Washington (Mo.) University football coach Larry Kindbom vividly recalled the day about 14 years ago when he went to the hospital to visit one of his former players.
Kindbom was not sure what to say to Jake Parent other than to offer the obligatory words of encouragement. After all, Parent had both his feet amputated a couple of days earlier. He did not have to say much, though, as Parent did most of the talking. One of the things he told his former coach was that he was not about to miss a football camp at the university a few months down the road.
“What do you really say other than ‘I love you’ and ‘You’ll get through it,’ that type of thing,” Kindbom recalled. “After five minutes Jake said to me, ‘Coach, I am going to be ready to work that football camp. That is my goal.’ While I didn’t say it to him, what went through my mind was, ‘Jake, let’s not go there and talk about that.’ That’s Jake and what he was going through wasn’t something that was going to pull him down. Sure enough he was there coaching at the football camp.”
Parent, a 42-year-old married father of four boys continues to coach and inspire. Last season was his fourth as an assistant at St. Louis Priory School where he also serves as golf coach and social studies teacher. He previously spent 14 seasons as the head football coach St. Marty’s, another high school in the Gateway City.
Parent was born with Idiopathic Thrombocytopenic Purpura (ITP), a bleeding disorder in which the immune system destroys platelets that are necessary for normal blood clotting. Except for missing a couple of games as a senior in college it was a condition he was largely able to control.
In 2002 he contracted pneumonia, which resulted in an infection in the bloodstream. There is no sugar coating the fact it was a grave situation. He spent two weeks in a coma during which time blood flow to his extremities ceased. While blood eventually circulated back to his hands, his feet were another matter. Multiple surgeries failed to rectify the issue and amputation had to be performed.
“I was in shock at first,” said Parent. “Being a person who likes to be pretty active the consequences of not having my feet seemed to be tremendous.”
What was tremendous was the spirit he showed during an ordeal that would understandably drag many to dire depths.
“There were lots of things going on, including my family, my wife,” he said. “I had a 10-month old baby at the time and there were a lot of things I needed to do and wanted to do. I just decided I needed to go do them.”
And so he did. The mentality he displayed on the football field as a standout linebacker under Kindbom at Washington in the late 1990s was a mindset that would help him prevail.
“I don’t want to get into the football analogies too much, but isn’t how you’re supposed to do it in football is to accept any challenge that comes your way?” said Parent. “Work through it, fight through it and figure out a way. Otherwise, well, there is no otherwise.”
Parent worked though it by adapting and overcoming. He was fit for prosthetics, which he grew accustomed to after about three or four months. He did what he had to do in order to cope.
“I never had a jump shot, so it didn’t affect my basketball game,” he said chuckling. “I golf and four kids will keep you busy no matter what you try to do. I try to live my life pretty much the same way as I did beforehand. I have prosthetics and I walk around. If I have long pants on people do not know that I lost my feet. I just try live normal and not make any excuses about having no feet.”
No excuses. That is what Kindbom, a family friend, has long admired about Parent.
“He is such a competitor,” said the coach, who has won 174 games in 28 seasons with the Bears. “I believe that his competitive spirit and his spiritual growth pulled him through and why he is actually living today. He is a really courageous man.”
That courageousness is amplified when the St. Louis chapter of the National Football Foundation recognizes the winner of the Jake Parent Most Inspirational and Courageous Award, which is handed out by Parent at the chapter’s annual banquet. Former St. Mary’s players were touched by such courage in the weeks and months during Parent’s recovery.
“I remember at practice he would run the scout team offense as a quarterback,” said Matt Kuelker, who was a center and defensive tackle at St. Mary’s from 2003-05 before becoming an All-Great Lakes Valley Conference offensive lineman at Missouri S&T, marveling out how Parent carried on as though nothing had happened. “No matter what was going on he always seemed to have one of the more upbeat attitudes around the locker room and weight room. He was always positive, very helpful and never let (his situation) bring him down.”
Kuelker also noted how Parent taught accountability and was available to listen to any issue a player might be dealing with. To that extent, the football field has served as a canvas for life’s playbook.
“All the great stuff football has taught me is something that I want to share with all these kids,” said Parent. “When somebody asks me about my feet and how that connects with the kids, I think they care more about who you are as a person, how you treat them as a person and the relationship you have with them. I think that’s just how I carry myself, how I go about my daily business. I think it is about leading by example.”
Leading by example is something Jake Parent does every day.