As a wrestling coach, John Willems was known for going the extra mile, both literally and figuratively.
"There are so many stories about him behind the scenes that would amaze people," Doug Willems recalled of his brother. "He drove non-stop from Cedar Lake to Omaha to watch Andrew Howe win the NCAA championship. He ran into the finals just as Andrew stepped on the mat. He told me nothing would've kept him from seeing a Hanover wrestler win. This was true if it was a freshman getting his first victory in a JV tournament or a senior (Howe) tech falling everyone at the state finals."
What better way to honor the memory of a man who went great distances for kids than to name a race after him? Willems, his wife Suzanne, John's widow Elsa and Hanover Central wrestling coach Nick Petrov have collaborated with the high school athletic director Jeff Brooks and Cedar Lake town officials on the John Willems Memorial Run. A 5K run as well as a 7-mile run around Cedar Lake will be held Sept. 15.
"John was a runner himself," said Willems, who like his brother, wrestled for Hanover. "He ran seven Chicago Marathons. We thought it would be appropriate. John was really proud of his hometown and how far it had come over the years. As we got older, we both moved back. Our mom's still in town here. We wanted to make sure there was something that would be around year after year."
In time, Doug hopes the race is something that can bring smiles to people's faces. Right now, it's still too soon, too fresh. John was just 42 when he passed away Dec. 29, 2011, suffering a fatal heart attack in a Lafayette hotel room while with Hanover at a wrestling tournament. Six months later, his youngest son Joey turned 8. He and brother Johnny, 10, not only lost a coach, they lost their dad.
"It's pretty tough," Doug said. "We're doing as well as can be expected. Elsa's been such a good mom. She's been there every step of the way."
The couple met at Northern Illinois, where John went from unheralded walk-on to a standout. Upon Elsa's graduation, he gave her a handwritten note that read, 'Good things happen to those who wait. Great things happen to those who get up and work for it.' It's a message he carried with him into coaching.
"(College) is where he really wanted to start helping average kids do great things," Doug said. "We want everyone to always remember what a selfless, caring and devoted man he was to the Hanover Central wrestling program over the last eight years. He simply turned boys into men better prepared for life's future trials and tribulations. The lessons of hard, smart work he instilled will carry on through them."
John's impact has been evident in the hands that have raised to support the race. It warms Doug's heart to see all the parents of current and former Wildcats wrestlers volunteer to help.
"You want to remember things in a person's life," he said. "He touched so many people."
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