Photo by Jeff Vorva
Joel Staszewski coaches a group of club water polo players Thursday at the Brother Rice pool. The Richards teacher and coach has gone through some serious health issues in the past 15 months.
In the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life,” a community rallies around likable lead character George Bailey in his time of need.
In real life, Richards teacher and water polo/swim coach Joel Staszewski has a similar story but to hear him tell it, he had a little of the bad-guy Mr. Potter character from the classic film in him.
“I’m so passionate as a coach that my passion kind of rubs people the wrong way,’’ he said. “I’m pretty intense when I coach and we had some rivalries.’’
But in his time of need, friends, family, students, athletes, strangers and a ton of people in the swimming community and even some people he rubbed the wrong way came through for him in his time of need, donating thousands of dollars to him and his family.
“When things are nitty-gritty, you really need people,” the man known as Coach Stu said. “These people are rivals but in the big scheme of things, we’re also friends.’’
Things couldn’t have gotten much nittier or grittier for the coach.
After he had gastric bypass surgery in June, 2016, complications from a bacterial infection gave him stroke-like symptoms.
He couldn’t eat.
He couldn’t speak.
He was in a coma.
He had a temperature of 106 degrees.
Last rites were performed.
Doctors had the family come to the hospital to possibly say “goodbye” to him for the last time.
Oh, and at home his wife, wife Jill and children Emma (age 12 at the time), Timothy (4) and triplets Claire, Nora and Lillian (2) were wondering if they would ever see dad again.
To add to that, good news was still tempered with bad news. When he found out we would live, Coach Stu was told he wouldn’t walk again.
But he’s back.
He’s back in the classroom teaching at Richards and he is back to coaching as he returned poolside in June mentoring the Chicago Area Water Polo Club. He plans on coaching the Richards girls water polo team again in the spring.
Last year at this time, several people, including interim Bulldogs swim coach Cora Umaker, got together to organize all sorts of fundraisers for Coach Stu and the family. Everything from t-shirts to lemonade was sold. The North Suburban Conference swim teams such as Shepard, Argo, Evergreen Park, Reavis and others lent a hand – and money. Mother McAuley’s water polo team helped the cause.
Staszewski said that most of the money went to insurance after his insurance was dropped.
“Without their contributions, I would have never been able to keep my insurance and receive therapy,” he said. “Without that, I wouldn’t be here today. That was huge.’’
He said one of the toughest moments of the ordeal was when he was told he probably would not walk again. He said one of the best moments was when he took a few steps in December.
“I wanted to prove the doctors wrong,” he said. “I’m a stubborn Polack and when someone tells me I can’t do something, I want to prove them wrong.’’
He uses a walker and a wheelchair.
“When I’m coaching, I’ll be in the wheelchair for safety,’’ the 42-year-old coach said. “I have another year of a window to make gains. My long-term goal is to be able to walk with a cane.’’
He spent 11 months away from his Mt. Greenwood home when recovering. Emma, who is an eighth-grader at Cassell Elementary School, had to grow up and mature quickly.
“It was difficult because he wasn’t home,” she said. “It was really crazy without him being home will all the kids in the house. It’s definitely been a challenge. I had to help my mom out a lot. I fed and changed the kids.’’
“I’m proud of the way she stepped up,” Coach Stu said. “That was a huge help.’’
While he knows life will not get back to the normal life he knew before, he is trying to return to as much health as he can. The walking and some speech issues require therapy.
Whether he is more like George Bailey or Mr. Potter doesn’t matter. While he was recovering, there were so many people who said he touched their lives through his teaching and coaching and they returned the favor.
Meanwhile, the Brother Rice graduate who had a successful water polo career at the school admits there were times he was a little bitter about the hand he was dealt that June. But he is also thankful.
“I try not to feel sorry for myself,” Coach Stu said. “I am grateful I’m alive. Things were very hairy for a while. It didn’t look good. I’m glad to be back in class teaching and coaching. I feel like I am able to follow my calling.’’