Neither child, nor father, left behind

Wednesday Journal 2005 Citizen Awards

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Steve Marifjeren
The irony of Steve Marifjeren's life is that his father, who was taken from him so early, will always be an inextricable part of his life story.

"I had to grow up faster," says Steve, "about 25 times faster."

Juel Marifjeren, a supervisor for the V.A., was murdered by an unstable former employee when his son was just 11 years old.

Steve, his mother, and older sister had to work a lot harder to make a go of it. The Ascension community rallied and helped support the family, but Steve says, "My dad's death made me work harder. I figured I need to do as well as I can in case my family needs something in the future."

Fortunately, he inherited his dad's work ethic. Though, as his mom will attest, Steve can sleep in with the best of them, once he gets up, he says, he keeps busy?#34;homework, even housework. "I'll go for three straight hours," he notes.

His dad's high standards are reflected in the fact that the Veterans Administration subsequently created an annual award for the nation's best V.A. supervisor?#34;as Steve puts it, "the one who really excels in his job." It's called the "Juel Award." Each year the presentation is held in a different city, and the V.A. flies the family to the ceremony, all expenses paid.

Steve says it feels good to see the high regard his father is held in.

But the first couple of years after he died, nothing felt good.

"I couldn't control my emotions," he said. "I was a timebomb. I had a lot of anger toward the world."

They tried counseling, but it wasn't what he needed.

What he needed, it turns out, was a good coach.

His dad had been his coach early on, and Steve learned a lot from him.

"My dad was a real person. He was a great athlete himself, but he always worked with the kids who weren't so talented. He made me realize that not everyone is gifted. He taught me patience and understanding. He didn't spend all his time with me like some fathers might. He cared about others."

Sports became Steve's outlet, his therapy.

"I don't know what I'd have done without it," he says.

Though she rooted for him, Kathleen, his mom didn't know that much about sports. What Steve needed was another good coach, and Ascension's Pat Allen was there to fit the bill.

"He was kind of a disciplinarian. I called him every couple of days. I'm what they call a 'coach's player,' always thinking and analyzing the games. We talked a lot. He was my mentor, but the last couple of years we've been like best friends."

And they talked about more than sports. Allen encouraged him to go to Fenwick, where Steve thrived both academically and athletically. He developed a comfortable routine?#34;"school, sports, study, sleep. I couldn't dwell on life and get screwed up."

Religion also helped. His uncle started taking him to Harvest Bible Chapel in Rolling Meadows, and he read the scriptures on his own.

"After I lost my dad, I lost half my heart," he says. "I needed something to fill the void." Sports, studying, scripture, friends, etc. couldn't fill it completely, but they helped.

At Fenwick, he became a star soccer player (making all-Catholic League this year) and a regular starter on the basketball team. As a senior, he also became the placekicker for the football team (a perfect 10 for 10 on extra points) even though it sometimes meant he'd have to jump in a car and travel from football to soccer in the same day.

His hard work academically paid off when he applied to the University of Illinois Honors Business Program (as a backup?#34;he was still hoping to play college soccer) and was accepted with a $6,000/year scholarship attached.

The U of I has club soccer, which Steve might try out for, but, he says, "I want to focus on real life and academics so I can get a good job out of college."

Coaching is also likely to be in that future. He's been helping Allen coach the
Ascension basketball team the last few years, which fulfilled his Fenwick community service requirement, but mostly because he enjoys it.

As for advice to kids just entering high school, Steve says, first get your work done. "Worry about going out later. You'll have your social life, but use your time wisely during the day. Don't dig a hole you have to climb out of."

And if you're struggling, he says, ask for help?#34;from teachers and from classmates. People, he's found, are surprisingly willing to help.

"They took the time to help me."

Of the gruelling practices, the hard work in and
out of class, the lessons learned, he says, "It was all
worth it."

Don't take anything for granted, he advises. That was one of the biggest lessons from dealing with loss so early in his life.

"I value everything so much more now."

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