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Vickroy: Former St. Rita coach in fight for his life

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Updated: April 5, 2014 6:26AM



Editor’s Note: The following story was published in (name of paper) in (time -- be as specific as you can). It is being republished as part of Progress 2014, a salute to “Caring in our Communities.”

Coach Jim Angsten has a reputation for being tough and demanding but always fair. He’s also known for getting the best out of his football players.

So it’s a cruel twist of fate that the former St. Rita High School coach faces the fight of his life, against an opponent that couldn’t care less about playing fair and that likely will get the best of him.

Angsten, 66, a health teacher and the former defensive coordinator for the Mustangs football team, was diagnosed in April with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“It was April 1st, but it was no joke,” he said, sitting one afternoon in his favorite hangout, Teehan’s Tavern in Tinley Park. “When I started going through the symptoms, I had a bad feeling.”

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, according to the ALS Foundation. The progressive breakdown of these neurons eventually leads to death.

“There is no cure. This will take my life,” he said, taking a deep breath, glancing at the ceiling and then shaking his head. “Ah, it is what it is.”

As hard as it is for the coach to take the diagnosis sitting down, it’s just as hard on those who love and respect him. And there are thousands who have reached out — family, friends, colleagues, former students.

Almost immediately, his buddies at Teehan’s began organizing a benefit. It will take place Saturday at St. Rita. About 1,000 people are expected to attend.

“A lot of his friends wanted to do something,” said bartender Sue Johnson, who’s known Angsten for 18 years. “We understand how devastating this is and will be. But he’s got that Fighting Irish attitude — the one that helped him win football games. He’s fighting this tooth and nail.”

Russ Urbanik, John Dignin, Jim Segredo and Noel and Shirley Catterson first organized a bike-a-thon last summer. At that event in August, Johnson said a man walked up to the group and said, “I can’t say this any other way, but Coach made me the man I am today.”

“Everybody feels that way about him,” Johnson said.

Angsten grew up on Chicago’s North Side and attended Queen of Angels Grammar School and St. George High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from Western Illinois University and a master’s from the University of Illinois. He’s taught for 42 years, 35 of them at St. Rita. He coached football until 1998.

Angsten moved south when he got the St. Rita job and settled in Tinley Park, where he and his wife, Pam, raised their three children, Tim, Jamie and Suzie. Today, the couple has nine grandchildren, whom Angsten calls the loves of his life.

“But I’m still tough with them,” he said.

John Schmitt was coached by Angsten in 1983 and ’84. Today, he is a colleague.

“He was a no-nonsense guy, a great teacher, a great motivator. He always got the best out of his players,” said Schmitt, director of major gifts for St. Rita. “He taught us so much more than football — how to be a good teammate, that hard work pays off. He pushed us to our limit. but we went farther than we ever thought we would.”

Angsten said teaching “wasn’t even close to what I expected. It was so much more, so much more. When you’ve had a part of so many kids allowing you to coach them and mold them and make a difference — that’s priceless, absolutely priceless.”

Schmitt said it has been difficult watching Angsten deteriorate physically.

“He always took such good care of himself, was always working out, lifting weights, riding his bike. I hope the fact that he was in great shape will help him with this disease,” Schmitt said.

Angsten’s son, Tim, said the family took news of the diagnosis harder than Angsten did.

“He’s more worried about my mom and me and my sisters than himself,” Tim said. “He’s a very unselfish person.”

Growing up, Tim said, the family never was well off financially.

“You don’t make a huge salary working for a Catholic school,” he said. “But my dad thought he was richest guy in the world. He loved his job, had a nice home and loved his wife and kids.”

Tim played middle linebacker for his father.

“My dad always strived to be fair, honest and to do the right thing,” he said. “When you live your life like that, people respond to you when you need help.”

And they have been coming out of the woodwork to do just that.

After the news was out that a benefit was in the works, Angsten got a call from an old high school buddy, a guy he hadn’t talked to in 30 years. The man now lives in Alaska and donated airfare for two and a week’s stay at his place for the benefit.

“That’s just one example of the things that blow me away,” Angsten said.

The outpouring moves him to tears.

“I’m very emotional,” he said.” To just say ‘thank you’ seems so shallow.”

His daughter, Jamie Baltazar, said, “He is never one to ask for help. I think that’s why so many want to help him.”

Growing up, Jamie said, her dad was loving but tough.

“He meant business. He had high expectations,” she said. “He wanted us to be good kids with a lot of integrity. And we wanted to make him proud.”

Angsten said he never asked the kids to do anything that they couldn’t do.

When he reflects on his coaching style, he said, “You have to be tough. If you know anything about the Catholic League, it’s a street fight. It’s a tough game played by tough people. If you’re not tough, you don’t stand a chance.”

Too many parents today, he said, want to be their kid’s friend, but that doesn’t work.

“It’s the same with coaching,” he said. “We weren’t the best, but we were tough and disciplined and always gave our all.”

That’s a rule he still tries to live by, despite the mounting physical limitations. He used to ride his bike 30 miles a day, even in winter. Now he’s relegated to a stationary bike. He used to do all the cooking. Now he micromanages his wife’s cooking.

“It drives her nuts,” he said.

And he used to walk the halls of St. Rita with purpose. Now he uses a cane and sometimes a wheelchair while at work.

“My balance is iffy and I get fatigued easily,” he said. “I hate that I have to sit while I teach.”

He teaches two classes a day and helps other teachers with paperwork before knocking off at midday.

“I’m hoping I can make it to the end of the year,” he said. “This disease is forcing me to retire.”

It’s frustrating, he said, that there are so few treatment options — just a pill that costs $1,600 a month.

“There are no clinicals to be a part of, but I’d like to,” he said. “... I have a terrific doctor, but with this disease, you just have to sit back and take it.”

He knows what to expect, too ­— an occupational hazard for a man who teaches about the human body.

“Right now, it’s basically on my right side, but I have overall body weakness. Eventually, it will get my respiratory system, and I will suffocate to death.”

He seems lost in his thoughts for a moment, but then, just as quickly, bounces back. He learned a long time ago from his father that nobody likes a complainer.

“Hey, I’m here,” he says, looking down the bar, sighing and shrugging. “It’s the luck of the draw. You just deal with it.”



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