NOTE: Names of people involved in parts of the following have been altered to protect their privacy.
At first I wasn’t sure what to think. A healthy, athletic 31-year old male only barely tangentially a part of my own life was suddenly fighting for his life in a hospital 550 miles away. My mindset quickly evolved from a state of shock to focusing on praying for his well-being, his family, and the ones who knew him closest, which just happened in these particular circumstances to include dozens of Gopher football players.
Over the last few years, I’ve been able to put Gopher sports into a much healthier life perspective and I am glad to say none of my original thoughts regarding the initial news of Minnesota Linebackers Coach Mike Sherels concerned the team’s performance or its effect on the on-field production of the Gophers. In the past, as a slightly less than mature college student, this may not have been the case. I would have worried about the implications such devastating news might have on the Gophers’ win and loss totals. Fortunately, a few more years of living life have afforded me better perspective and, at least I like to believe and hope, a more compassionate outlook towards others. However, as more details came out about Sherels’s battle for his life and what it entailed, the more I understood just how closely it would hit home.
My parents have known each other since the fifth grade. They dated, starting in high school, and got married around the time they were both graduating college. As such, they grew up with a lot of common friends who also attended the same schools and stayed in the local area after college. Two of those friends, John Green and Lily Carpenter, were in their wedding party; John a groomsman and Lily a bridesmaid. The two were a couple who eventually married and stayed in close contact with my folks, updating each other on their lives as time passed through occasional dinners and get-togethers, phone calls, and mail correspondence like Christmas cards and birthday well-wishes. In time, my parents asked them to be the godparents to their fourth and last born child. That child happened to be me.
A peculiar bond was struck. Sometimes, the only communication I had with John and Lily was receiving a birthday card in the mail with five dollars and a few brief lines of salutations. Life had gotten busy for both families and getting together happened less and less. However, as a precocious youth I often asked to be updated on my godparents and in one particular instance, around the time I was nine, I asked if they could come over to our house for a get-together. I can still remember playing board games, just the five of us. I can recall John’s laugh and Lily gently bushing my hair as I laid my head in her lap. It was one of the only times I felt a truly special bond with my godparents but since these gatherings were so few and far between, it was also a night that has been engraved vividly in my memory.
On August 10th, 2016 the public received ambiguous news surrounding Coach Sherels. He was in the hospital for “unexpected surgery.” By August 13th, it was reported that he had undergone multiple surgeries but details were being withheld from the press and the public out of respect for Sherels, his family, and those closest to him. It was understood that his condition at the time was considered ‘critical.’ As August 18th rolled around, Keith Jordan was announced as acting linebackers coach for Minnesota. While this meant that Sherels wouldn’t be returning to the sidelines any time soon, the news blurb also mentioned that he was recovering. He may be removed from the gridiron for the time being but he was alive and his condition was improving which was fantastic news as far as I was concerned.
When he was released from the hospital on August 22nd, those who cared for Sherels, including all of Gopher Nation heaved a collective sigh of relief, especially when Head Coach Tracey Claeys was quoted as seeing, “some light at the end of the tunnel.” This led the public to believe Sherels was safe. During the release of all these small pieces of news though, the reason for the medical emergency remained shrouded in mystery. The specifics weren’t important in my mind. I was happy and thankful to hear that Sherels’s condition had improved and it appeared he was going to recover but for some reason, I did wonder in the back of my mind what could have brought about such an abrupt physical issue for a seemingly very healthy individual.
Coach Sherels was able to attend Gophers’ practice on August 29th, just two days shy of the first game of the season. This buoyed the collective mood of the squad, especially Sherels’s unit, the linebacking core. Claeys made it pretty obvious that the road to recovery for Sherels would be a long one but the fact that he could be out on the football field again, a place that brings about great passion and happiness for him, seemed to be a good way to encourage physical recovery. Another promising development occurred when Coach Sherels was able to attend the first game of the season on September 1st, a victory over Oregon State. Players and staff sported wristbands that read “#SherelsStrong.” The positive vibes were abundant.
Eventually, on September 8th, the specifics about Sherels’ surgeries were revealed in an extensive article by the Star Tribune. On the morning of the 9th of September, I found myself reading the article for the first time. As I read the article, something wriggled in the back of my mind. The feeling slowly worked its way down into my stomach. Eventually, I happened upon the phrase “gastrointestinal perforation,” and I finally understood.
Sometime during my sophomore year of high school, my father sat me down at the dinner table in our kitchen and gave me a serious look. “Uh oh,” I thought in my own head. What had I done wrong this time?
“Your godfather John had to have surgery yesterday,” he said in a somber tone. “He had digestive problems that required immediate medical attention…” The rest of the conversation I don’t really remember. What I do remember is accompanying my parents to John and Lily’s home not long after the exchange with my father for the first time in my life to visit them and show support during John’s recovery. They were relatively cheery, even though there were various medical apparatuses in the living room where we sat, some of which had tubes and other unknown conduits that linked parts of John’s body to things that appeared to be hidden from plain sight, as if his condition was something to be ashamed of or disguised. Even for people I rarely saw, I could tell there was something subdued in their speech and mannerisms. However, I was a naïve high school student, more focused on girls, basketball practice, and homework than the subtleties of my own godparents.
After an evening comprised mostly of clichéd conversation and attempts to comfort John and Lily, who were collectively going through an ordeal we couldn’t possibly begin to understand, my parents and I departed. As we drove home, I gazed out the window without a single inclination as to what the night had really meant. My oblivion might have been a self-created protection of sorts from the reality before me or it might have been the fact that I was 16 and didn’t fully understand what was going on or the medical severity of John’s health. In either case, I had no idea that it would be the last time I ever saw my godfather.
Strangely enough, the first time Coach Mike Sherels flashed into the peripheral of my life, he wasn’t known as “Coach.” The year was 2007 and I was a wide-eyed freshman who would meander with a couple buddies from the University of Minnesota campus to the Metrodome on Saturdays to watch the Gopher lose six out of seven home games, including an embarrassing 27-21 defeat at the hands of FCS squad North Dakota State. Sherels was a defensive captain and starting linebacker for one of the worst Gopher football teams in the program’s 125-year history. I remember hearing the name called over the speaker system quite a bit, maybe because his brother, Marcus, also played on offense.
That was Coach Sherels’ final season as a collegiate player. He was well-respected by his teammates, coaches, and the fans who knew he walked on to the squad early in his career, worked his tail off, and eventually became so well respected he was voted captain twice. I didn’t really know these things at the time because the team was atrocious and such silver linings were not always commonly found in the press coverage of the team. They preferred to focus on what appeared to be the utter failure of new Head Coach Tim Brewster and the rest of his coaching staff.
A little less than a year later on September 29th, 2008, it appeared the very same coaching staff was in the midst of constructing a drastic turnaround. The Gophers were 4-1 and two days removed from their first loss of the season to a vastly superior and nationally ranked Ohio State squad. In a twist of fate, I happened to be reading The Daily Gopher in the evening hours when my cell phone buzzed. The caller ID told me it was my father. I picked up, completely unprepared for what was about to transpire.
“Mark, I have to tell you something…,” his voiced seemed subdued and immediately I knew this would not be good news. “John Green couldn’t deal with the pain anymore. He took his own life earlier today.”
I sat at my desk in stunned silence. What was there to say? The one emotion that immediately coursed over my entire consciousness was guilt. Why didn’t I talk to the Greens more? Why hadn’t I seen them in years? Could I have been any help?
“You won’t have to come home for the funeral. They’re keeping it a small, relatively private ceremony.” This didn’t make me feel any better. It only compounded my guilt and confusion. I wasn’t much good the rest of the night. And this feeling of helplessness went well into the rest of the week. It has been on my mind on and off again ever since that fateful phone call.
It turned out that John’s condition, which required constant surveillance to assure that his makeshift gastrointestinal system, an amalgamation of man and machine, coupled with chronic back pain that had plagued him for years had become too painful, even with the help of painkillers. No one really knows what his thoughts were when he made the choice to succumb, or at least if Lily did, she hasn’t shared it with anyone, but I can only imagine that the combination of the excruciating pain he carried with him and the feeling of helplessness with no cure for his condition in sight made him gravitate towards the decision he made. I neither condone nor condemn his decision because who am I to question what he did? I will never have any idea the physical, emotional, and psychological toll his condition had taken on his body and mind. I only wish that I could have told him I loved him, that even though we didn’t see each other much, I was proud to call him my godfather and proud to be called his godson. That I appreciated the birthday cards that came every year without fail. That I was happy my dad had found such a loyal friend, one he cared about enough to designate as his only son’s godfather. The missed chance at expressing these sentiments is one of my life’s biggest regrets. I carry that regret every day.
When I read the Star Tribune article detailing Coach Sherels’ condition and the current state of his own body, the parallels were both obvious and eerie. As I finished the article, the memories of John and Lily had flooded back into my consciousness all over again. While the regret still weighed heavily on my mind, I was also filled with hope. When I see quotes like, “My players mean so much to me. It’s the best therapy that I could ever have,” coming from Sherels, one persistent thought comes to mind.
It is obvious throughout the STrib article that Mike Sherels is a dedicated family man. His family is the most important thing to him in the world. But football is also an irreplaceable presence in his life. The support of his players, his fellow coaches, and the lessons he learned as a player and coach are proving instrumental in his attitude towards the long road to recovery he now faces. I know from firsthand experience that the physical issues he has will not be easily overcome. Fortunately, medical advancements in the last eight years have improved the likelihood that Sherels might one day return to as close to a normal life as possible. But the determination, hard-work, and pursuit of something greater than oneself that Coach displayed as a player on the field and has taught as a coach will no doubt be utilized as he strives to recover from the events of the last month.
The lessons of football, the bonds of brotherhood established on the gridiron are going to continue to motivate Sherels. There’s no doubt in my mind that the backing he receives from his players and his fellow coaches, combined with the unending supporting from his family will be an inspiration. I will be following his recovery with both great interest and faith, hoping to one day see him able to eat normally again and coaching on the sidelines on a bright Saturday afternoon at TCF Bank Stadium. And when that day comes. When Coach Sherels can get back to being just Coach again due to his own hard work. When he uses the support of his family, and the inspiration from the sport he loves, and has fought back the pain and suffering to return to the life he had before, I’ll be thinking of John.
I’ll be thinking of John and hoping he knows that he was loved by many and that we won’t soon forget him.