Prep Wrestling

Ben Hoeger Knows Jack: Brotherly love on and off the wrestling mat

Kennedy junior known for toughness and hard work inspired by brother's battle against cancer

Jack Hoeger (left), a senior, and Ben Hoeger, a junior are photographed at a high school wrestling meet with Cedar Rapids Kennedy at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. Kennedy won the meet, 49-24. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Jack Hoeger (left), a senior, and Ben Hoeger, a junior are photographed at a high school wrestling meet with Cedar Rapids Kennedy at Iowa City West High School in Iowa City on Thursday, Dec. 20, 2018. Kennedy won the meet, 49-24. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Ben Hoeger is no stranger to the demands of wrestling.

He has endured early-morning runs, weight training, extra workouts, challenging practices and weight cutting. Hoeger’s balanced the emotional swings that can come with thrilling victories and demoralizing losses.

If the Cedar Rapids Kennedy junior struggles at times with the sport’s trials and tribulations, he needs only to look toward his brother, Jack, for motivation to maintain his toughness and work ethic.

Hoeger draws inspiration and perspective from the battle Jack waged against a rare form of inoperable brain cancer that resulted in remission after facing less than a 20 percent chance for survival when he was diagnosed at age 5.

“He’s a real inspiration to me, because he works hard every day in school and everything,” Ben said about Jack, a senior at Kennedy. “I always think he’s definitely worked harder than I have. He’s gone through a lot more, so in the practice room ... I just need to push myself a little harder.”

START OF THE JOURNEY

Their journey started when the oldest of Marty and Jen Hoeger’s three children began to suffer seizures. Answers were hard to come by until they traveled to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The family learned his diagnosis there.

Matters were complicated by the fact the cancer didn’t form a mass, making it undetectable to magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). Instead, the cancer developed as a coating over the entire cortex of Jack’s brain. Marty compared it to a cake’s layer of frosting.

Jack underwent 36 rounds of radiation treatment. Marty and Jen remained with him during the week, alternating weekends to return to be with 3-year-old Ben and his younger sister, Ella.

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“We spent the good part of 18 months primarily in Rochester and Ben and Ella spent a good part of that time with my parents and in-laws,” Marty said. “You think about that time of their life (and) those are some pretty big developmental times.”

Ben seemed to understand the severity of the situation from a young age. As the family prepared for Rochester trips, he skipped his parents to hug his brother goodbye. Marty and Jen wondered if Ben sensed it could be the last time they were together.

Recovery wasn’t pretty. Ben witnessed the seizures, feeding tubes and effects of chemotherapy. He was at Jack’s side to hold the container when he was physically sick.

“I just knew something was not good,” Ben said. “He really needed my help. It’s just brotherly love. You can’t break it.”

“Those kind of things no kid should ever have to witness,” Marty said. “Maybe that plays into his (wrestling) mind-set that, ‘I’ve seen a lot of tougher stuff than this.’”

LIVE TO WRESTLE

Ben wasn’t the only one attracted to wrestling. Jack has a passion for sports. He was obsessed with baseball and vowed to wrestle throughout his recovery.

Jack wore a band on his wrist in the hospital that read, “Live to wrestle.” The gift from family friend, Vicki Russell, took on a new meaning. He got his chance after treatment.

Jack, then 7, attended practices with the X-Men wrestling club. He was welcome with the caveat that Marty be with him on the mat. Ben served as a drill partner, admitting he preferred wrestling with his friends. He remained patient and helped his brother.

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“Ben was just a gentle kid,” Marty said. “He would let Jack do whatever he wanted, knowing that at any moment he could take him down and do whatever he wanted.”

The pair competed in the same tournament. Jack was scheduled to have surgery, removing part of his brain that caused seizures. Marty said he knew wrestling wasn’t an option after the procedure and reached out to organizers of a tournament in Solon.

Ben already was entered, so Marty inquired about Jack’s chances to participate, even if it was against Ben and his friends.

Mark Haight overheard the conversation and worked out the details. Haight’s sons, Christian and Denver, and current Solon senior wrestler Andy Brokaw wrestled Jack in a round robin. Jack won all three matches and received a bracket with a medal.

If you ask Jack, he still mentions he won the tournament and Ben did not.

“It’s his favorite memory of wrestling. Hands down,” Ben said. “I don’t say a lot about it, because it’s his favorite thing to say to everybody.

“It’s cool they did that for him and he has that memory. He has that leg up on me.”

BROTHERLY LOVE, SUPPORT

Of course, Ben recently turned the tables on Jack. The Kennedy Key Club’s Dance Marathon raised funds for the UIHC and I Know Jack Foundation. People donated money to arm wrestle Jack during the event. Jack won each challenge until Ben stepped up and bested his brother this time.

“I knew everybody was going to let him win all day,” 16-year-old Ben said with a laugh. “I was like, ‘No. This is my time to shine. I’m going to be his only loss of the day.’”

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Jack, 19, is well-known in Kennedy’s hallways. The student body voted him as homecoming king. The honor normally bestowed upon a standout athlete, fine arts performer, academic leader or even high school socialite went to someone known for a positive outlook and giving high-fives to passers-by.

“It gives you a sense of feeling good about where your kids go to school,” Marty said. “Say what you want about the youth of America today, but they do have it kind of figured out. They are pretty good kids.”

The wrestling community has a reputation of rallying around its own. The Cougars are indicative of the supportive culture. Teammates Josh Vis, Cade Parker and Jay Oostendorp are at the forefront of friends there for the Hoegers.

They accept Jack and trade jokes with him. Vis escorts Jack to his classes, talking about Pokemon and other topics along the way.

“It builds a stronger friendship and team (bond),” Ben said. “It makes us more like a tight-knit family.

“Jack’s always there, being social with everybody, and everybody is cool with him. It’s really awesome.”

I KNOW JACK

The Hoeger family created altruism out of adversity, starting the I Know Jack Foundation to help others fighting cancer.

Marty said Jack’s doctor refused to discuss stages and percentages when they first met. She noted the miracle recovery when he reached remission and encouraged them to share their story.

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They have done much more. The I Know Jack Foundation has raised $500,000 in about 10 years. The charity group created “Jack Packs” available to anyone who is or knows of someone impacted by cancer.

Marty and Jen were overwhelmed by the news and what to do when Jack was diagnosed. Marty bought the biggest backpack he could find at Office Max and stuffed it with information, medicine and entertainment for Jack. They decided to help others, providing bags with informational and care items and partnering with Live Strong to include cancer guidebooks.

The I Know Jack Foundation distributes hundreds of packs each year, making them available at Community Cancer Center, Graham Construction and Pat McGrath. The foundation also teams up with the YMCA for patients in remission to rebuild muscle tone.

“We feel like there is an obligation to the cure that we have,” Marty said. “Our son was saved through research and support in the community.

“Our doctor challenged us ... We feel we owe it to the community and life, in general, to support anybody we can.”

THIS SEASON

Jack attended Kennedy’s final dual before the holiday break. He was treated to Ben’s seventh pin in a victory over Iowa City West. Ben is 12-6 and on pace for his best high school season.

“I feel pretty good,” Ben said. “I know there is definitely stuff I need to work on.”

An unselfish attitude provided Ben a chance to start all three years. He dropped to 106 as a freshman and competed at 113 last season. Ben, a hybrid defender, receiver and special teamer for the football team, bulked up for this school year.

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He hit the weights and added CrossFit workouts to gain size and power for football. He jumped three weight classes this season and said he feels more energetic and stronger.

“He’s a pretty solid looking kid,” Kennedy Coach Dennis Hynek said. “It’s nice to see.”

An honorable mention all-Metro selection a year ago, Ben has 10 bonus-point victories this season. He is tied with Cam Jones for the lead in team points (64) and ranks fourth in match points with 82.

“He’s one of the leaders on the team without a doubt, as far as work ethic,” Hynek said. “He’s continuing to work as hard, if not harder, than anyone else in the room. It hasn’t changed one bit. It’s been great.”

Ben is determined to improve, working toward the postseason. He was disappointed with last year’s district finish and has sights set on a state berth in Des Moines. More hard work lies ahead.

“I always think of the second half of the season as the grind,” Ben said. “I just need to keep my mind right and keep working hard in the room. I can’t get soft. Stay focused on my goal.”

l Comments: (319) 368-8679; kj.pilcher@thegazette.com

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