A son's love endures: After mom's death last year from cancer, a senior and Barnesville cope with the loss of someone who left an indelible mark
It was around this time two years ago, Thanksgiving, when Barnesville High School football player Zach Hochhalter learned his mother was diagnosed with brain cancer.
"It was a tough deal. It wasn't expected by any means," Hochhalter said of his mother, Jeanne. "We had to adjust from there. We thought we were going to get a shorter amount of time than what we did."
Doctors gave Jeanne three months to live. She surpassed that by living for nearly 19 months until her death in late May 2009.
As months passed and cancer took its toll, it didn't stop Jeanne from supporting her oldest son at his football games.
"She made all of his football games except one," said Jay Hochhalter, Jeanne's widower and Zach's father. "She could be seen on sidelines in her wheelchair cheering him and the team on."
Friday will be the culmination of so many emotions for Hochhalter. That's because he and the Trojans will play for a state football championship in the Metrodome in Minneapolis.
Hochhalter, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound senior running back who paces the team with 995 rushing yards, will lead Barnesville into the Minnesota Class 1A title game against New Ulm Cathedral.
A win could do more than just give the school its first football championship.
It could help a family and a town that has gone through so much together, sharing one of the biggest moments in Barnesville's history.
"I think if she was here she'd be telling him to do his best," Jay Hochhalter said. "That and she'd tell him that she's very proud of him no matter if they won or lost."
Mom with a heart of gold
"His mom was a very thoughtful person," said Barnesville senior football player Tanner John. "She was the mom that everyone else wanted. I almost looked at her as my mom."Barnesville football coach Bryan Strand said Jeanne reminded him of June Cleaver - the mother from the 1950's sitcom "Leave it to Beaver," who many consider to be the archetypal mother in 20th century American culture.
"I don't want to say she was exactly like June Cleaver, but she was a caring woman," Strand said. "She'd do things like have cookies at the meetings. And she had a heart of gold and that showed off in her kids."
Jeanne's good nature and attitude rubbed off on even her co-workers at the North Dakota State University Extension Office. They donated their vacation and personal time so she could still get paid while she was at home sick.
The same thing was done for Jay, who is a conservation program specialist for the USDA Farm Service Agency in Fargo.
Even Barnesville residents chipped in, making meals for the Hochhalters three times a week.
"People in Barnesville were always providing us with encouragement," Jay said. "They helped put up hay and feed for our livestock. They'd help fight flooding issues with the road in front of our house to get health care and hospice people in and out to help Jeanne."
Test of strength
The Hochhalter family was playing together one day at their rural Barnesville home when Jay gave his three children a sledgehammer. He told them to hit a wooden board with it."We told them to destroy the board, because the board was cancer," said Jay, who got the idea from one of the counseling sessions he attended during Jeanne's illness. "They were able to release some of their emotions through that energy."
It was just one of the many emotional outlets for Zach Hochhalter. He was the first-born. He and his mother were each other's best friend.
They talked about everything. Football. School. Cancer. Life. Death.
"She was there for me when I had questions," Hochhalter said. "I did not have that person to turn to right away."
Through it all, Hochhalter turned into the man that Jeanne wanted him to be. Like her, Hochhalter became the family's rock. He was the one answering questions and helping out his younger sister and brother.
Hochhalter arguably is one of the most loved and respected players on the football team. That's why his teammates last year decided to honor Jeanne's memory by putting a sticker on the back of their helmets.
It is a white sticker with the letters 'J' and 'H' separated by a cross.
"We liked showing motivational stuff," Strand recalled. "We wanted to remember her and we had Zach put stickers on all the helmets. He was bawling. He didn't expect it."
Those moments are the ones Hochhalter still talks about with Jeanne.
Last season, he went to her grave before every game with a rose and told her everything that was going on.
This year, it has been different. There's a point before every game where he sits in silence and says he can feel Jeanne around him.
Surely that will be the case when Hochhalter takes the field for what will be the biggest game of his life.
"He's a very good man," Strand said of Hochhalter. "He's not a kid anymore. Once that happens, you stop being a kid and you grow up. "