Thanks to Spencer Lee and March Madness for helping me get through the worst week in my life

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Kirk Ferentz (left) and his son Brian Ferentz during pre-game warmups. Photo by Jeff Yoder

By Pat Harty

IOWA CITY, Iowa – My father passed away on March 11 and just eight days from his 92nd birthday.

This past week has been like a fog. I have felt numb and lost at times knowing that the greatest and most courageous man in my life is gone.

My father was always there for the peaks and the valleys in my life, always telling me to “give em hell” and offering his support, love and guidance.

He leaves behind a family in mourning, including my mother and his beloved wife of 67 years named Dutchie. My father worshiped the ground my mother walked on. They formed the ultimate team and were inseparable.

And for that, I will forever be grateful. My father's death has reminded me that nothing is more important than family.

I’m also grateful to have had my father in my life for so long, knowing that some of my friends didn’t have that good fortune.

I never took my father for granted, but I became so used to him always being there to where now it’s kind of scary to think of life without him.

My father also leaves behind a proud legacy that was greatly impacted by sports.

His ability to play football as a 215-pound fullback, and his strong work ethic changed the course of my father’s life. He was the first graduate from Dowling Catholic High School to receive a football scholarship to Notre Dame in 1944.

My father's parents didn't have enough money to pay for college, so football opened a door that almost certainly would have remained closed. 

His college career was cut short by a devastating knee injury, but instead of giving up on sports, my father switched to wrestling and became quite accomplished in that sport while at Notre Dame.

He would go on to teach for 37 years in Des Moines before retiring in 1988. He also coached multiple sports and officiated both football and basketball games in order to earn some extra money, but mostly because he loved sports and the thrill of competition.

My father introduced me to sports at a young age, but he never pressured me to play sports or to live up to his reputation. It was my choice to play sports because it was fun and fulfilling and a way to interact with my father.

I chose to be a sports writer for many of the same reasons.

And thanks to sports, the fog that had hovered since my father’s death finally started to lift on Saturday as I watched March Madness and the emerging greatness of Iowa wrestler Spencer Lee.

My father would’ve loved Spencer Lee and everything he stood for as a competitor. I was told by people who competed against my father in football and wrestling that he was talented, tough and tenacious, and that he feared nobody.

Spencer Lee is the same way.

My father also was humble and knew how to win with class and dignity.

Spencer Lee is the same way.

It would’ve been easy for Lee to get carried away after having a microphone stuck in his face about 10 seconds after becoming Iowa’s first true freshman to win a national title in wrestling since Lincoln McIlravy in 1993. But Lee handled the moment with a maturity and grace beyond his years, thanking everybody who helped him become a champion.

I shed a tear as I watched Lee celebrate with his parents because there is no better feeling than making your parents proud.

Lee’s parents have so much to be proud about with Spencer, both on and off the mat.

The fog lifted even more as I watched Michigan freshman guard Jordan Poole make a 3-point basket as time expired to carry the Wolverines into the NCAA Sweet 16. For those precious few seconds, I was excited and distracted from the pain and devastation of losing my father.

I was reminded that sports can be a much-needed distraction, and can help you get back in the swing of things.

This is the first thing I’ve written since my father’s death. It is my way of paying tribute to my father and recognizing the role that sports has played in my life.

Sports often gets a bad rap because of all the scandals, corruption and the physical risks from playing certain sports.

And while none of that can be minimized, there is a good side to sports, a side that builds character and creates life-changing opportunities, a side that teaches teamwork and the value of hard work and setting goals.

My father benefitted greatly from sports, and I benefitted from how sports changed his life.

Now it’s time to get back to work doing what I love to do.

Kirk Ferentz will have a press conference on Tuesday to mark the start of spring practice for the Iowa football team.

Kirk is also a devoted husband and father whose life has been made better by football. Kirk has the joy and satisfaction of working with his oldest son, offensive coordinator Brian Ferentz, on a daily basis. I can only imagine how proud they both must be.

I’m sure there will be times during the press conference when I think of my father, because outside of his family and faith, nothing meant more to my father than football.

Rest in peace dad.