FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. — Arkansas coach Bret Bielema sat in a restaurant two nights ago, enjoying a rare Saturday evening off with his wife, Jen, when his phone rang. Bielema saw the name “Marty Ragnow” appear on the screen and declined the call, figuring he could call her back after finishing his meal.
But when Marty — the mother of Arkansas offensive lineman Frank Ragnow — called a second time, Bielema stepped out to take the call and learned the awful news: Her husband, Frank’s father, had suffered a heart attack and died.
Jon Ragnow was 54. The tragedy struck just a few hours after Arkansas’ 52-10 win over Alcorn State that day.
Marty Ragnow asked Bielema to find Frank because she wanted him to be with his coach when he learned the news. Bielema dropped everything, called Frank and asked him to meet him at the Razorbacks football facility. There, Bielema handed Frank his phone so his mother could deliver the heartbreaking, stunning news.
Little Rock billionaire and Arkansas football booster Warren Stephens helped facilitate a flight — which, according to Bielema, was allowed by the NCAA — for Frank back home to Victoria, Minn., but he wasn’t alone on the flight. Bret and Jen Bielema joined him, spent time with the Ragnow family and flew back to Arkansas after midnight Sunday morning.
The Bielemas had a Saturday night off and with top-ranked Alabama coming to town next weekend, Bret surely will have little one-on-one time with Jen throughout this week. So why was it important for him to be on that flight?
Because Bret Bielema has been here before.
On Oct. 20, 1990, Bielema — then an Iowa defensive lineman — learned only hours after his team’s 24-23 win over No. 10 Michigan that his sister, Betsy, had died. Six teammates piled into a minivan with Bielema for the trip back to his hometown of Prophetstown, Ill.
In December 1996, when Bielema was an Iowa assistant, linebacker Mark Mitchell’s parents were driving to see the Hawkeyes in the Alamo Bowl when they were involved in a car accident that killed Mitchell’s mother.
Bielema flew with Mitchell to Des Moines on a bowl sponsor’s corporate jet.
And in September 1998, another of Bielema’s Iowa linebackers — Travis Senters — lost his father to a heart attack.
Bielema said now, as a head coach, when he recruits players, he doesn’t make any promises about playing time or even academic success.
“But one thing I can tell you is I’ll always look out for your son’s best interest,” Bielema tells them.
“I say that every time and I mean it. I thought I needed to get Frank home, so that was it.”
Bielema was visibly emotional as he announced the news of Jon Ragnow’s death at his weekly news conference Monday.
Bielema said he’s exchanged some text messages with Frank over the last couple of days, and added that Frank made it clear even before the flight to Minnesota on Saturday that he wants to play in the Alabama game this weekend. Bielema said he hopes Frank will return to the team later this week, although those plans are only tentative and certainly could change.
Ragnow has started all five games — four at center and one at right guard — for the Razorbacks this season. He is seen widely as one of the most important and best players on the Arkansas offense.
He started all 13 games at right guard as a sophomore last season.
Should Ragnow be unavailable against the Crimson Tide, junior Jake Raulerson or sophomore Zach Rogers likely would play center for the Hogs.
Of course, Ragnow’s chief concern right now is his own mental well-being and being there for his grieving family.
He posted a message to his Twitter account Monday evening, thanking those who offered support to his family.
Thank you to everyone who has reached out to our family. My dad had so many people who loved him and I'm so thankful to have him as a dad.
— Frank Ragnow (@KNARFWONGAR) October 3, 2016
“He’s got some younger brothers and sisters that needed his attention as well as his mom,” Bielema said. “That’s where we’re at with that.”