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It’s not about a football game – it’s about a lifetime of friendships

Mick Flaherty had a tough decision to make.

Just six days after laying to rest his son Tim, the highly respected manager of Fort Dodge’s Hy-Vee store who died Sept. 6, Mick was to meet up with St. Edmond High School classmates in Iowa City for their annual gathering at a Hawkeye football game against Kent State.

Tim’s death was totally unexpected and fell heavily on Mick and his wife, Alyce, and the close-knit Flaherty family. Tim had been healthy and immersed in a wonderful life with wife Jodi and their four children.

“Mick,” his friend and classmate Paul Stevens told him in a phone call the day before Tim’s services, “you do what is best for you and Alyce and your family – the guys will understand if you decide not to come. But if you do, you’ll be swallowed up in a sea of hugs and support from guys who love you.”

With Alyce’s support, that’s just what he did. Mick was greeted with warmth and affection, saw a Hawkeye victory over Kent State, and got to spend time with his grandson Sean – Tim’s son, a senior who does film work for Hawkeye football – at a pre-game dinner and at Sean’s apartment.

This story epitomizes what the annual gathering of a dozen St. Edmond Class of ’64 classmates (and three adopted from the Class of ’63) is all about.

“It began 20-plus years ago with some great friends wanting to see the Hawkeyes play,” Greg Sells said. “But it quickly evolved into wanting to see some great friends and also see the Hawkeyes play. In a world of uncertainties and changes, it’s comforting to get together with friends of 65 years or more.”

It’s a tradition that began 21 years ago – ironically, in Kirk Ferentz’ second season as Iowa’s head coach – when there were just three of them – Sells of Carmichael, California., Paul Wright of Nashville and Paul Stevens of Lenexa, Kansas.

Frank Kopish, of Bloomington, Minnesota., agrees that it is friends first, game second: “It’s not about a football game. It’s about a lifetime of friendship as we reach our mid-70s with an even greater realization of what’s most important in life.

“The meaning of the weekend has changed with time. At first the weekend was just to be able to see a good football game with friends. As time passed, the weekend has become a reunion. A reunion of old grade school friends, high school friends and new friends. The game is not the main objective of the weekend. The time is spent reliving the past year ups and downs, goods and bads. A time to gather support for your coming year and challenges.

“I don’t even know how many years I have been attending this special time, but each one has been a life-enriching experience and a learning experience. I have untold respect and love for each one of the group. I personally have been blessed with some extraordinary people.”

The tradition has persevered through the births of grandchildren…the deaths of parents, of classmates, and other loved ones…through the end of their working lives and into their new world of retirement…of health issues and other maladies of aging. They’ve helped each other cope with change that comes with life.

“This annual event contributes so much to my happiness,” said Steve Dapper, of Austin, Texas. “I wait with great expectations each year (sans COVID) and then it is over in a blink of an eye…but memories of laughs, smiles, and ever-expanding stories that last until the next visit. High school friendships that run this deep and with our posse of 12 are extremely rare. True love and compassion for all. No judgment, just a hug when needed.”

The genesis for the reunion goes back to 1967-68 when Sells, Wright and Stevens (and Harry Baumhover of Carroll) shared an apartment in Iowa City while attending the University of Iowa. It came in the wake of a tragic car accident a year earlier that cost Sells the use of his legs. They were big Hawkeye fans (Sells’ older brother Boake played football at Iowa), even though the Hawks were in the throes of losing seasons.

It was also a time when love and friendship shined through – even when the times were not easy. Wright recalls going with Sells to the Iowa Fieldhouse to register for classes. It was a wet, sloppy day and the tile floor was slippery.

“Greg was using crutches and he slipped and went down face-first,” Wright recalled. “He was insistent that he help himself, so I resisted the urge to help him up. He struggled to get to his feet, cleaned himself off, grinned at me and said, ‘That was a helluva start, wasn’t it?’ That resolve has carried with me throughout my life whenever something difficult comes along.”

Fast forward to 1982 when all three were through with their schooling and into their chosen professions: Sells and Stevens met in Pasadena, California., to see the Hawkeyes and star quarterback Chuck Long and Coach Hayden Fry play the University of Washington in the Rose Bowl. Disabled access was limited so they were seated on the playing field, in a corner of the end zone right in front of the Washington band.

Finally, a couple decades later, the three decided it was time to return to Iowa City to see the Hawkeyes play. They did, watching the Hawks lose to Iowa State, 24-14, in 2000. It wasn’t initially intended to become an annual event, but that’s what happened.

In subsequent years, they were joined by Kopish and fellow Twin Cities residents John Anderson and Pat O’Brien; Dapper; Doug Goodrich of La Quinta, California., and Whitewater, Wisconsin.; Mark McCarville of Evanston, Illinois., and Flaherty, a lifelong resident of Fort Dodge.

Stevens’ brothers-in-law Mike Tracy of Cherokee and Gene Baker of Clear Lake (the only member without a direct Fort Dodge tie) joined in, and two of Tracy’s St. Edmond Class of 1963 classmates completed the group – Dennis Lawler, of Springdale, Arkansas., and Jim Konvalinka, of Wylie, Texas.

Before his first game with the group, Lawler marked his calendar thinking it was for the Iowa State homecoming game in Ames – but soon discovered it was for the Hawkeyes’ homecoming in Iowa City: “I’m an ISU alum, but I’ve been a Hawkeye fan since I was about 8, so it didn’t matter. Besides, it’s about the guys, not the game.

“The first of these reunions that I attended was especially memorable to me because, while I knew most of the ‘younger’ guys, they weren’t in my class, and I hadn’t seen them for decades. In the hotel lobby the day before the game, one by one, these old friends drifted in. One was Frank Kopish. Frank played center on the football team, and I was the quarterback. Frank came up to me in the lobby, extended his right hand, and said, ‘Hi, Denny. Frank Kopish.’ I replied, ‘Turn around.’ He did. ‘Yup,’ I said. ‘You’re Frank. I’d recognize that tush anywhere.'”

Goodrich said his wife Barb asked him how it went upon his return from his first weekend with the group.

“I could only express it in this fashion,” he said. “We had our dinner at the Iowa Power and Light and though we had all aged with children and grandchildren, I felt as if we had just shagged the drag and settled down on the Square for a pizza. The conversation was so familiar and heartwarming. Everyone was just the same in spite of the passing years. I felt so privileged to be a part of the old group again and it remains my favorite weekend of the year.”

Not all of the games the group has attended were in Iowa City. One season, they met in Fort Dodge on a Friday night to watch St. Edmond (coached by Dick Tighe) in a game at Dodger Stadium and the next day traveled to Ames’ Jack Trice Stadium to watch the Cyclones and Northern Iowa play after a tailgate party hosted by Flaherty. Dapper, Kopish and Lawler are Iowa State grads and Flaherty is an avid Cyclone fan.

(Speaking of Tighe, the winningest prep football coach in Iowa history over 63 years of coaching, Mick Flaherty and his grandson Sean both played for Tighe. Not many grandpas and their grandsons can say that.)

Another year, they met in Minneapolis-St. Paul and were joined by their wives for a dinner after watching the Hawkeyes defeat the Golden Gophers at Huntington Bank Stadium.

In Iowa City, a highlight one year was to watch a practice of the Iowa basketball team at Carver Arena in Coach Fran McCaffery’s first season as Hawkeye coach, in 2010. After practice, McCaffery posed with members of the group for a photo.

And perhaps the most memorable moment of any game the group attends at Kinnick Stadium is taking part in college football’s most inspiring tradition. It’s the wonderful, tear-inducing Iowa Wave – when at the end of the first quarter everyone in the stadium, players of both teams included, turn to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital overlooking Kinnick, and wave to all of the patients – who in turn wave back.

The trips alone to Iowa City can become an event. O’Brien is joined by Kopish, Sells and Anderson for the drive from the Twin Cities and said their usual stop for lunch is the East Bremer Diner in Waverly where they find great small-town Iowa cuisine including breaded pork tenderloin sandwiches.

“We are still searching for Maid Rites,” O’Brien said, but Lawler and Stevens have found just that in their trip up I-35 from Kansas City. Their regular stop for lunch is at the Maid Rite restaurant in Lamoni, just north of the Iowa-Missouri border, where they imbibe in a tenderloin or Maid Rite sandwich at the Iowa-born restaurant (Muscatine, 1926).

Said Anderson, a retired teacher and coach, “Even though most of us had not been in regular contact with our football group over the years, when we meet for the game it’s like we are just a few years removed from high school. We still share stories about high school and even grade school. Many great stories about the antics that were pulled that drove our teachers crazy.”

Anderson’s wife Barb adds: “Every fall the guys gear up for their football weekend and each time I am reminded of the tight-knit friendships they had in high school. It is so like them to keep connected and maintain these lifelong friendships. I love this tradition!”

Flaherty, a longtime insurance agent and financial adviser in Fort Dodge, doesn’t regret the decision to join his classmates for the Kent State game – though at dinner Friday night, he was cemented to his mobile phone to track the first start of his grandson, sophomore J.T. Laufersweiler, as Gael quarterback. Flaherty was also rightfully proud that in death, Tim’s corneas, kidneys and liver were donated through the Iowa Donor Network.

“He lives on, through them,” Flaherty said.

“Alyce and I both thought that having supper with Sean was important since this had been planned for months and he was looking forward to it,” Flaherty said. “The classmates were so welcoming to him and me. It is an experience that he or I will never forget. We are so fortunate to have family and friends at a time like this. My motto now is that you will never see a rainbow if you keep looking down.”

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