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.”