By Gabriel Stovall
As soon as you walk into the Teknipp home — if you go through their garage — you’ll immediately know that you’ve walked into a football family.
If you’re privileged enough, however, to make it past the garage to the kitchen table, you’ll also know that you’ve walked into the home of a close-knit family. That much is evident, based on the plethora of pictures that adorn the Teknipp home’s walls.
Wedding pictures. Childhood pictures. Graduation pictures and many other photos that, no doubt, chronicle many important moments in the lives of the Teknipps.
But if you happen to make it past the garage — which is adorned like a Joe Teknipp football hall of fame — and you happen to make it to the kitchen table, and there happens to be family gathered in the room, you just may feel the spirit of a man that — though perhaps gone too soon — left an unmistakable and everlasting legacy of heartfelt love.
Perhaps that’s why on Sunday July 5, roughly 31 hours after the Eagle’s Landing football coach had succumbed to stomach cancer, family members came to comfort Joe Teknipp’s wife Jennifer, at times flowing seamlessly between sobs, hugs, smiles and laughter.
“It’ll be okay,” said Joe’s sister Laura Herbe as she pressed into Jennifer Teknipp tight, and held on as if her hug was infusing the late coach’s wife with divine strength.
“I promise it’ll be okay,” she repeated, perhaps consoling herself as much as her sister-in-law.
Jennifer Teknipp was barely a day removed from losing her husband unexpectedly to cancer, and even on the day that marked her 24th wedding anniversary, she didn’t mind talking about it.
“It actually helps to talk about it,” Jennifer Teknipp said. “It helps to me to process what happened. I want to be able to bring some closure to this for myself and others.”
After Joe Teknipp’s sisters and brothers filed into the kitchen and circled around Jennifer and Herbe, Jennifer Teknipp was ready to share some details.
She toggled through her iPad and stopped at every meticulously recorded note on a corresponding date on her calendar that chronicled her husband’s battle. According to Jennifer, the better part of the nine days spent in the hospital post-op were pretty positive.
“The third day especially was a decent day,” she recalled. “He really tried to walk, tried to eat. Janet (his sister-in-law) and Phil (his brother) brought up some homemade food that was really delicious, and it smelled great, but he didn’t have an appetite.”
His diet that day consisted mostly of protein shakes. His focus was on trying to tackle his laps around the hospital floor with the tenacity of a football player striving to reach a sub 4.5-second time in the 40-yard dash. But just when he was starting to get a bit fatigued and frustrated with his condition, he perked up a bit when his nurse for the evening came into his room to write his daily goal down on the white board.
“So what’s your goal for the day, Joe?” the nurse asked.
Jennifer Teknipp recalled her husband’s succinct, two-word answer.
“Go home,” he said.
If you’re into geographical stereotypes, and you know that the Eagle’s Landing football coach hailed from Euclid, Ohio, you’ve probably already formulated a mental picture of what kind of person Joe Teknipp was.
Ohio is blue-collar territory. The rust belt. The epitome of the good, old-fashioned Midwestern work ethic. Short on flash, but long on substance.
Teknipp grew up idolizing the Ohio gridiron heroes that made sense to idolize if you grew up in the land of Woody Hayes and Ohio State Buckeye football. He was particularly fond of Jim Tressel.
Two years ago, when Eagle’s Landing opened its home schedule against a Lamar County team that, despite being a Class AA school — Eagle’s Landing competes in Class AAAA — boasted one of the most talented football squads in all of Georgia, regardless of classification.
Eagle’s Landing opened the season with an impressive 41-10 blowout of Ola — impressive, because it was just Coach Teknipp’s second season opener win in his head coaching tenure, and one of the most lopsided wins against any opponent in school history. So expectations were high for a potentially program defining win against a quality opponent in front of a large home crowd and the likes of Fox 5 Atlanta Sports TV crews setting up shop in Eagle’s Landing Stadium, calling it the Fox 5 Game of the Week.
You could see the intensity of the moment on Teknipp’s face even two hours before kickoff, which was different if you were used to seeing his genuine and inviting smile most of the time.
Teknipp was walking through the press box — empty, save for one reporter and the stadium’s public announcer — dressed in a Tressel-like sweater vest over a collared, button down shirt. The ensemble softly represented the blue and gold Eagle’s Landing colors, and his demeanor represented that of a big time coach playing in a big time game with a lot for his program on the line.
Eagle’s Landing hung with the Trojans for the first half, down by just a touchdown at halftime, before Lamar pulled away for a 28-7 win, thanks to a handful of mistakes and turnovers that caused the Golden Eagles to lose their grip on a winnable game.
Afterward, Teknipp’s team was distraught. Their faces were downcast as they felt they’d let a golden opportunity to put Eagle’s Landing on the map slip through their fingers. But Teknipp’s face was a complete 180-degree turn from his pre-game look of stone.
Whereas before the game when he was virtually alone, he looked stern, focused and in no mood for idle chit chat, after the game He was positive. He was encouraging. He flashed that brilliant smile as he reminded his team that the fact that they competed against one of the state’s best teams was a sign that they had the potential to win and win a lot in 2013. And they did — to the tune of a school-best 8-win regular season and just the second playoff berth in school history.
This was Joe Teknipp, the grizzled, wise old coach. Tough and harsh when necessary, and encouraging and easy going when called for. But always confident. Never a chink in the armor. Never a sign of weakness.
He, like pretty much any coach you’ll talk to, knew that he couldn’t afford to show too much weakness in front of a bunch of young men he was trying to teach to be strong no matter what kinds of adversity met them.
But a coach is only human, and is subject to human moments. It’s just that the best often find ways to express their human moments behind closed doors.
Even though Coach Teknipp was exceedingly positive about his ability to overcome his stomach cancer and get back to his football field oasis, perhaps the words of Teknipp’s principal best capsulized the magnitude of fight the coach was trying to win.
“Joe came into my office about two weeks before the surgery, and he was smiling and encouraging us,” Eagle’s Landing Principal Gabe Crerie recalled after last Sunday’s candlelight vigil in Teknipp’s honor. “He was facing 4th down and 20 in his life, and he made us all feel like he had it.”
Any of his players will tell you that that was just Coach being Coach. But he saved his most tender and human moments for the exceedingly small circle of folks who knew him best.
“I can remember just two times when Joe really just broke down,” Jennifer Teknipp recalled. “It was the first day, May 20th, when he was first given his diagnosis. It was that day in the office where he sort of broke down and cried. And then he did it again in the hospital after the eucharistic minister came into his room and gave him Holy Communion.”
It was, perhaps the most emotional she had seen her husband. It was at that second moment of humanity where Jennifer Teknipp remembers him uttering aloud a two word question that no doubt silently permeated his conscience repeatedly.
“He was really emotional that day of the Communion and he just broke down and said, ‘Why me?'” she said.
“I said, ‘Honey, you’re a Godly man. And I’m pretty sure that at some point in your life you said yes to God. You told Him that You can do whatever You need to do with me.’ I don’t know where those words came from, but as he broke down, I just told him that God is using you as an instrument for all the lives you touched. We have never seen so many people talking to God.
“People have become closer to God just because of Coach Tek.”
And as people on the outside of his Emory Hospital room were coming closer to the author of Teknipp’s faith, the Teknipp family themselves were rejoicing over what seemed to be an emerging light signaling the end of the tunnel that was this post-operation hospital stay.
Jennifer Teknipp looked at her calendar and remembered the importance of Thursday July 2.
“I remember texting someone on that Thursday and simply saying, ‘The doctors are using the word home,'” Jennifer Teknipp said. “At first it was a little hesitant, but they were saying that the goal was to get him home maybe Sunday, maybe Monday. And I thought, ‘Go home. Yes!’ From that point on we were doing our best to prepare Joe to go home.”
Jennifer Teknipp minces no words when describing that last night — that Friday night. While the family was becoming energized at the thought of bringing their husband, dad and brother home, the coach’s wife saw traces of emotional fatigue in him for the first time — different from the tears he shed while asking God the ultimate rhetorical question.
“He didn’t really want to eat. He was so restless. He just kept saying, ‘I just want to go to sleep. I just want to sleep,'” she said. “The 7pm shift change came, and we still hadn’t met his nurse tech for the evening, but his pain was zero. He was just getting restless because of the potassium they had to give him. He didn’t like that at all. He was strong. But that last day was the only day where….he hadn’t given up, but you could just tell he was getting tired.”
She said he sat at the edge of the bed looking aggravated. She decided the best thing to do was to get him out of that hospital bed and room and change his scenery a bit.
“Let’s go for a walk,” she told him. But after three laps, he got tired and wanted to change things up in his own way.
“I have a better idea,” he said to her. “Let’s dance.”
“So we slow-danced right in the middle of the room,” Jennifer said. “We just held each other and swayed back and forth a while.”
Given the milestone the couple was coming up on during that first week of July, the already touching moment had even greater meaning to Jennifer once it dawned on her what time of year it was.
July had always been a special month for the Teknipp family. “It seemed like everything important that happened in our lives took place in July,” Jennifer said.
But perhaps no time of any month was more significant to the Teknipps than the 4th and 5th of July. And it was telling that, in spite of probably the toughest personal moment of his entire struggle, Joe Teknipp showed himself as the selfless guy that pulled Jennifer’s heart strings almost 25 years ago.
“Do you know what today is?” Joe Teknipp asked his wife. “Twenty-four years ago today, do you know what we were doing?”
“I told him no. With so much going on, at that moment it just wasn’t clicking,” she said. “He told me it was our wedding rehearsal dinner. And then he said, ‘And you know Cait’s birthday is tomorrow.’ He kept telling me how much he loved me, and he kept telling me how beautiful I was. But he was still having a tough time. I remember he was trying to move in his bed, and the nurse tech wasn’t helping him much. Joe finally had to tell him that he was going to have to help him because he just couldn’t get up and move on his own.”
With Jennifer becoming just as exhausted as her husband, she had come to a place where she was trying to find anything possible to allow both of them to get some rest. He didn’t find comfort that Friday night until she wrapped his hand around a wooden cross.
“It made him feel like I was holding his hand,” she said.
The last goal Joe Teknipp made in his hospital room was yet another deliberate step in preparing him to go home.
“I told him that we needed to work on getting him up out of a bed from a flat position just like it would be at home,” Jennifer said.
Talking like the coach that he was, Joe replied: “I’m up for the challenge.”
Saturday morning came, and Joe admitted to his wife that Friday night “was a horrible night.” Relieved, he focused again on expressing to his wife how beautiful she was to him. That, and the fact that it was his daughter Caitlin’s 19th birthday were the dominant themes in his early Saturday morning conversation.
Jennifer recalled that her husband wasn’t hooked up to any machines or monitors that morning — perhaps just another step toward trying to get him ready to go home.
The next moments happened like a flash, yet seemed to take an eternity. Jennifer saw Joe take out his phone and type a text message.
“He’d just said, ‘Hi Beautiful,’ to me again,” she said. “And then at 7:25 a.m. he sent a text to Caitlin telling her happy birthday.”
Then Jennifer takes out her own cell phone to chronicle just how fast things went downhill from there. She pulled up her call log.
“He text messaged Caitlin happy birthday at 7:25, and then here you can see the call that I was making to Janet at 7:29 a.m.,” she said.
“I was telling her that he was seizing,” she said. “He just started seizing and convulsing. First, I stepped outside of the room and started yelling, ‘Help me! Somebody please come help me! He’s seizing.’ Then they were shuffling me out of the room while all of the doctors and nurses were running to his room. That’s when I called Janet and told her he was seizing and I didn’t know what to do.”
It was right around that time that Joe’s son Tyler was coming down the hall. Because the last thing he heard the day before was a good report regarding his dad, he had no reason to believe that the hospital’s code blue response was for Joe.
“I was walking toward the room, and I saw the commotion, and I really didn’t think anything of it until I heard everybody start saying, ‘Come on Joe. Come back to us Joe,” Tyler said. “That’s when I realized they were talking about my dad. If I would’ve come 10 minutes earlier or 10 minutes later, I probably wouldn’t have been in a place where I could’ve helped my mom the way I did.”
As Tyler Teknipp described the scene, his eyes and face seemed gripped with emotion, but there were no tears. He recounted how he went into the waiting area with his mom and a hospital chaplain. He comforted her as she prayed through her rosary.
“Tyler was so strong,” Jennifer said. “He held me. I said my rosary and when I said it, right at that moment I felt that peace just wash over me. I knew that it was from God. And at that moment when the peace came, I looked over and saw the nurse in tears.
“She simply said, ‘I’m sorry.'”
It would’ve been easy to look at that miniature garage shrine to Joe Teknipp’s football career as both a player and coach, and see that this could’ve been the place he felt most at home in his home.
It had everything you’d expect a proud athlete’s man cave would have, from the small, square green banner with “Lake Catholic Cougars, 1984-85″ inscribed in gray, felt letters — the #31 in the left hand corner and “Joe” in the right — to a team photo and an action shot of the coach-then-player wearing his Kent State uniform, the number 49 large across his chest. Above it, a football helmet he wore from his college playing days.
In the middle of the wall is a white jersey with the green numbers “03” in the middle. It’s mounted on a green background and protected by a glass covering — almost in retired jersey form. It was a gift given to him by the last school he coached at in Ohio before moving to Georgia in July of 2006.
Looking to the right, there’s a blue and gold sign, presumably in Kent State colors, that simply says “Joe Teknipp 49.” Beneath it, a blue jersey with red and white trim and the number 31. He wore 31 in high school and 49 in college.
All of these were images from an athletic past that could only be revisited via memories and old stories. Conspicuously missing on that wall is anything Eagle’s Landing football related. Maybe that’s because Joe felt that his present life and present story was still being written, and had no place among the relics of a past gone by.
Back in February, when this whole journey began, there was no reason to believe that the coach, at age 47, wouldn’t be back on the football sidelines for his eighth season at Eagle’s Landing.
Maybe 10 or 20 years down the road — maybe a few more region titles, or even a state championship later, some Eagle’s Landing players would’ve been able to present their coach with a retired Golden Eagles jersey, or a signed football with all the biggest scores to the most meaningful games written on it that Joe would’ve hung up on that wall in his home.
But this is not Joe’s home anymore.
“I was just thinking about this the other day, how things would get back to normal,” said Caitlin Teknipp, who came into the house and sat at that kitchen table a little over an hour after everyone else showed up. Tyler said he knew his sister just needed some “me time.”
“How do things get back to normal after this?” she continued. “It’s a hard thing to comprehend right now, that there’s going to be a new normal, because you still have that feeling where you think he’s going to just come walking through that door. It’s really an emotional roller coaster, and you have to take it not just one day at a time, but even one hour at a time, because you think there are times you’ve got it and you’re under control, and you’re like, ‘We’re gonna get through this,’ and then there are moments where you just break down and don’t know how you’re going to do it.”
One of the hardest parts for Tyler will be when his football season comes around again.
“It’ll be tough, because Dad was always the one when things were hard or I had a hard day at practice or didn’t do as well as I wanted, I could call him and he would kind of talk me through it,” Tyler Teknipp said. “I guess you just have to find a way to remember all the things he taught and use it in those moments and be strong.”
For Jennifer, the ability to tell the entire story was a part of the healing process for her, and she hopes, for many others.
“Nobody really had closure with the way it all happened,” she said. “There were still so many questions. So many people were numb to it. I mean we weren’t planning for this. We were planning for him to come home, here, and then it just took a turn for the worst quickly.”
She believes that it was probably a blood clot to the heart or the lungs that was the culprit on that 4th of July morning. Of course, there’s no way of accurately knowing without an autopsy, but the way Jennifer sees it, whatever the official cause of death wouldn’t surprise her, given the amount of stress Joe’s body had been through, even before the actual cancer removing surgery.
“He had already had so much done,” she said. “It was like the mother of all surgeries. Many people wouldn’t have even been able to get through one part of the procedure he had, but he did it all at once. But then, he wasn’t eating. He was miserable, but nobody knew it.”
And nobody knew — except the God that the Teknipp family serves — what they were really preparing Joe and themselves for.
“All that time I kept thinking that I was preparing him to go home,” Jennifer said, beginning to sob. “And I was thinking that we were preparing him to come back here to this home. But all the time, God had another plan, and He was using us to prepare Joe to come to his home in glory.”
Caitlin admitted that, despite that theological truth, not having her dad was still something she didn’t want to believe was real.
“Denial,” she said. “It’s still surreal. It doesn’t seem like it should be real life. After he died, one of the first things I thought was, 19 years isn’t enough. I needed more than that. Obviously God feels differently, but I still feel like I needed more.”
As Caitlin and Tyler took their turns talking at the table, the other family members began to disperse throughout the house. The tears began to turn more steadily into smiles. Sobs gradually gave way to laughter, without as much oscillation between emotional extremes.
Some were on the back patio sitting around the table, talking about the then-pending memorial service and funeral arrangements. A television in the living room was tuned to a sports event of some sort. Friends of the family were bringing in food with amazing frequency, making Jennifer chuckle as she wondered aloud what to do with it all.
You could tell it wasn’t just a house. It was truly a home. A home where people had lived in and loved in to great degrees in times past, and you just got the feeling that Joe was always in the middle of that love.
“He was always bringing us together, just like he is now,” Herbe said.
Would he have liked to come back home to this house and be in the midst of another family gathering? Probably so. But Jennifer and Herbe are convinced of a plan of a much higher order.
“I was ready for him to come back home with us,” Jennifer said. “But that was my plan. It wasn’t (God’s plan).”
“I think you’re right, Jen,”Herbe responded. “I felt the same thing. I really think Joe heard his Heavenly Father say, ‘Welcome home, my son. You’ve done well.'”