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Wacker still touching lives

Fort Worth Star-Telegram (08/10/2003)
By Mike Jones

Former TCU football coach Jim Wacker has touched many lives in 37 years in the profession and in 66 years of robust life.

As always, Wacker has moved and inspired those who have met him during his seven-month battle with inoperable lung cancer. And in recent weeks, he has faced the approaching inevitability with the same honesty, eternal optimism and integrity that mark his life.

“ This is it,” Wacker said recently. “But we’re still hoping for that last miracle, that last Hail Mary pass.”

In the past two weeks, friends, former players and coaching colleagues have called, written or visited the Wackers’ home in San Marcos to say goodbye. Wacker’s wife, Lil, estimates that about 60 people came by last weekend.

During a quiet time, one of the Wackers’ three sons expressed wonder to his mother over the way their father had embraced the moment. Warmly greeting every visitor as though he or she was the most important person in his life. Laughing and telling stories about almost each of them. Laughing at stories they told about him.

“ People came steadily for three or four days,” Lil said. “It was just incredible, absolutely beautiful. Jim had a wonderful time. And to see the lives he has touched? I’m married to quite a man. What a great one.”

Tom Mueller, a longtime friend and former defensive coordinator for Wacker who is now coach at Texas Lutheran, said Wacker told him it was the greatest week of his life.

“ It was so much fun,” Wacker said Monday. ” And the best medicine there is, getting a chance to see all the guys again. A ton of players came back. I don’t know how many we had over.

“ It wears you out a little bit ... but if all you do is sit around and think, `Oh, I’ve got a pain in my back here, or my lungs are sucking air there,’ it drives you crazy. We really appreciated people coming by. The company. Talking about old times a little bit and about life some. Reminiscing. Maybe telling the truth a little. That’s been the joyousness of it.”

Not surprisingly, there were no regrets. No ducking the obvious.

“ I wanted to go, but I didn’t want to talk about his condition,” said Kevin Dean, who played for Wacker at TCU. “Some of the other guys who were there brought it up, and I thought it was wrong. But I saw a champion once again rise to the occasion.

“ It would take two hours to talk about what coach Wacker has meant in my life. He has a very special place in my heart. I love him.”

Former TCU assistant coach Scott Brown, who is now at Duke, flew in and, along with former TCU assistant Steve Armstrong, spent the weekend with the Wackers.

“ I told Lil and Jim I was coming more for me than for Jim,” Brown said. “It was an unbelievable experience. There were not a lot of tears, except on Friday night, when there were about 15 of us left, and Jim had to excuse himself to go to bed. Then there was not a dry eye in the place.

“ But the next morning, it started all over. And you wouldn’t know he had cancer unless he got up and walked 10 feet, and you could see he could hardly breathe.”

The other giveaway is that the booming Wacker voice now has a pinched pitch, evidence that the tumors in his lung have grown. But so typical of the Wacker clan, rather than avoid mention of it, his grandchildren have a new nickname for their grandfather.

“ Squeaky Boom-pah!” Wacker said, laughing. “Those grandkids keep you loose, now.”

Wacker faces the disease as he lived his life _ with truth and dignity.

“ Oh, you have to,” he said. “No. 1, I feel like I’m the most blessed guy in the whole world. You look back, and getting to coach football for 37 years? I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. Lil always said, ‘Wacker, you ain’t ever gone to work a day in your life.’ And man, I got away with it! You’ve got to be excited about that.”

Wacker’s faith has sustained him. And these recent days have served to validate a life of solid values and giving to others.

“ Real frankly,” he said, “it comes down to the fact that there are four things in life that really count _ faith, family, friends and football. And if you’re able to get them all worked in, what else could you want?”

The most important thing in coaching is, did you have an impact? Did you make a difference? And when you see [former players] who are now 40-45 years old and are doing so well ... I’m more proud of that than anything else. You win a few and lose a few along the way, and winning is more fun than losing. But ultimately when you look back, that’s not the be-all and end-all in life. And if it is, you’ve really got a problem.

“ The other thing is family. Lil and those three sons, the seven grandchildren. No one could be more happy than we’ve been. That’s what life is about. I can look back and say I’ve had a great life. The ones you feel for, when you get teary-eyed and all that, are Lil and those boys and the grandkids.”

The family planned to gather at the Wacker home this weekend, along with longtime friend and pastor Rollie Martinson.

Dean recalled the moment he was leaving Wacker’s house.

“ He used to always hold up a fist to you from the sideline,” Dean said. “To say, ‘Hey, let’s go out and play smash-mouth football.’ He did the same thing when I left him. He held up his clenched fist and said, ‘Hey, we’re in this together.’”

Brown described the bond among those who treasure the shared moments of Jim Wacker’s life.

“ I’d venture to say,” Brown said, his voice breaking, “that if you asked all the people who have come to say goodbye to him if they would be willing to give up a day or a month at the end of their lives so that coach Wacker could stay around a little longer ... I’ll bet you’d get 100 percent.”