REGGIE HAYES: Jason Garrett embraces dual role of campus minister and Bishop Dwenger High School football coach

Jason Garrett, newly hired Bishop Dwenger High School football coach, kneels at midfield Friday at the school's field. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Jason and Sharon Garrett and their family. (Courtesy photo)
Jason Garrett on the sidelines during a Bishop Dwenger football game last season. (Courtesy photo)
Jason Garrett, Bishop Dwenger High School football coach. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)

Every Friday during high school football season, the Bishop Dwenger Saints players and coaches climb into their buses.

Because their home games are at Zollner Stadium, about 2½ miles from the high school campus, every game is a road game. The bus ride is just one of the traditions new head coach Jason Garrett can close his eyes, see, hear and smell.

“The men put on their helmets and leave them unstrapped,” Garrett said. “As soon as the first guy sees the lights, they start snapping it up. Whew. It still sends chills down my spine.”

There’s a reason why Dwenger had only five head coaches in the previous 53 years of its program. It’s a destination job. The program has a state reputation not only for tradition, but for excellence on and off the field. Expectations are high, but shared. Times can sometimes be tough, but the Dwenger family ties are tougher.

Those most loyal to the program would point to the strength of the spiritual aspect of the Catholic school’s team. Garrett, whose primary job is Dwenger campus minister, can certainly relate to the integration of faith with football.

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Garrett met with the players Thursday after he was announced as the successor to the retiring Chris Svarczkopf, and he gave each player a nail. They hope to build on the school’s four state, nine semistate, 20 regional and 24 sectional titles.

“I see it as being a herald of the great tradition,” Garrett said. “Not just the snapping of the helmets, but the style of play and, more importantly, who we are as men as coaches and who we are as young men, and how that is lived out on the field and off the field.”

Garrett, 48, brings experience as a head coach. He has led the Dwenger baseball team to three conference titles, three sectional titles and a regional title in four years. But, more importantly, he brings the resume of someone who understands the value of faith, family, sacrifice and teamwork.

FAMILY TIES

Jason and Sharon Garrett met when both were students at Saint Joseph’s College in Rensselaer, even though they were raised in Fort Wayne 10 minutes from each other. They married in 1993 and their first year together Jason was resident director of a 100-plus freshmen men’s dorm at Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

“We survived that, so everything else was going to be easy after that,” Jason Garrett said.

That was indeed the start of something big. Here’s the list of Jason and Sharon’s children and their ages: Emily, 24; Dominic, 22: Louis, 20; Grace, 19; Michael, 17; Cecilia, 15; Simon, 14; Xavier, 12; Lydia, 9; Blaise, 7; and Jude, 4.

“We didn’t set out with any particular goal in mind or a desire for a big family,” Garrett said. “Of our 13 children, two were miscarriages and are in heaven and we cherish their lives. With our pro-life stance, there’s value in that. We have 11 running around on earth here.

“We got to three children and said, ‘We’re outnumbered. It doesn’t matter from here.’ After that, we were going for more help.”

Should his wife be referred to as Saint Sharon? “She would blush,” he said. “But that’s a fact.”

The size of his family is a conversation starter, even in the interview process. And it’s legitimate. How will he have time to be campus minister, father to a huge family, and coach?

“Having been blessed with a large family, we’ve learned to make sacrifices together,” Garrett said. “My wife was the first one to encourage me to apply and pursue the position. My kids have been on the baseball diamond and the football field with me and the younger ones come out to practice and kind of feel a part of it.”

Garrett and his family, in other words, remained connected on the field. Connections, too, helped make Garrett’s case a strong one to take over as head coach.

DWENGER CONNECTIONS REVIVED

Garrett played football, baseball and few other sports at Dwenger, graduating in 1988. His high school coach was Andy Johns, who ran the program from 1980 to 2001 before turning the reins over to Svarczkopf.

Garret’s condensed post-high school resume: After Saint Joseph’s College, he earned a master’s degree in guidance and counseling at Northern State. He became the national director for Conquest Clubs and Programs, a leadership program for fathers and sons. He served as executive director of Redeemer Radio in its early days, worked as a pastoral associate at Saint Mary’s in Decatur and returned to Dwenger in 2012. Before his time in the Dwenger high school football program, he was in charge of the St. Charles middle school football program.

When Garrett returned to Dwenger, he became the freshman football coach. His assistant was Fred Tone, the long-time principal and coach who passed away after a 2015 illness. Tone was an assistant to Johns when Garrett played at Dwenger.

“Fred kind of came out of retirement and we coached together,” Garrett said. “That freshman team ended up state champions (as seniors) in 2015. That was neat in a lot of ways.”

Dwenger football made a video of its traditions, with Tone explaining them, before that 2015 run. It was also a season where Ernie Bojrab filled in as interim head coach while Svarczkopf also dealt with cancer. Garrett’s role as campus minister was especially vital during that season, too.

“I look back at that and say thank goodness for the traditions and the things we have here,” Garrett said. “Everything is laid out and structured, and having those guys be such a big part of everything fueled the attitude and motivation.”

That 2015 season, with the illnesses of Svarczkopf and Tone, was a test for everyone and ultimately revealed the strength of the program’s cohesiveness.

“When I graduated here 30 years ago, in 1988, I never would have dreamed I’d be in the same halls, and now as football coach,” Garrett said. “It’s pretty inspiring to be part of it.”

EMBRACING A NEW ROLE

Garrett will coach baseball this spring, then give up that position to concentrate his coaching duties fully on football year round. With his job as campus minister, his responsibilities as husband and father, and his new identity as the head football coach, Garrett’s busy life will be even busier.

“When you are able to get to the point in life where what you do is more of an expression of who you are, you’ll be very happy you’re busy,” Garrett said. “Not all days will you wake up and go, ‘Yes, another long day!’ but it’s very fulfilling. Working with young men, they inspire me far, far more than I’ve ever given inspiration myself.”

After receiving the go-ahead to pursue the head coaching job from his wife, Garrett spoke with Bishop Kevin Rhoades of the Fort Wayne-South Bend diocese. He wanted to talk about the compatibility of minister and football coach.

Rhoades told Garrett he felt the two roles, minister and coach, work well as complementary positions.

“Chris did a great job of bringing virtue and themes of Christ-like leadership and integrating those into practice and such,” Garrett said. “So we’ll continue to build upon that. We want to focus on helping young men become great men.”

Garrett vows developing quality men will remain the most important tradition of Bishop Dwenger football.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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