VICTORIA, Minn. — Six Ragnows sat around the kitchen table telling stories about their late husband and father. They laughed. They cried.
On this particular day, the Ragnow house didn’t seem all that quiet. But to Marty Ragnow and the five kids — from oldest to youngest: Sarah (32), Frank (21), Katie (18) and twins Maddie and Jack (17) — things have been eerily silent since Oct. 1 of last year.
Silence right here on Thrushwood Circle. Jon used to come home, plop down in his spot on the couch, hold his Android phone — he never bought into the iPhone craze, although his family thinks that may have just been his stubbornness — right near his nose and read out loud any article he found online that mentioned “Frank Ragnow.”
Silence in the Chanhassen High School gymnasium during Maddie Ragnow’s basketball games. Jon would stand at the top of the bleachers, yelling instructions to his daughter and critiques to coaches and officials. Once at practice, Maddie’s coach delicately asked her to tell her dad to tone it down a little. He didn’t. And now, all involved would give anything to hear that voice again — good, bad or indifferent.
Silence when Frank — 700 miles from home — looks at his phone and wishes more than anything to hear it ding with a text message including one of those articles, which piled into Jon’s email inbox via Google Alerts.
Silence during family board games. Jon was ultra-competitive. If the family played a game three times before Jon won, he would chuckle and declare that round was for the “world championship” and other rounds didn’t count.
Jon Ragnow died of a heart attack nearly eight months ago in this home, only a few hours after watching his son Frank play football on television.
Frank enters his senior season at Arkansas as an All-America and Rimington Trophy candidate. He was recently named a team captain. His gridiron future is bright as can be, and yet every day is a struggle.
To even begin to understand why Frank still feels this way, it’s important to know this: Jon wasn’t just a father to Frank. He was a fishing buddy. A sounding board. A No. 1 fan.
A best friend.
After telling a funny story about her dad — one of the dozens shared on this day — Katie Ragnow paused and summarized things in four words.
“He was the greatest.”
‘Just make sure you watch the game’
Early on the morning of Oct. 1, 2016 — Jon and Marty’s 22nd wedding anniversary — Frank shot his dad a text message. In it, Frank told Jon that something exciting might happen in the Razorbacks’ game against Alcorn State that day and that he shouldn’t miss a snap.
Arkansas coaches had something special drawn up in the playbook that would — if everything went right — end with Frank throwing a touchdown pass.
(Frank won’t reveal any more about the play because he’s still hopeful offensive coordinator Dan Enos dials it up sometime in 2017.)
“Just make sure you watch the game,” Frank wrote to Jon. “That’s all I’ll say.”
As if Jon Ragnow wasn’t going to watch the game. When Razorbacks games were live and he wasn’t there, Jon would demand that everyone in the living room stay quiet so he could listen to the broadcasters. One of them might mention Frank’s name and he couldn’t miss that.
The louder — more Jon-like — viewings happened on Sundays.
Arkansas crushed Alcorn State 52-10 that day and after the game, Jon and Marty took a nap. One of the last things he said to her is that he loved her.
Jon sat up in bed, then collapsed.
A doctor lives in the Ragnows’ neighborhood and worked to save him, but Jon never even made it to an ambulance.
Marty called Arkansas coach Bret Bielema and told him first. Bielema concocted an excuse to get Frank to the football facility and handed him the phone.
Frank retreated to the basement of the Arkansas football facility into a room all by himself. He sat weeping, trying to process the news that all these months later, he’s still processing. In that moment, silence — broken up by his cries — was the only option.
The person he called during trying times — the only person whose voice he wanted to hear at that moment — was the person he mourned.
Toby Saxon was born in Georgia and moved to Minnesota in the fourth grade. On his first day of school, he noticed a big kid sitting at a table wearing an Army jacket.
“For some reason,” Saxon said, “the thought crossed my mind that this might be a person I needed to get to know.”
Within minutes, Saxon had his first friend. And what a friend he was.
Even in those Chanhassen Elementary School days, Jon knew how to make others laugh — and how to give them a hard time. Throughout all 54 of his years, no one could ever one-up Jon Ragnow.
Case in point: His modest upbringing meant Jon didn’t always have new clothes on the first day of school. Most kids might be embarrassed, but Jon preempted any teasing by mockingly telling his classmates, “Oh what? You got on your back-to-school clothes?”
He kept the same tight-knit group of friends throughout his life. They took trips together. They played golf together. Everything.
One of those friends, Bryan Hed, set up Jon and Marty on a blind date. Years later, after Jon’s funeral, another of those guys from that group told Marty not to worry.
“Now you’ve got eight husbands.”
Another of those friends, Craig Thalacker, watched a video recently of Frank talking to the media and came to a weighty conclusion.
“Frank is a very polished version of Jon,” Thalacker said.
That, he said, is because of Marty.
Jon is the outgoing, gregarious jokester. Marty is the calming influence. Frank has a healthy amount of both.
“Frank got absolutely the best genes from his mom and the best genes from his dad,” Thalacker continued. “Their marriage just worked.”
Marty laughed when she remembered going to Jon’s parents’ house shortly after they started dating.
“We’d play Scrabble and I always thought, ‘Holy hell. What have I gotten myself into?’ ”
Don’t be a schmo
Hundreds of people filed into Westwood Community Church for Jon’s funeral. Thalacker marveled at how many people were there who he didn’t know, but it wasn’t entirely surprising.
An insurance salesman, Thalacker said he could bring Jon to one of his corporate events and he would fit in. A week later, they could go pheasant hunting in South Dakota with folks Jon had never met.
“They’d end up telling me, ‘Oh man, you’ve gotta bring Rags back here,’ ” Thalacker said.
Parents of Frank’s old peewee football teammates showed up. Air Liquide — where Jon worked as director of operations — shut down that day so everyone could attend.
Arkansas athletic director Jeff Long, strength coach Ben Herbert and director of football operations Mark Taurisani flew to Minnesota for the funeral.
“You didn’t have to spend much time with him to feel like you knew him,” Thalacker said. “There are a lot of people who feel very connected to that family.”
During the service, Frank gave a moving eulogy. He would find it difficult to talk much about his grief for several months, but found the strength to get through it that day.
“My dad wouldn’t want me to be a schmo in front of all these people,” Frank said as he opened the eulogy.
“Schmo” was one of Jon’s favorite words. He loved telling those he loved not to act like one.
Dictionary.com defines “schmo” as “a foolish, boring or stupid person; a jerk.” As the polar opposite of those things, Jon was probably qualified to identify a schmo.
Frank wasn’t a schmo that day. Not during his eulogy or after the funeral, when he flew back to Fayetteville with Long, Herbert and Taurisani.
No one could have blamed Frank if he had chosen to sit out the Razorbacks’ next game. It was only two days after the funeral.
There was one person who couldn’t have been OK with it, though. Jon almost certainly would have considered that a schmo move. That’s why Frank never once considered missing the Alabama game. He told Bielema the night of Jon’s death that he would play a week later.
“It was a no-brainer,” Frank said months later.
So Frank played against the Crimson Tide. After the game, Alabama coach Nick Saban found Frank on the field.
“I lost my father when I was in my first year of graduate school,” Saban told reporters after the game. “[Ragnow is] a fine young man and player. For him to have to go through that, our thoughts and prayers are with his family. I wanted to tell him that, and try to encourage him to some kind of way embrace the good memories and the good times that he had with his father because that’ll be something that he can keep with him forever.”
That gesture was especially meaningful to Frank. One summer when he was being recruited, Frank and Jon embarked on a Southern tour, hitting several college camps along the way. Alabama was one of the stops. After the Ragnows visited with Saban in his office, Frank and Jon played it cool until they got back to the car.
“We were just freaking out,” Frank remembered. “That was Nick Saban!”
Stuff like that never got old for Jon. Whether it was meeting famous coaches, talking to agents on Frank’s behalf or just reading all those articles, Jon reveled in Frank’s college football journey.
Those text messages — including any and all articles that mentioned Frank’s name — weren’t just reserved for Frank. He sent similar texts — usually prefaced with, “I don’t mean to brag, but …” to all of his buddies.
There sure would have been a lot of texts to send throughout October, November and December of last year. By all accounts, Frank had a breakout junior season. He was named the best offensive lineman in the country by Pro Football Focus and strongly considered entering the 2017 NFL Draft.
But he admitted that he really wasn’t all that focused on football after his father died.
“I didn’t watch nearly as much film as I could have,” Frank said. “The rest of the season, I kind of just went to football practice and went home.
“I just wanted to be alone. I mean, I played hard and stuff, but … I just wanted to go home.”
The void left by Jon — and the accompanying silence — isn’t something the Ragnows will ever get over. Not with constant reminders that have and still will present themselves. Two daughters whose daddy won’t walk them down the aisle.
A wife still figuring out how to operate with the person she considered a perfect counterpart — the yin to her yang. A teenage boy who is now the man of the house. Two young grandchildren — and future grandchildren — who Jon can’t spoil.
Next spring, Frank will hear his name called during the NFL draft. And then, sudden silence when he realizes he can’t share it with his dad. Frank knows what’s coming and has nearly a full year to prepare for it, but there will be no stopping it.
Overwhelming joy, then crushing pain.
Frank experienced a moment like that last month when he was named a Razorbacks captain. He couldn’t call his dad with the news, and those Google Alerts in Jon’s inbox now go unread.
Nothing brought Frank and his younger brother Jack more joy than their fishing and hunting trips with Jon. Those trips were the genesis of the “Grizzly Man Outdoors” Instagram and YouTube accounts Frank launched to share their adventures in a TV-show format.
“The plan was that I’d go to the NFL,” Frank said, “and then me, Jack and dad would have our own fishing show.”
Frank still has his teammates, coaches and friends. There remains an abundance of love in that house on Thrushwood Circle.
The Ragnows laughed when they all agreed that Bielema reminds them a good deal of Jon. It was actually years ago — long before he was even Frank’s coach — when the family had a Wisconsin football game on television and thought the then-Badgers coach kind of looked like Jon. The nose is what really stood out. Then, once Bielema started recruiting Frank, the family realized the similarities didn’t stop there.
The boisterous voice. The ability to make everyone feel like the most important person in the room. The genuine goodness.
There are the tens of thousands of fans who will cheer for — or against — Frank and his teammates on 12 days next fall.
The Ragnows, however, will still hear silence. That’s how palpable Jon Ragnow’s presence felt.
So powerful that 70,000 fans calling the Hogs can sound — to the Ragnows — like nothing, because one voice is missing.