DEL CITY — Christian Heritage football coach John Merrell looked up at the clock at 7:23 p.m. last Thursday.
It was seven minutes until kickoff of one of CHA's biggest games in recent years, a crucial district matchup against rival Oklahoma Christian, and Merrell was exactly where he was supposed to be that night — not at the football field.
Merrell was in a hospital room with his daughter, Jenni Kufahl, who two days earlier had been diagnosed with Stage 3 colon cancer. He was sitting with her, praying for her. He read Bible verses to her, and listened when she asked the doctor if she was going to die.
Merrell was being a father, which on the scale of importance, rates well above being a football coach.
“It seems like a trite statement that football isn't life or death, but that was really brought home to me when I was told that Jenni had cancer,” Merrell said. “I forgot all about football.”
It was the first time in 39 years as a coach — the last 30 as the head man at CHA — that Merrell wasn't on the field with his team on game night.
“For a short time right around kickoff, I had a sense that I had abandoned them,” Merrell said. “It didn't last very long, but it was a terrible feeling.
“I knew it wasn't my place. I knew where I was supposed to be.”
Given the circumstances, his players didn't expect anything different of him.
“It was a little different not having him there,” senior Trenton Stamps said. “But we knew that's where he should be. We had him in our hearts, and just tried to play our best.
“I get too into football sometimes, so it helps to remember that family is more important.”
Kufahl is married to CHA volleyball and boys basketball coach Heath Kufahl, so the Crusader community was hit hard by the news of her cancer. Yet they've come forward in droves, showing support by providing food, helping with the Kufahls' seven children, or just praying.
Early reports from doctors have been positive, and the support has boosted Jenni's desire to fight.
“It's been absolutely amazing the family of God that has come to Jenni and Heath's side during this time,” Merrell said. “They've committed to help and be active. The outpouring of love and support has been overwhelming and encouraging.
“To see God's grace and his love at work during this time has been overwhelming. I can't imagine facing something like this and not having God to call on.”
Merrell returned to practice with his team Monday and took time to share the story of what he experienced last week.
“It showed us all the example that he set, to put his family first,” quarterback Colton Lindsey said. “Football isn't everything. It's fun, and you want to work hard at it, but it's not the main focus of life.”
“I've been encouraged,” added Stamps. “I look up to coach Merrell a lot. To see how he reacted to that situation — just calm and cool and trusting in the Lord — really encouraged me.”
Merrell wasn't trying to use the experience as a teaching moment for anyone. He was simply living the way he believed he was supposed to live.
“No. 1 in my life is my relationship with God, and the next thing is my family,” he said. “Past that, there's nothing close to those two things.”
Fans pick Cashion's Reasnor as Player of the Week
In a tight race, Cashion quarterback Ty Reasnor edged Tecumseh running back Julian Tramble for the top spot in the NewsOK Varsity Oklahoma City-area Football Player of the Week fan poll.
Reasnor completed 15 of 26 passes for 287 yards and four touchdowns, including a 31-yard, game-winning TD in the final minute to defeat Crescent.
Here are the final results of the fan poll:
Ty Reasnor, Cashion: 531 votes (36.6 pct.)
Julian Tramble, Tecumseh: 491 votes (33.9 pct.)
Colton Ebers, Wellston: 222 votes (15.3 pct.)
Chris High, Douglass: 117 votes (8.1 pct.)
Bryan Dutton, Guthrie: 89 votes (6.1 pct.)
Total: 1,450 votes