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A Legacy of Love

Former coach’s family unites in face of dementia

Published: Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 11:32 a.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Sept. 27, 2013 12:57 p.m. CDT

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Red Pride

Throughout Newton Senior High School football coach John Jenkins’ career, the Cardinals played against fellow legendary head coach Jerry Pezzetti and the Ankeny Hawks nearly every year. The experienced coach, now calling the shots at Ankeny Centennial, holds an impressive 313-130 record with the team. Pezzetti started coaching at Ankeny in 1970 and was a close friend with Frank Gilson. He even served as a pallbearer at his funeral.

“We’ve always had the absolute greatest respect for Newton,” Pezzetti said. “There probably isn’t another town in the state with such a great football community, and that’s largely because of John.

“Every time we played, whether we won or lost, you knew it was going to be real, hard-nosed football. You knew you were going to have to tackle as hard as them, run as hard as them, play as hard as them.

“The kids believed in their coaches and had pride in their sport,” Pezzetti continued. “He couldn’t have done a better job.”

One thing John took pride in doing was hosting instrumental football camps for young players in the area and inviting speakers to join from surrounding collegiate programs, like Iowa and Iowa State.

Dan McCarney, former University of Iowa assistant coach and Iowa State University head coach, said he has known John for decades. They worked together in many of those valuable football camps and in numerous recruiting efforts.

“The best coaches I have been around are the ones that take a collection of young men who are just a ‘group’ and turn them into a ‘team’ that represents a school, town and state the way everyone respects and admires. Who better than John Jenkins?” McCarney said.

“How special was Newton Cardinal football on a Friday night in the fall? Always seemed liked the entire town shut down everything to get to that stadium and support their team, led by John.”

“I will always be proud to call John a friend, and the state of Iowa is a much better place because of his efforts.”

Frontotemporal Dementia 

Those years of hosting camps, watching football tapes and leading the team to the post-season are now over for John.

A few years ago, he was diagnosed with frontotemporal dementia, a disease commonly known as Pick’s Disease.

It’s rare. Only 5 to 10 percent of total patients who suffer from dementia have FTD, a brain disorder resulted from a progressive deterioration of the frontal lobe, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Additional proteins to the frontal lobe cause drastic behavior and mood changes, a decline in language capabilities and eventually affect memory, but unlike Alzheimer’s disease, FTD begins at an earlier age, between 45 and 65, and progresses more rapidly.

When John had started showing symptoms of dementia, difficulty with social interaction and uncharacteristic moods and behaviors, Jo and the boys recognized something was terribly wrong and sought help.

His wife, Jo, was relentless with those in the medical field and insists getting help was vital to reducing the symptoms and continuing a functioning lifestyle.

“He’s very happy, easy going, and it’s because we got help right away. That’s what is important, is that people recognize the symptoms and seek help,” Jo said.

John is now on medication that helps his mood and behavior; however, the disease itself continues to worsen. It is evident his short-term memory is almost gone, while the long-term memories deteriorates every day.

He faintly remembers their first house by the stadium, but he cannot recall making ice cream the day before.

New Routine

Writing a book about life, being the grandfather he wanted to be and enjoying the leisure of retirement with his family are dreams that can no longer be fulfilled.

Like each family that struggles with dementia, the Jenkins have learned to adapted to a new routine.

“A lot of the things he taught the boys about perseverance and doing the right thing, even when it’s not easy, are put into play now as they help their mom,” current head coach Ed Ergenbright said.

The family has come to accept the unfortunate, but it was really hard at first, youngest son James said.

John visits Willowbrook Adult Day Center five days a week, and he and Jo enjoy spending evenings and weekends with family.

“Willowbrook is a godsend to our community, and other facilities we have in this community are phenomenal,” Jo said.

They especially love to spend time with the three granddaughters, Alex, Chloe and Josie.

“He loves to watch children shows with Josie, and I just get a kick out of watching them laugh,” Jo said. “It’s those little moments that I love. I’ve learned to slow time and not to get wrapped up in the busy world.”

The couple have started going to football games again. On Fridays, they go to Newton home games, cheer on the Cardinals and watch James assistant coach as his dad once did. On Saturdays, they travel to Oskaloosa, cheer on the Statesmen and see Jake assistant coach where his dad once starred.

All three sons are certified and have coached since graduating high school, and there was nothing that could have made John more proud than to have his sons coach.

Although he could not elaborate, John said, “The boys coaching made me proud. Absolutely.”

Adjusting

“It’s been hard on everyone in our family because he’s always been the rock, and he always gave the best advice. He was always good at stepping back from a situation, making it relatable or helping people make good decisions,” Jake said. “It’s hard not to have the advice anymore. We’re not capable to have those conversations.”

“What I miss most are our deep conversations about our shared philosophy. He gets real lucid and tells me to keep trying,” Jo said.

Despite the disease, John’s math skills have yet to falter, and he still corrects Jo on her spelling. He hasn’t lost his navigation skills yet, either. Coach Jenkins is still a coach at heart.

There are a few things that help make the change a little bearable, like knowing how many young lives John touched, how much goodness and help are out there and that all of his knowledge, wisdom and goodness were once put to good use.

Faith is a key factor in helping the Jenkins family right now too.

“We get by with the grace of God, and without faith we couldn’t go anywhere,” Jo said. “Having this happen in a small town has also been a blessing, because the town has embraced us.”

John had always said that we can’t control the elements in life, but we can control how we react to them.

“We can adjust to anything,” he said.

Coach Jenkins’ contributions to the young lives of his players had a trickle-down effect on the entire community. Whether a parent, teacher or student, the town has been influenced for the better because of the set of morals John taught students.

His passion to help athletes succeed both on and off the field was the guiding light for the team and the town for a joyous 17 years. By installing in them the lessons, fundamentals and tools to make their dreams come true, Coach Jenkins continues to have a positive effect on anyone who has the pleasure of knowing him.

Although John has begun to lose many of those priceless, long-term memories — like going to Hawaii, coaching the Shrine Bowl or salmon fishing with the boys — his family, friends and players remember every memory vividly.

“Before a playoff game, during my sophomore year, all the coaches were going around and shaking our hands while we were stretching. Coach J was so intense that he shook my hand and then smacked me in the back of the head as he walked by. It almost knocked me over,” Bollhoefer laughed. “His intensity was unmatched by anyone I have ever met. At that moment, I laughed. I knew that I would run through a brick wall for a guy like that. His intensity was one of my favorite parts of playing football for him. It was truly an honor.”

John Jenkins’ commitment, dedication and compassion will remain unforgettable.

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