SOUTH BEND, Ind.From the third-base coach’s box at Notre Dame’s Frank Eck Stadium, Dave Schrage occasionally gives a glance to the nearby bleachers.
Notre Dame’s baseball coach might catch a glimpse of his teenage daughters, Kaitlyn and Brianne, and his focus will drift to the memory of his wife, Jody. She died Jan. 9 of complications from liver cancer, about two months after she was diagnosed. She was 45.
“It becomes difficult,” Schrage says of staying focused.
Less than a year ago, the family celebrated when Schrage was named Notre Dame’s coacha dream job for the lifelong Irish fanafter establishing himself as one of the Midwest’s premier coaches.
Now he’s balancing the demands of coaching with life as a single dad. “The hardest part is trying to be both mom and dad.”
Schrage still manages to keep his composure and characteristic upbeat nature for his enthusiastic 19- to 23-year-old ballplayers, defending their Big East championship without nine top players from a year ago. The Irish, trying to make the conference tournament, are 27-21 heading into a weekend series at Louisville.
They count on Schrage’s guidance. They give him a respite from his grief.
“Never once has he shown that his emotions have the better of him,” co-captain Danny Dressman, a senior outfielder, says.
Understandably, Schrage didn’t have time to forge deep bonds with his players in the offseason.
Still, every player made last-minute arrangements to return early to South Bend from the Christmas break to attend Jody’s funeral.
Evansville’s baseball team, which Schrage coached the previous four seasons, also attended.
Schrage says his daughters and players help him cope. His daughters have congratulated him on victories by writing messages on a mirror with soap, and sometimes they sneak encouraging notes into his briefcase. Both are thoughtful deeds his wife used to do.
Now instead of looking at game films to start each week, Schrage is preoccupied with his daughters’ busy schedules. There are school meetings to attend, homework and social dilemmas. With no extended family nearby, Schrage had to hire someone to stay with Kaitlyn, 16, and Brianne, 13, when he’s at work.
Brianne is about to graduate from eighth grade and needs a new dress. Shopping for it is difficult. “She’s missing her mom,” Schrage says.
Lifetime goal realized
About 10 months ago, the Schrages moved to South Bend amid a steady buzz of excitement. Schrage was introduced as Notre Dame’s baseball coach July 18 to replace Paul Mainieri, who moved to LSU.
Schrage (pronunciation rhymes with bag) had impressive credentials. Since graduating in 1983 from Creighton, where he was an all-conference outfielder, he earned a master’s in sports administration at St. Thomas University (also known as Biscayne College) in Florida and steadily climbed the coaching ranks. The family agreed Notre Dame would be the last coaching stop.
He had shaped Evansville into a power in the perennially tough Missouri Valley Conference, and last season the Purple Aces won the regular-season and tournament championships and advanced to the NCAA regional title round for the first time. Schrage also brought respectability to baseball programs at Northern Illinois and Northern Iowa.
His wife reveled in his achievement.
“Jody knew how special the job was going to be,” Schrage says.
Friends say she spoke eagerly of getting involved in the South Bend community. She wanted to get to know players and talked of having team dinners, as she had in Evansville.
She had been a superb athlete and understood the rigors of coaching as a member of three World Series softball teams at Creighton. It was there she got to know her future husband during friendly but competitive backgammon games.
At Urbandale (Iowa) High School she was a third baseman for a team that 30 years ago set the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union mark for consecutive victories with 68, a record that still stands. Her accomplishments led to her induction into the state high school Hall of Fame in 1989 as Jody Jenison.
For several years she taught elementary school as well as physical education and coached high school softball.
“Whenever we went to a new community, she got involved,” Schrage says.
Notre Dame goes to work
She and her husband wanted a single-story house when they moved to South Bend because she had been bothered for months by pain in her feet.
Initially she was treated by a podiatrist but the pain persisted. Blood work during a physical in the fall revealed an infection.
Further tests showed tumors on her liver and adrenal gland. The gland tumor was benign, but the tumor on her liver was a rapidly growing, rare cancer. She needed specialized care, and Notre Dame’s vast network of movers and shakers took action.
Schrage says football coach Charlie Weis got involved because “he knew people who knew people” at the Houston-based M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, a leading treatment hospital.
The Schrages made three trips to M.D. Anderson in about a six-week period. South Bend businessmen provided private jets; Notre Dame alumni opened their homes in Houston and offered cars. Notre Dame associate athletics director Boo Corrigan accompanied the Schrages on every trip to Houston.
Athletics department staffers and their families brought meals to the Schrages while Jody recovered at home from surgery to remove the tumor.
Every extraordinary gesture helped ease the family’s worries about being in a new town without extended family or close friends nearby to help.
“There was definitely a reason this happened while I was at Notre Dame,” Schrage says.
Within weeks of the tumor’s removal, the cancer returned with a vengeance, says M.D. Anderson’s Steven Curley, who treated Jody.
“I’ve not encountered anything like it,” he says. “It haunts me still.”
Jody’s abdominal cavity was engulfed by microscopic cancer cells, which contributed to internal bleeding despite follow-up surgeries to stop the blood loss.
The family experienced a roller coaster of emotions. There were moments when Jody seemed headed for recovery, followed by painful setbacks from the bleeding.
Corrigan recalls that on Jan. 8, despite heavy sedation, Jody received an emotional lift when her daughters and husband entered her hospital room.
“She could definitely tell the girls were there,” says Corrigan, swallowing hard as he holds back tears.
Jody died the next day.
Holding family together
Throughout her battle, Jody never doubted she would pull through, Schrage says. She fought cancer the same way she approached lifefull of optimism and spunk.
Schrage gave the eulogy at a packed funeral at Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart.
“People said, ’You’re not going to get through it,’ " Schrage says. "The reason I did it, I thought she deserved it. She’d be saying, ‘You can do this.’ "
Every day since has been a trial for Schrage and his daughters.
“You have tough days when you think to yourself, ‘How am I supposed to go on?’ " he says. “But each day that goes by gets a little better.”
While his wife was sick, Schrage considered a leave of absence from his job, but she wouldn’t hear of it. She wanted the family to keep moving forward.
And they’re trying. Both daughters play softball, following in their mother’s footsteps.
“Kaitlyn has done incredible,” Schrage says. “She’s probably doing better than I am. She had to grow up in a hurry.”
Kaitlyn plans to volunteer this weekend at a Notre Dame men’s basketball fundraiser, a black-tie Coaches vs. Cancer dinner. One of the organizers, Kim Kearney, wife of men’s basketball associate head coach Sean Kearney, says Jody had expressed interest in volunteering. “And now her daughter is doing it.”
Schrage worries more about Brianne, who had expressed reluctance about the move to South Bend. Schrage says she is adjusting, and he hopes she can hang on to the bubbly traits she inherited from her mother, especially as graduation looms. Brianne will spend Mother Day’s weekend at her father’s side on the team’s road trip to Louisville.
Schrage’s friends worry about him, although he appears outwardly tough.
“During the season the focus and mind-set is on the team,” says longtime friend John Planek, the athletics director at Chicago’s Loyola University. "What happens after the season is over or after a long road trip and he’s alone at night?
“I don’t want to venture to think about what’s going on. The devastation, that’s probably when it hits him.”
Schrage says he is following his wife’s example and maintaining a zest for life that he shared with her through 20 years of marriage.
His players, like his colleagues, applaud Schrage’s work ethic and strength, characteristics that helped him reach the 500-win milestone April 29, also his 46th birthday.
“To get it at a school that is your dream job, it’s pretty special,” Schrage says of victory No. 500. “Yeah, it’s been a hard year. It’s also been a special year.”