Superintendent News

This wasn’t the column that I had intended to write.  In fact, I had something else about half-finished. But life events happen that can change things and this is the column I feel compelled to write.  

I received a text message from my brother early Saturday afternoon.  One of our childhood friends had informed him that our high school football coach had cancer.  He was now receiving hospice care. He had been given two to three months to live back in September.  It’s pretty easy math to follow.

Coach Jacobson - affectionately known as “Jake” was quite influential in my life.   I couldn’t remember the last time I saw him in person.  I don’t get back home to Deer River very often and when I do my time is spent with my dad and my brother and his wife.  The text included Jake’s phone number.  I took a few minutes before deciding to make the call.  I was worried about finding the right words.  

As it turned out, the conversation came easily.  We shared some old memories.  I told him how much I enjoyed playing for him and how grateful I was for the time he spent mentoring a handful of clueless teenage boys.  I told him I loved him and that I was sorry that I hadn’t made it a point to track him down for a visit.  After I hung up the phone, the emotions swept through me.  Sadness.  Regret.  But mostly a deep appreciation and gratitude for his going far beyond the call of duty in taking an interest in me as a person.   

I can distinctly remember the first moment Jake took notice of me as a football player.  I was a freshman at the time.  We were scrimmaging the varsity on our practice field located behind the school.  I was playing right corner and the varsity ran a sweep to the left side (my side) of the field.  

The lead blocker was an all-conference wingback named Matt Grossell.  His nickname was “Thew” for good reason.  Tim Gullickson, was the senior tailback.  Tim was one of the best athletes to ever come out of Deer River.  He was a great running back (he became a member of the Bemidji State football team), placed 4th in the state wrestling tournament and was an outstanding pitcher and hitter on the baseball team. He held the high school state record for most consecutive games with a hit (33) for thirty-six years.   

For whatever I lacked in athleticism, I typically made up for with tenacity.  I managed to evade “Thew’s” block and made a nice solo tackle on the star tailback in the open field.  Jake complimented me on the play and then lit into the varsity.  I can still hear him holler, “RUN IT AGAIN!”  I knew what was coming and although I didn’t make the tackle, I wasn’t driven three feet beneath the earth either.  I counted that as a victory.  After that play, Coach Jacobson took a special interest in my potential and encouraged me to start lifting weights and to go out for track.  I followed his advice on both counts.

It would have been enough had Jake simply been my football coach.  But as it turns out, he was much more than that.  A couple of buddies and I would visit him at his home while we were in high school and the tradition remained when we went off to college.  We would talk about life.  He was always interested in how we were doing.  And we would talk about girls.  

He liked to provide us with dating advice - and boy did we ever need it!  We were painfully shy around girls.  As embarrassing as this may be, Coach Jacobson set me up on my first date with a girl whose family had a summer place on Deer Lake.  He would give us advice on who we should ask out.  One time, he said, “Here, I’ll set you up and he picked up the phone book, dialed a number and turned to hand the phone to me.”  I can only imagine the look of terror that he saw on my face.  I don’t recall who hung up the phone, but I know I said, “Dialing a number and handing me the phone is not setting me up!”  He laughed.  He laughed at us a lot.  Looking back, I imagine we were pretty entertaining.

Football was more than just a game for me.  I always enjoyed the physicality.  I also enjoyed the mental part of the game.  Running the right play.  Subtle nuances in how you moved your body to set up a cornerback before making a cut on a pass route.  Utilizing leverage and positioning necessary to block a bigger opponent.  

At 5’9” and 152 pounds - I seldom had a problem finding a bigger opponent.  

We enjoyed a lot of success on the field.  As an underclassman, one of the seniors would lead us in a victory song on the bus as we rode home.  It was sung as a round in military fashion that would go something like this:

We’ve got a coach and Jake’s his name (leader)

We’ve got a coach and Jake’s his name (echo)

He’s the best and we’ve got game (leader)

He’s the best and we’ve got game (echo):

No one beats our Warrior team.

No one beats our Warrior team.

Cuz we’re tough, we’re lean and mean

Cuz we’re tough, we’re lean and mean.

Sound Off:  1..2   Sound Off:  3..4

Break it on down. 1…2…3…4…   1,2…3,4!

Funny the things you remember.

The game taught us about teamwork.  About sacrificing for one another.  Deer River is located on the edge of the Leech Lake Reservation.  The game provided a quick tutorial on race relations because, as teammates, skin color didn’t matter.  We depended on each other.  We were all brothers.  

The experience taught us about the beauty of differences.  Coach Jacobson had a son named Kirk.  Kirk has Down Syndrome.  He was a presence at most of our practices and all of our games.  Our Thursday night practices ended with words from a team captain or a senior.  Occasionally, Kirk would step up and give us a rousing coach’s pep talk.  We didn’t understand most of the words, but the passion was clearly there.  Although he never suited up, he was a very important member of our team.  Kirk was recently inducted into the Deer River Athletics Hall of Fame for his lifetime support of Deer River sports.  I can think of no one more deserving.  

I was blessed to play for some really wonderful coaches:  Don “Jake” Jacobson, Steve Ott, Gary Dahlberg and Jim Snyder.  All took an interest in me beyond football and nurtured my love for the game.  Coach Ott was inducted into the Minnesota Coach’s Hall of Fame.  I would later be a very small part of two programs led by Hall of Fame coaches - Bob Majeski in Hastings and Don Seipkes at Otter Tail Central.  All of these men invested far more in their players than just Xs and Os.  

My experiences coaching middle school football are some of the fondest of my career.  I enjoyed spending time with “my boys” after school teaching them a game that I love.  I enjoyed being outside in the crisp fall air.  I enjoyed watching their success on the field.  I enjoyed watching them grow into young men.  

My conversation with Coach Jacobson ended with both of us saying it would be nice to see each other again.  I had planned to be back home around Christmas.  I told him that I didn’t want to interfere with time spent with his family, but would call him to see if something could work out.  Afterwards, I decided I couldn’t wait until Christmas.  I contacted a buddy who lives in Mahtomedi.  We plan to visit Jake this coming Saturday.  I wanted and needed a chance to say thank you in person.