then I cried. And then I cried some more.

At that point in my life, I hadn’t lost a close relative or friend and certainly not someone I had seen on a regular basis for nearly six months.

I didn’t know how to handle Coach’s sudden death. I was lost.

I couldn’t sleep the rest of the week. I almost couldn’t stand being on the field. Football wasn’t the same. Playing was no longer fun.

I went to his funeral and that helped. I met his family and got to hear many stories about him. It truly was a celebration of his life.

During the service, the song “You and I Will Meet Again” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers was played. The music couldn’t have been more fitting. Part of the song goes:

“You and I will meet again

When we’re least expecting it

One day in some far off place

I will recognize your face

I won’t say goodbye my friend

For you and I will meet again”

That song helped me get through one of the more difficult parts of my life.

It’s amazing what a song can do.

Coach has been gone for six years now and I still miss him – even more so now that it’s October.

Despite the pain that his death caused, I’m forever grateful for the time we had together, no matter if it was short.

I’d like to think that Coach would be proud of the person I’ve become.

I wouldn’t be who I am today without him.

Walsworth is VN news editor