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A recurring series on WGLT's Sound Ideas about the central Illinois athletes who do incredible things, even after the game is over.

Beyond Sports: Wegner Steps Up To Plate One Last Time After Cancer Strikes Twice

Jake Wegner is a two-time cancer survivor who finally got to live out his dream on the baseball diamond — one of the few bright spots over the last year, though the challenges of enduring the pandemic and losing a close friend haven't shaken his sprits.

The Normal Community graduate gave up playing baseball six years ago after he was diagnosed with a 10-pound tumor in his stomach. But he never gave up hope of playing again as Wegner explained in this edition of Beyond Sports.

This past year, he had to give up coaching the Bloomington Bobcats baseball team for a while as the pandemic temporarily shut down the Kernels Collegiate League season.

Then this spring, Wegner dealt with the unexpected death of his mentor and boss, Bobcats general manager Mike Brown.

“He challenged me. He had this tough love and I can tell he cared because he was hard on me, but he still told me he loved me all the time,” Wegner recalled of Brown. Except for his parents, Wegner said no one visited him in the hospital during his cancer treatments more than Brown.

Jake with parents
courtesy
Jake Wenger poses for a photo with his parents Lisa and Matt Wegner.

Wegner said he's in good health now: cancer-free, fully vaccinated against COVID-19 and feeling good enough to get one last chance to swing the bat.

As a tribute to his beloved coach, friend, mentor and caretaker, the speakers blared the Frank Sinatra classic, “New York, New York” when Wegner walked to the plate amid cheering fans for what would be his only collegiate game appearance as a senior for Central College in Pella, Iowa, on May 16.

Wegner noted Brown made it a tradition of playing that song at the ballpark after each Bobcats win. The plan was for Mike Brown to be there, too, to witness Wegner’s return to the field after a six-year hiatus.

Wegner still had many friends, family members and teammates to cheer him on and those teammates greeted him with a standing ovation and a lineup of congratulatory hugs and handshakes after he returned to the dugout following his one at-bat.

Wegner didn't get a hit, but that’s didn’t make the moment any less special. “I wanted to end my playing career on my terms and that was the whole reason for this, to not let cancer define the ending of my playing career,” he said, adding his coach offered him the chance to stay in the game so he could bat again, but Wegner declined.

“Nothing was going to top that moment,” he recalled.

Wegner, 24, said he's just grateful to still be involved in the game and finally be healthy again. Following a year in which pandemic restrictions caused hardships for many, Wegner said the challenges he's faced have given him perspective.

“There’s lots of things that happen in our life that we can’t control, so if you can have a great attitude and give a great effort in everything you do, and just be thankful for people in your life, and be thankful for a beating heart and air in your lungs,” Wegner said. “That’s the best thing in life.”

Wegner said he plans to continue coaching the Bloomington Bobcats, the collegiate summer league team, and wants to teach and coach high school baseball in Bloomington-Normal after he completes a student teaching assignment in Iowa this fall.

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