Vickroy: Former St. Rita coach in fight for his life

dt.common.streams.StreamServer.clsBY DONNA VICKROY [email protected] Twitter: @dvickroy March 3, 2014 9:54PM Coach Jim Angsten has a reputation for being tough and demanding but always fair. He’s also known for getting the best out of his football players.

So it’s a cruel twist of fate that the former St. Rita High School coach faces the fight of his life, against an opponent that couldn’t care less about playing fair and that likely will get the best of him.

Angsten, 66, a health teacher and the former defensive coordinator for the Mustangs football team, was diagnosed in April with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

“It was April 1st, but it was no joke,” he said, sitting one afternoon in his favorite hangout, Teehan’s Tavern in Tinley Park. “When I started going through the symptoms, I had a bad feeling.”

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, according to the ALS Foundation. The progressive breakdown of these neurons eventually leads to death.

“There is no cure. This will take my life,” he said, taking a deep breath, glancing at the ceiling and then shaking his head. “Ah, it is what it is.”

As hard as it is for the coach to take the diagnosis sitting down, it’s just as hard on those who love and respect him. And there are thousands who have reached out — family, friends, colleagues, former students.

Almost immediately, his buddies at Teehan’s began organizing a benefit. It will take place Saturday at St. Rita. About 1,000 people are expected to attend.

“A lot of his friends wanted to do something,” said bartender Sue Johnson, who’s known Angsten for 18 years. “We understand how devastating this is and will be. But he’s got that Fighting Irish attitude — the one that helped him win football games. He’s fighting this tooth and nail.”

Russ Urbanik, John Dignin, Jim Segredo and Noel and Shirley Catterson first organized a bike-a-thon last summer. At that event in August, Johnson said a man walked up to the group and said, “I can’t say this any other way, but Coach made me the man I am today.”

“Everybody feels that way about him,” Johnson said.

Angsten grew up on Chicago’s North Side and attended Queen of Angels Grammar School and St. George High School. He earned his undergraduate degree from Western Illinois University and a master’s from the University of Illinois. He’s taught for 42 years, 35 of them at St. Rita. He coached football until 1998.

Angsten moved south when he got the St. Rita job and settled in Tinley Park, where he and his wife, Pam, raised their three children, Tim, Jamie and Suzie. Today, the couple has nine grandchildren, whom Angsten calls the loves of his life.