Prep Sports

Retired Cedar Rapids coach pens history of Jefferson High football program

John Hegarty Jr.'s 'Fight Team Fight: The History of Cedar Rapids Jefferson Football'

Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School football players hoist the championship trophy after beating West Des Moines Dowling
Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School football players hoist the championship trophy after beating West Des Moines Dowling in the 4A Finals on Nov. 18,1972. This and other Jefferson championship seasons, told in words and photos, are among the highlights of a new book, “Fight Team Fight: The History of Cedar Rapids Jefferson Football,” written by former teacher and coach John Hegarty Jr. of rural Shueyville. (The Gazette)
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John Hegarty Jr. lives in rural Shueyville now, but he’s a Cedar Rapids west-sider through and through.

Born the year Jefferson High School was being built — 1957 — before construction delays pushed the opening to the spring of 1958, Hegarty is a 1975 Jefferson grad and spent much of his teaching and coaching career there, beginning in the 1980s. He taught math at Taft Middle School, then science at Jefferson, and coached football and wrestling until “hanging up” his whistle in 2000. He still offers color commentary on metro football games, alongside Scott Unash, for KGYM radio.

Teaching and coaching are “actually one and the same,” he said. “When I’m a coach, I’m also teaching, nonstop. You would think that the motivational side is reserved more for the coaching aspect. Not necessarily. I think with a lot of my teaching in the classroom, I derived success from it because I knew motivational techniques that carried over from athletics.”

Now 63 and retired from the classroom since 2012, he’s channeled those motivational techniques the past two winters into researching and writing “Fight Team Fight: The History of Cedar Rapids Jefferson Football.” It’s 268 pages of faces, photos, facts and figures printed in two columns on 8 1/2 by 11 paperback-bound sheets.

“It’s been a real labor of love,” he said, “because I’ve had time in retirement to devote to it at my own pace. That was the fun part of it — I didn’t have any deadlines.”

In early September, 1,000 copies rolled off the presses at Cedar Graphics in Hiawatha, under the auspices of CEO Hassan Igram, a member of Jefferson’s 1972 state championship football team. Hegarty already has sold 500 copies, helping to recoup part of the $11,000 he estimated he’s spent on the self-published project.

“The self-publishing route is a lonely route,” he said, but it’s a route he gladly traveled.

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“The biggest satisfaction of this whole project is that with the exception of the actual book printing, itself, I managed the entirety of this project alone,” he said. “I researched it, I wrote it, I hunted down and I scanned all the photos, I formatted it using the InDesign layout program, which I had never used before. And now I’m deep into the promotion and sales of it.

“So the best part of this whole thing was the fact that I can say I had my hand in the entirety of it.”

Even the copyright, 2020 by Manderlay Publishing, is named after the sweeping house and property where he lives with his wife, Kay, a 1976 Jefferson graduate. The parlor is large enough to allow the couple to host Red Cedar Chamber Music previews of its Brinton silent film concerts. And the grounds are impeccable, since Hegarty’s other retirement job is working with Hughes Nursery and Landscaping in Cedar Rapids.

Eyeing The goal posts

Now, the question Hegarty most often fields is what made him tackle such a massive book project.

The answer is multifaceted, he said.

“Basically, it comes down to (the fact that) it’s such a fast-paced world that we live in. It seems like we develop amnesia a month or year after anything happens, and that kind of troubles me,” he said. “I’m at this reflective age in my life where local history takes on a lot more meaning than it did in my youth. Wasn’t it Mark Twain who said, ‘Write about what you know.’ In my case, the other half is, ‘Write about what you don’t know, but wish you did.’

“The personal stories of the coaches and the players that I uncovered — they were so fascinating. The way the names and faces in that trophy case hallway I walked down every day came to life, it was an unexpected blessing. I soon discovered that I was also writing about the human spirit and the human condition, but as told through high school football,” he said.

“The other part of it was, you really have to care about what you write about sometimes. My years as a coach at Jefferson, especially in football, were tense. We experienced prolonged success, and we struggled at times. But the common denominator was just great passion and emotion. The victories that we had were really satisfying, and the defeats burned with a searing sting. Whatever the outcome was, the result stamped itself in your heart and memory.

“In hindsight, I was compelled to reveal the insider stories that really mattered to the players and the coaches like me.”

He also wanted to chronicle the glory days of Jefferson’s championship seasons.

“It has the ultimate highs that any program could experience, in having three state championships, another three state runners-up and multiple Top 10 finishes in the first 25 years,” he said.

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... One of the things that I don’t want ever to be lost is the great tradition and success that Jefferson had in high school football for so long. I don’t want people to forget that. I don’t want it to be lost, because today the wins have been fewer and harder to come by,” he said.

“I’ve had so many people that lived through those glory days thank me when they get ahold of the book. ... To a one, they are so appreciative that there’s a record out there now of how great Jefferson’s football program was for so long.”

Kick off

The first thing Hegarty did was to dig into the Cedar Rapids Public Library’s digital newspaper archives, including past issues of The Gazette.

“At the end of each football season, I tried to seek out the names of the individual award winners at the state, city and conference level,” he said. “I put together this real finite list ... that allowed me to know who my key players were gonna be. With that skeleton in mind, then I started diving into the individual coaches and their records, and the statistical evidence left behind by the eras in which they coached. That allowed me then to go back and know what to look for to fill in the missing narrative.

“Some of the personal stories that I uncovered were so heartwarming, touching — some almost unbelievable, and a handful even tragic — but some of them were just so heartwarming and touching that they were just fun to tell.”

He talked to so many people, including Bob Ask, 94, a retired history teacher who came to Jefferson when it opened, and started the football program there, coaching for the first 25 years. Hegarty would go to his house to talk about the book project, and on page 241, Hegarty noted that Ask gave him a box of clippings, photos and memorabilia that didn’t make it into his scrapbooks and journals.

Ask, who in 1983 wrote a book on the school’s history, titled “High on a Hill,” planted the seed for Hegarty to take a turn at writing, as well.

The new book is chock full of photos scanned from Gazette archives and from scrapbooks people loaned to him.

So Hegarty wasn’t entirely on his own with gathering and processing the information. Ask and Mark Dukes, a Jefferson football alumnus and former Gazette sports editor, added their perspectives to the book. Dukes also helped proof the book, and Hegarty’s wife, Kay, went over the final draft with a fine-toothed comb before it went to press.

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“She brought her accountant’s hat to the whole thing,” he said. “She drug me across the finish line and found so many little, tiny things that tightened the whole thing up. I’m so indebted to her for that.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

At a glance

• What: “Fight Team Fight: The History of Cedar Rapids Jefferson Football”

• Author: John Hegarty Jr. of rural Shueyville

• Publisher: Self-published 2020 at Manderlay Publishing

• Cost: $25 plus postage, by mail to John Hegarty, 1514 Ridge Top Dr. NE, Swisher, IA 52338; email Fightteamfight2020@yahoo.com or call (319) 551-8008

• Information: email Fightteamfight2020@yahoo.com or call (319) 551-8008

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