High School Sports

To Dad, with love: Sports can help create a special bond that never goes away

Justin Loepker, left, and his father, Jim Loepker.
Justin Loepker, left, and his father, Jim Loepker.

Fathers occupy a special place in the sports world.

Many times they are the ones that take their children to their first St. Louis Cardinals or St. Louis Blues game, or maybe a college football or basketball game at Illinois, Missouri or Notre Dame.

They buy the first baseball glove and bat or set of golf clubs or soccer ball, typically ahead of schedule, waiting impatiently for the day they can patiently begin the teaching process.

Some are tough and some are fun and some are a bit over the top. Most are somewhere in between.

That special bond sports allows families to share isn’t just a father and child playing catch in the backyard. It might be watching a game together arguing about their favorite teams or players or a Sunday spent in front of the television watching the final day of the Master’s golf tournament.

Sometimes the connection between a father and son runs far deeper than that.

Former Carlyle High and Knox College football player Justin Loepker was nine when his father, former Carlyle assistant fire chief Jim Loepker, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease at age 38.

“Growing up, my father did his best and really tried to do things like play catch, throw the football around, or play wiffle ball with us,” said Justin Loepker, now 31 and living in Fairview Heights. “He sometimes just wasn’t able to. By the time I had moved on to high school age, dad was no longer able to play sports with me in the backyard. He was only in his mid-40s.”

Jim Loepker was a talented athlete in his younger days, playing football at Mater Dei High until headaches sidelined his career. He made sure to follow his son’s career, first at Carlyle High and later traveling to Knox College in Galesburg to watch games whenever possible.

When Justin Loepker was a junior at Knox, his father underwent Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) surgery, an invasive brain procedure trying to limit the major symptoms of Parkinson’s disease including tremors, stiffness and movement/motion issues.

Two days after brain surgery, my dad traveled to Grinnell, Iowa to come watch me play football. This was almost 12 years ago ... I am still tearing up at the image of him standing there with his Knox hat on over his bandages on that cold October day in Grinnell.

Justin Loepker on his father, Jim Loepker

The patient is awake during surgery and Loepker said his father’s procedure took place over two stress-filled days in October, 2004.

“I was in meetings and classes those days because my dad would not allow me to leave school or my team for his surgery,” Loepker said. “I was a nervous wreck waiting for mom to call me with updates those days. He made it through with flying colors.”

Loepker, just thankful his father made it through surgery, had no idea what was about to happen next.

Knox played Grinnell College, located in Grinnell, Iowa, that weekend. And Loepker’s father, who had become popular with his teammates because of his constant encouragement from the stands, was not about to miss the game.

Two days after brain surgery.

“As we got done with warmups before the game, we started to jog off the field back to the locker room,” Loepker said. “I will never forget the sight. My teammates started to slow down and move to side as we came around this huge pine tree, then some started turning to look at me. As I came around the tree, my dad was there with my mom and sister.”

Loepker began crying and couldn’t stop. Who could blame him?

“Two days after brain surgery, my dad traveled to Grinnell, Iowa to come watch me play football,” he said. “This was almost 12 years ago ... I am still tearing up at the image of him standing there with his Knox hat on over his bandages on that cold October day in Grinnell.”

Jim Loepker, now 60, still deals with Parkinson’s disease. But he refuses to let it slow him down even after battling it for 22 years.

“We love watching the Blues and watching the Cardinals,” Justin Loepker said. “Sports teaches so much, things like commitment and discipline. My dad is such an inspiration. The amount of stuff he’s not supposed to be able to do, he’s able to do it because it’s mind over matter.”

Diamond Rat

During her childhood, one of the favorite places on earth for Stefanie Marlin Gaubatz was the dusty men’s fastpitch softball diamond at South Side Park in Belleville.

That’s where she watched her dad, Mike Marlin, playing for the powerhouse South Side softball team.

“My dad’s teammates used to call me ‘Diamond Rat’ because I was always out at the ball diamond with him,” Gaubatz said.

To Gaubatz, going to games was always special.

I would always go down and bring my glove. He would play catch with me on the field before and after his games. Other guys on his team would let me pitch to them, while my dad would give me tips.

Stefanie Marlin Gaubatz on her father, Mike Marlin

“I would always go down and bring my glove,” said Gaubatz, now the girls volleyball coach at Belleville East and a former Althoff High and University of Evansville softball player. “He would play catch with me on the field before and after his games. Other guys on his team would let me pitch to them, while my dad would give me tips.

“I believe that’s where my love for sports and competition comes from. “

The sports connection between father and daughter didn’t stop there once Gaubatz’s playing career ended and she shifted to coaching.

“He’s already starting to teach my kids to hit off the tee and play catch,” she said. “As I’ve gotten older, he’s taught me how to play golf and we enjoying spending time on the course together. Sports play a huge role in our family, and I know that will continue.”

Where can Gaubatz and her dad be found on Father’s Day? Where else but playing catch together in the back yard.

Growing up Junior

Nashville High Athletic Director Wayne Harre has two daughters, Wendi Jo and Jordi. He called both of them “Junior” when playing sports in high school.

Her father coached volleyball, girls basketball and softball at Nashville so Jodi Harre was never far away from a game. She became a talented athlete and later played volleyball and softball at Kaskaskia College.

She recalled taking a turn as a catcher at a 14-under travel softball league game. Things did not go well.

“I really hadn’t been catching for very long,” Jordi Harre said. “I was missing a lot of balls and I could not get the hang of it. I remember coming back to the dugout crying because I was so upset I wasn’t doing a good job.

My dad came up to me said ‘You’re fine, maybe that isn’t the spot you need to play.’ I remember going back out there and doing really good. That gave me a huge boost of confidence.”

It was hard, but it was definitely the best experiences and best memories of my life.

Jordi Harre on growing up playing for her dad, Nashville High Athletic Director Wayne Harre

Wayne Harre demanded a lot of his players, but also had a ton of success at Nashville. Jordi was a starter on two state championship softball teams and a state championship girls basketball team.

“My freshman year he was super-hard on me,” Jordi Harre said, recalling a turnover she made near the end of the first half in a game against Du Quoin with Nashville carrying a huge lead. “He really got on me about it, but honestly it made me better because if it would have been a tight game, I couldn’t throw the ball away like that.

“I feel like people put a lot of pressure on us to see how we would perform together. Plus I felt like i needed to live up to his expectations and with how good of a coach he was, I didn’t want to let people down — or let him down.”

Through it all, the Harre developed an even deeper bond through sports. Their final game together as coach and player/daughter was winning the 2015 Class 2A state softball championship game in East Peoria.

The pair came together for an emotional hug that neither will ever forget.

“It made it that much more fun,” Jordi Harre said of her sports connection with a father who was also her coach. “It was hard, but it was definitely the best experiences and best memories of my life.”

Inspiration and motivation

Chuck Voss did a lot more than help mold the future of a future minor-league baseball pitcher. He shaped son Jay Voss’s life and did it in a way that became a lasting inspiration.

Jay Voss was a talented left-handed pitcher at Mater Dei High on the same team that produced Toronto Blue Jays catcher Josh Thole.

“My dad was always there for me growing up and coached my Little League teams but he never really pushed me,” said Jay Voss, an eighth-round pick of the Florida Marlins in 2007 who spent seven seasons in the minor leagues in the Marlins, Tigers and Cardinals organizations. “Everybody in the family really loved sports, but we never had any pressure on us like we had to make it or anything like that.”

Now 29, Voss never forgot an email his father sent to the Kaskaskia College baseball coach thanking him for his time with his son and developing players in the program.

Chuck Voss was diagnosed with brain cancer in August, 2009 and died in January, 2012. In an ironic twist, the final time he watched his son pitch was on Father’s Day weekend in 2011 at Akron, Ohio.

“I pitched a really good game and threw seven shutout innings,” said Jay Voss, who was 24 when his father died. “It was the last time he got to see me pitch.”

Jay Voss’s career ended after he underwent Tommy John surgery to repair elbow ligament damage. To honor his father, he coaches several sports at Mater Dei High and this summer is helping coach the Aviston American Legion baseball team.

“Now that I’m coaching Legion baseball and high school baseball, it makes me remember coming home after a game and we would just talk about the game a lot,” Jay Voss said. “Playing and coaching on Father’s Day always has special meaning.”

Norm Sanders: 618-239-2454, @NormSanders

Meet a blind Ohio man who will appreciate seeing his grandchildren more than most Grandpa’s do this Father’s Day – thanks to a ‘bionic eye’ implant which allows him to see again. Aleksandra Rachitskaya, M.D. comments.