A bum knee won't let Roger Vukobratovich toe the start line for the second annual John Willems Memorial Run, but the proverbial wild horses couldn't keep the former Hanover Central wrestler away from Cedar Lake on Sept. 14.
"I run from time to time, but people definitely don't want to see me run," said Vukobratovich, who sustained a serious knee injury as a senior at Purdue. "It's hard to have been a Division I athlete for six years and be hobbling around."
While he can't race, Vukobratovich will be circulating the course on a bike, along with his brother Wyatt. Sister Jodie is coordinating the children's race and their parents will be manning water stations.
"It's a worthy cause," Roger said.
The Willems and Vukobratovich families grew close over the last decade, dating back to Roger's sophomore year, when he started wrestling for Hanover, where Willems was an assistant coach.
"He really brought a college-level intensity to a high school room," Vukobratovich said. "We had great leadership in Nick (Petrov), but John brought an edge that, in my opinion, we really needed. But I feel before you talk about wrestling, he was a tremendous person. Very diverse. He loved all types of things. He could talk about anything."
Once a walk-on at Purdue, Vukobratovich established himself as the 285-pound starter in the Boilermakers' lineup when Willems died unexpectedly just after Christmas in 2011. That season, Vukobratovich was named team captain and earned a national ranking, following the same path Willems charted when he was at Northern Illinois.
Vukobratovich has since graduated and now works for Career Builders. His coach would be proud.
"No excuses. Accountability," he said. "John had an approach that came through my entire career and moving forward into the work place, helped get me a lot further. He had a sense of urgency. You have a limited amount of time on the mat -- six minutes -- and your season is only so long. You choose what to do with it."
When Vukobratovich talked about not having enough hours in the day, Willems let him in on his secret: Stay up an hour later and get up an hour earlier.
"That was 120 minutes you didn't have before," Vukobratovich said. "He always had a race to perfection. Looking back, wrestling in college, I understood what he was doing. You can never win (the race), but I always fight it."
Vukobratovich was back at Hanover last winter, working closely with heavyweight Josh Bartoszek, much like Willems did with him. Bartoszek placed at state. Somewhere, Willems was smiling, nodding his approval.
"It was very bittersweet. I wish he could have been there to see it," Vukobratovich said. "I was just carrying on what he was teaching, trying to fill his big shoes."
If he's still living in Cedar Lake this wrestling season, Vukobratovich will continue to help out. If not, he'll make it back as much as he can.
"I can't stay out of there," he said. "I came from college, from two-a-days, and I went up there. It's like it's automatic. I just want to give back to the sport, have the feeling that I'm doing my part. If I can give a tenth of what I got out of it from great men like Nick and John, I'll be happy."
The inaugural race drew 350 runners. As Doug Willems said of his brother's outlook, "It's a start. Let's keep it going."