Dennis Koerner would embrace the opportunity to be coaching against former McHenry football coach Mike Noll’s powerhouse teams of 20 years ago.
Or facing a three-touchdown, second-half deficit against Woodstock and its venerable coach Bob Bradshaw.
Or to be coming off a 3-6 season in which his Crystal Lake Central team missed the playoffs.
Or even going through months of rehabilitation after tearing an Achilles tendon while celebrating a Tigers’ touchdown, as Koerner once did.
Any of those scenarios, arduous as they might seem, would be more enjoyable than what the former Central football coach now faces each day. Koerner, 60, discovered over the summer that his high blood pressure had led to kidney failure and two strokes.
Koerner followed the guidelines in place and underwent extensive tests over several months and was placed on the kidney transplant list last month at the University of Wisconsin Hospital in Madison. His kidneys currently function at 14 percent of their normal rate, so dialysis is not yet necessary.
Between his physical struggles from the strokes and fatigue from the blood pressure medicine, Koerner’s days are rough. He and his wife Kay moved to Lake Carroll, Ill., a private lake home comunity about 30 minutes south of Freeport, in 2007.
“I watch a lot of TV and it gets old,” Koerner said. “The medicines I take make me very drowsy. I do a lot of sleeping. Other than that, I watch the clock and the days go by. What are you going to do? Life throws you a curveball … .”
Koerner has a lot of supporters out there between former colleagues, athletes and students.
Former Central teacher and coach Arnie Kay is one of Koerner’s closest friends, having worked and coached with him for more than two decades. Kay helped organize fundraising for the Koerners at helphopelive.org. Anyone wishing to contribute can go to that site, type in Koerner’s name and make a donation or leave him a message.
“The insurance will cover the transplant, but the anti-rejection drugs are not covered very well,” Arnie Kay said. “Drug insurance is different than health insurance. He’ll have to take those drugs the rest of his life. They’re covered at only about 20 percent.”
Koerner’s illness hit Kay and others at Central quite hard. Two years ago, Central lost an icon in Doug Blundy, a teacher, volleyball coach and athletic director, after a long bout with multiple myeloma cancer.
“For me, personally, this has been tough,” Arnie Kay said. “Two of my best friends were Doug and Denny.”
Koerner came to Central in 1978, the year Crystal Lake South opened, as a physical education teacher and assistant football coach. He took over as Tigers head coach in 1988 after Bill Mack retired and Central made the playoffs three of the next four years.
Koerner, who played offensive line at Illinois State, was Central’s head coach for 13 seasons and his teams were 49-71.
In 2007, Dennis and his wife, a teacher at Prairie Grove Elementary School, both retired, sold their house in McHenry and moved to Lake Carroll. Dennis bowled in a league and spent time golfing and fishing in the warmer months.
Now, the former coach, who was so vibrant, needs assistance from a walker and struggles with the most mundane physical acts.
“It’s been life-changing to say the least,” Kay Koerner said. “It’s been quite the challenge emotionally, physically, mentally … but boy, do we have a wonderful support system. We have found that out.”
The Koerners have reason to be encouraged. Dennis’ kidneys are functioning enough to get by and Kay Koerner says that people have lived on dialysis for as long as 15 years. Medical personnel at UW-Madison also say their organ donation rate is favorable.
Kay Koerner said they have been warned that Dennis could even arrive at the hospital and be ready for a transplant, but doctors could then discover that particular organ would not work. The plan will be to transplant the new kidney in front of the other two, which will remain in his body, functioning the best they can.
Koerner began feeling weak last spring when his bowling scores and his drive off the golf tee took dramatic drops. His blood pressure was 250/180 and his kidneys began failing. Near the same time, he suffered the strokes.
“Last spring I could tell I wasn’t as strong,” Koerner said. “It was really weird. I was wondering, ‘What is it?’ My feet got tingly sometimes. There were signs something was going on.”
Instead of heading to Madison to visit their daughter, Lora Kuehl, her husband John, her son Finley (6) and her daughter Rowan (4), the Koerners spend most of their time in town at the hospital.
“We’ve completed all the tests we have to do,” Kay Koerner said. “Right now, we’re trying to focus on keeping him stable. We have a lift chair and a hospital bed, that helps with getting up in the morning. For someone like Dennis, who was an athlete and a coach, it’s quite a shock.”
The Koerners can only wait and hope for a prospective kidney that is an appropriate match. While Dennis’ body will never be the same, a transplant could return their lives to some semblance of normalcy. He could golf again, bowl again, hop on his boat and fish again.
Even walk on his own again.
“Hopefully, we’ll get a phone call in the near future and get this thing rolling,” Dennis said. “I don’t know how they select it, there are certain stipulations, but when they say, ‘Go,’ I’ll go. I sure would like to do other things. We’ll see what happens.”