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Jerry O'Donnell, a former Iowa Hawkeye football player and Columbus High School teacher is fighting a rare form of cancer. He is shown here at his Waterloo home.

WATERLOO | Jerry O'Donnell had what is known in athletics as a "coachable moment."

It may well have been a personal spiritual resurrection.

He has faced a lot of challenges in his life — playing football for the Iowa Hawkeyes; working nights at Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids to earn a living for his young family; teaching and coaching at Columbus High School; and going into business as an entrepreneur and inventor.

But O'Donnell — affectionately known as "OD" to former students and friends — faced what may have been his biggest challenge in December 2013 when he was diagnosed with a rare, typically fatal, cancer of the duodenum.

He needed some "coaching up." He got it from another former football player — his son, Brett, who quarterbacked at Columbus and the University of Northern Iowa, now in the mortgage business in the Kansas City, Mo., area.

It happened just a few weeks after his father's diagnosis.

"I was sick. I had just got done throwing up. I'm laying in bed," Jerry said. "And my son came in. And he's the one that really sparked me — Brett. I had lost 25 pounds in two weeks.

"He said, 'Dad, cancer wants you to lay in bed. And cancer doesn't want you to eat. And cancer wants you to just lay there and be sick.

'Is that what you want?'

"That was an incredible wake-up call," Jerry said. "And how difficult for a son to tell his father that.

"I said, 'Brett, you're absolutely right. You are absolutely right.' And I got up and started doing some things. Immediately," Jerry said.

"It's so easy to step into that spiral of self-pity and poor me and all that. I was there for a day. And a day was enough for me. And my son pulled me out. He absolutely pulled me out."

Jerry O'Donnell has begun sharing his story with others. Recently, an estimated 200 to 300 people, including many of his former students and colleagues, filled the Anne Sulentic Parish Center at Blessed Sacrament Catholic Church to hear him.

His talking points contained a three-word note he wrote to himself at an emotionally difficult time:

"Suck it up."

Jerry O'Donnell is a 1963 graduate of New Hampton High School. He married his high school sweetheart, Oletha, in 1967.

He was the Hawkeyes' starting halfback in the mid-1960s under coaches Jerry Burns and Ray Nagel — not a hallmark era for Iowa football.

In a 1966 matchup with highly ranked Michigan State, O'Donnell was knocked out of the game in the first quarter on a hit by Bubba Smith, who later starred for the Baltimore Colts in the National Football League.

Despite such struggles, many of O'Donnell's teammates went on to play in the NFL.

But next up for O'Donnell was marriage to Oletha and other priorities. The young couple aspired to work in Venezuela for the Peace Corps, but Oletha became pregnant. Then came the Quaker job. O'Donnell finished his education at Coe College, also in Cedar Rapids, where he also coached freshman football.

Soon, O'Donnell was teaching physical education at Columbus, where he worked from 1969-74, also serving as an assistant football and track coach.

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"I thought I'd died and gone to heaven," O'Donnell said.

But he got the entrepreneurial itch and went into private business. He ran a paint crew, then spent 10 years at the John Deere Product Engineering Center developing labor-management teams. After Deere, he became involved in developing more than 30 different products, ranging from "For Arms," a workout device, to a magnetized thumb guard and nail set for pounding nails.

Now, O'Donnell's most important job is taking care of himself.

It's working.

When first diagnosed with cancer at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., he was given 12 to 15 months to live.

That was almost 16 months ago.

The cancer has contracted; blood clots in his lungs have dissipated. He's trying for a longer interval between chemotherapy treatments.

He's exercising, walking and riding a stationary bicycle. He's eating and taking nutritional supplements. He researched the disease and developed a personal program to fight it.

"And there's a spiritual side of healing that is so vitally important," he said. "I prayed for myself once — that's the only time I ever prayed for myself — and I asked God to remove this, if he would. Now, I don't go back and pray for myself. I have enough people from church and friends that are sick. They need my prayers. God didn't forget my file. He doesn't need any reminders."

O'Donnell also knows people are praying for him — a lesson in humility and gratitude he has learned to accept.

"How do you quantify prayer?" he said, noting his apparently improved condition. "There's a physical side I'm responsible for, and there's a spiritual side that has no boundaries."

He lives his life with a new sense of appreciation. 

"The importance of each day is more significant than it's ever been before. The importance of each relationship I have is taking on a different depth than it ever has before," O'Donnell said.

He treasures his children -- son Brett, daughters Melissa Vande Berg and Margot Bodensteiner -- his grandchildren and his wife.

"Things have on a different dimension and perspective, and how insignificant some things are," O'Donnell said. "I spent times in my life pole vaulting over mouse droppings, thinking they were so important. And they're nothing. Most of that had to do with material needs. I'm trying to fill spiritual needs today."

That applies to dealing with his illness. He doesn't blame God. He worries more about the people who depend on him than about himself.

"I said, 'I don't want you to worry about me.' I am going to show up,'" he said. "I have a job to do. I have responsibility in this thing. I am responsible for the effort of my recovery. Exercise. Changing diet. Prayer. Attitude. I am going to do that.

"Faith has to be a living faith. So you have to show it. I'm trying to do that, not just for me but for my wife and children. You absolutely have to live it."

The final outcome may be out of his hands, but "I have to do the right journey," O'Donnell said.

He found that resolve after one coachable moment with his son.

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