Longtime Mater Dei volleyball coach Fred Rakers is fighting cancer

News-DemocratAugust 19, 2013 

Fred Rakers, the Hall of Fame volleyball coach whose Mater Dei High School teams won six state championships and more than 1,000 matches, has encountered the toughest opponent of his career.

Rakers has been diagnosed with cancer, according to his son, Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers. He said his father has stage four adenocarcinoma, a type of cancer that begins in the glandular cells.

The family received the diagnosis Friday after Fred Rakers had been in the intensive care unit since Aug. 9 at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis.

Doctors told the family that cancer was found in the 68-year-old Rakers' lungs, brain and spine. He returned home over the weekend and a steady stream of visitors has been there ever since.

"After we told him, he said 'I can't just give up, I don't have that ability. It sounds like I'm supposed to give up and I don't know how.' And we said 'don't,'" Chad Rakers said. "Just fight for every day."

That's the plan for a man who spent his career --35 years as the first and only girls volleyball coach at Mater Dei and 45 years in teaching --urging others to push themselves to a higher level.

"Forty-five years of teaching and not one sick day," Chad Rakers said. "He's been as healthy as you could imagine his whole life and then this."

Fred Rakers retired from coaching in 2010 after his team won the first of back-to-back state championships, but he remained on staff as his son's assistant coach for another state title.

He watched Mater Dei volleyball practices last week from his hospital bed via a laptop computer and the Skype application.

He also planned to visit the Knights at practice this week.

"Right now he needs pep talks to fight through each day," Chad Rakers said. "He was always a pep talk giver and a lot of volleyball players have been coming over and visiting. All the people that are around us are really helping hold us together.

"All the girls that have come through his program are a part of our family. There's so many of them that have been there for him and they just mean so much to us. One of the best things he ever did was starting this program. It's not about the great players he created, it's the great people he created. It's the family that he began."

Rakers' family includes wife Rosie Rakers, daughters Jen Calloway and Erin Crawford, and son Chad Rakers.

Jen Calloway is the head coach at Division I South Carolina Upstate and Chad Rakers followed his father as the head coach at Mater Dei.

Mater Dei is planning "A Legendary Knight For Fred," hoping to pack the gym for the first home volleyball match Aug 27.

Fred Rakers began Mater Dei's volleyball program in 1975 and the Knights' first varsity season was 1976. He prepared for the new venture by checking out a book on volleyball strategy -- "Winning Volleyball" by former UCLA men's volleyball coach Al Scales --from the school library.

A former National Coach of the Year, Rakers guided Mater Dei to six state championships and compiled a career record of 1,046-200-7.

The victory total is the second highest in Illinois history. The Knights won state titles in 1987, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2001 and 2010 under Rakers, adding another in 2011 under Chad Rakers with Fred Rakers at his side as an assistant.

Fred Rakers' incredible coaching legacy at Mater Dei included 14 state trophies, finishing second once with three third-place finishes and three fourths.

The Knights also won four district championships, 24 regionals, 21 sectionals and 20 super-sectionals. His final team was 41-1 and finished the 2010 season ranked 26th in the nation.

Chad Rakers said recent medical problems led to the diagnosis.

"He started struggling to do things with his left hand," Rakers said. "His mom died of a stroke at the age that he is now, so we were all thinking like that, that maybe he did have a stroke."

Instead, the verdict was cancer.

"He's so strong and he's so tough that he doesn't complain about pain, he just shrugs it off and fights through it," Chad Rakers said. "He's doing his best with it and he's letting us help, which is good. He's letting us be there for him."

Rakers' extended family throughout the region is also firmly behind him.

As part of the "Fighting for Fred" effort, T-shirts are being sold for $15 by former Mater Dei volleyball player Chelsea Crocker to help raise money for Rakers' medical bills.

Anyone interested in purchasing a shirt should contact Crocker by email at chels94@msn.com.

Donations may also be made to the "Fighting for Fred" account at the First Bank of Breese (550 N. 2nd St. in Breese; 526-7724).

The "Fighting for Fred" page on Facebook (www.facebook.com/fightingforfred) had more than 2,200 likes by Monday despite being up for less than a week.

Many friends and former players spoke about their relationship with Rakers.

"I was blessed to have 2 coaches from the Rakers family," wrote Carmen Tebbe Priebe. "I played volleyball for Fred at Mater Dei and for his daughter, Jennifer Rakers Calloway at South Carolina Spartanburg. I will forever be grateful for Fred's belief in me.

"I played for Fred on three of his state championships and that experience set the course for my college career, and ultimately my profession. Thank you, Fred and Jen, for everything you have done for me. I will be praying for your family as you battle!"

Kelly Niemeyer Zurliene played for Rakers from 1999 to 2002.

"Mr. Rakers' genius did not necessarily lie with the tactics of the game -- though he was great at that -- but with the psychology of coaching," Zurliene wrote on Facebook. "He had a way of making his players respect every single game and show up ready to battle. No opponent was an underdog. Every win had to be fought to the very end. He made sure we won with class, too: Be on time, tuck in your shirt, keep your head up high, shoulders back."

Chad Rakers is spending as much time with his father as possible while continuing his father's legacy on the volleyball court at Mater Dei.

"We won those two state titles back-to-back, one with him as the head coach and one with me," Chad Rakers said, his voice filled with emotion. "He was the first guy I grabbed and hugged after the big games. It's going to be hard when he's not there for those moments."

Contact reporter Norm Sanders at 239-2454, nsanders@bnd.com or on Twitter @NormSanders

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