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Thursday, December 1, 2022

Remembering the legacy of Justin Wegner

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Tightly nestled under a tree and a stone’s throw from Naperville Central’s varsity baseball scoreboard, the gravestone immediately grabs your attention.

The gray, bench-like stone with “WEGNER” emblazoned vertically down the left side and a baseball silhouette on the top tells a story.

People who knew Justin Wegner well know it’s so much more than that.
But for the persistent stream of visitors who didn’t know Justin Wegner well, it’s that beautiful, permanent memorial that sparks conversation.

Like clockwork, Kevin Clifford’s daily runs take him to Naperville Cemetery – just beyond the right-center field wall.

Back in March, Clifford seized a two-minute chance encounter with a complete stranger and recent new Naperville resident to explain why.

“She asked how I knew Justin and I was like, ‘Oh, he was one of my best friends,’” Clifford said. “She asked about his story and she’s like, ‘Yeah, I’m so intrigued by this story. Every time I’m over this way I see an influx of people. It doesn’t matter what time of the day it is. I just always see people checking out this specific site. So I kind of just wanted to get an idea what the story was.’”  

Nearly two years have passed since a rare form of stomach cancer took Justin Wegner from the countless number of people privileged enough to have known him. 

And now it’s about making sure his legend never dies.

Stand up for cancer

Mark Nowak had been by Justin’s side since their days hanging out with Katie Lamich during their time at Elmwood Elementary.

So he’s well equipped to grasp and convey what it meant to be best friends with Justin Wegner.

About four months after their U-turn on the way to Wrigley Field because Justin had to undergo more tests, the duo returned to Chicago’s North Side.

Prior to Game 4 of the 2016 World Series, they took a quick glance at the activity going on outside the gates.

“We walked in and there were signs everywhere,” Nowak said. “And we had no idea what was going on. We had no idea it was the ‘Stand Up to Cancer’ game.’’

During a break in the game fans would hold up placards they had signed with a name of someone impacted by cancer they wanted to honor.

Justin asked Nowak, “What are you going to write?”

And Nowak said, “You.”

Justin thought about it for a second and said, “All right, I’ll write, ‘Me.’”

At the end of the fifth inning, with the Indians up 3-1, the crowd of 41,706 rose in unison with “Titans Score” from Remember the Titans providing the soundtrack.

For the three years he’d have to watch his childhood friend battle a desmoplastic small round cell tumor, Oct. 29, 2016, was as fitting as it got for Nowak.

“I’ll tell you to this day – that was the most touching moment I’ve ever been a part of,” Nowak said. “I mean, literally chills down the spine of the back for the rest of the game. The outcome and everything else didn’t matter. Just seeing the people and there’s more to life than sports.”

Pediatric cancer research

According to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation, only four percent of government funding for cancer research goes to pediatric cancer.

In the immediate aftermath of Justin’s passing on July 10, 2019, his vast network built over 22 years went to work in creating the #JWEGSTRONG foundation.

And one of the biggest aims the JWEGSTRONG foundation pursues annually is changing the narrative on pediatric cancer as best it can.

“You look at the medicines that Justin was treated with – those medicines that they give to these pediatric kids were developed in the ‘70s,” Ed Wegner said. “There’s been no new advancements. The ‘70s.”

Because of that low percentage, hospitals like the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York often collaborate.

Dr. Andrea Hayes-Jordan performed the 15-hour surgery on Justin at MD Anderson on Dec. 8, 2016 and removed close to 200 tumors from his abdomen and pelvis.

Hayes-Jordan, renowned for her work in pediatric surgery, currently is Chief of the Division of Pediatric Surgery at the University of North Carolina’s School of Medicine.

Hayes-Jordan is the only surgeon in the United States researching DSRCT.

The foundation annually gives Hayes-Jordan $10,000 to aid in her efforts while also supporting David Walterhouse’s research at Lurie’s Children Hospital.

Walterhouse was Justin’s oncologist and the instant connection the two had put the family at ease amid the diagnosis.

“Our little bit of money, every penny helps,” Cathy Wegner said. “Justin would have wanted us to (pay it forward, give back, support research).”

The Little League scoreboard at Knoch Park is named in honor of Justin Wegner.

The foundation is coming together at Knoch Park Memorial Field on the two-year anniversary of Justin’s passing – July 10, 2021 – to continue that effort.

The scoreboard was renamed for him, with the help of Ray Kinney, a longtime friend of the Wegners and community leader.

Shortly after Justin’s passing, Kinney and Katie Wood from Naperville’s Chamber of Commerce spearheaded a quick $10,000 fundraising effort.

Because of the Wegners’ ties to Naperville Little League – Ed coaching Justin and older brother Jason through countless games at Field No. 5 – the gesture made sense.

“It’s truly a slice of Americana at that field because often times you’ve got a young kid up in the booth doing the radio, which is great,” Kinney said. “It’s fun. And it’s baseball and it’s actually at the age where it truly becomes baseball because you’re not doing coach pitch anymore. You’re doing little league pitch. And the field is gorgeous.

“It’s an awesome little field. It’s really a nice spot and it’s something that’s so close to home for the Wegners. It’s a great comfort for them because they walk by it every day on their walk to the cemetery. It gives some good comfort and support.”

Catching talents

On a sun-splashed afternoon in late May 2014, time paused beautifully for the Wegner brothers.

It wasn’t unusual for Jason and Justin Wegner, then 18 and 17 years old, respectively, to play baseball together.

But for the final inning of Jason’s “Senior Day” on May 23, 2014, they were the pitcher and the catcher for Naperville Central in the Redhawks’ 7-0 shutout of Downers Grove North.

They were the battery, in baseball terms. In brother terms, they were as tight as can be.

“That was a pretty cool day,” says Jason now. “Getting hurt going into that season was a big bummer. Not getting to pitch all year was tough. But working my way through the whole season and being able to play the whole season was really important to me and it was really important to my brother.

“Going up to that Senior Day when I was able to pitch the inning, it was just kind of like a throwback to just playing with him growing up – in games and just like in the street in our front yard, in the backyard.”

As a senior, Justin hit .371 with three homers, 13 RBIs for the Redhawks in 35 games in 2015.

For a team that eventually won a regional title as a 10th seed by upsetting Waubonsie Valley, Justin was a calming presence.

“We often just talk, as a staff, that our catcher has to be – they’re the personality of your baseball team,” Naperville Central baseball coach Mike Stock said. “They’re consistently one of the players that everyone looks at the entire game and then the entire season.

“Justin was a perfect guy for that. He was a talented kid. A very good ballplayer, could hit, could throw, he was great at receiving. Pitchers loved working with him. He was smart. He was tough.”

Sophomore lefty Ryan Eiermann and senior right-hander Glenn Kozlowski were the top two pitchers on the staff.

With Justin’s help behind the plate, Eiermann burst on to the scene and won the Co-DuPage Valley Conference Pitcher of the Year award.

Justin’s catching talents got him a chance to play for coach John Vodenlich at Wisconsin-Whitewater.

As a freshman for the perennial Division III power, Justin saw action in 22 games – starting 14.

His first game as a Warhawk saw him go 3-for-4 with four RBI in a 13-1 victory over St. Thomas (Minn.) on March 27, 2016.

He hit .250 with two doubles, a homer and eight RBI in 48 at-bats as the Warhawks advanced all the way to the D-III College World Series.

Good luck seemed to be on Justin’s side. College baseball was everything he dreamed it would be.”

“It was a last-minute phone call from Whitewater,” Cathy said of Justin’s choice. “He fell in love with (the school).”

Diagnosis

When his parents delivered Justin’s DSRCT diagnosis to Justin and Jason during a trip to the 2016 College World Series, the inspiration moving forward was evident.

Their father, Ed, pointed directly to Cubs’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo.

Rizzo successfully won his battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma after six months of chemotherapy in 2008 while he was in the Red Sox’ minor-league system.

“When I shared (the DSRCT news) on Father’s Day with Jason and Justin, we used Rizzo’s story on my phone to share with the boys that Rizzo did this,” Ed said. “‘He came through. We’re going to do the same thing.’”

Less than a year after Rizzo helped end a 108-year championship drought, Justin and Rizzo crossed paths at Wrigley Field prior to a game on June 6, 2017.

Justin’s internal focus was clear throughout, never wavering.

He wanted to protect those closest to him from the cruel reality of what he was going through on a daily basis.

“My biggest thing with him was just his unbelievable strength and courage,” Jason said. “He was always putting me, Mom and Dad in front of himself through his whole fight – especially me because I was away at school. He was protecting me the whole time because he knew how hard it was on me, just as much as it was on him.”

Of those diagnosed with DSRCT, only around 15 percent get to the five-year mark.

The fact Justin took his fight just over three years speaks volumes to the strength and determination that defined him in so many ways.

Sports memorabilia

Ed and Cathy Wegner have lots to be proud of when it comes to Jason and Justin’s athletic accomplishments at Naperville Central.

Take a trip down to their basement and you’ll see why.

While sandwiching action shots of both, Justin’s football jersey and Jason baseball jersey reside prominently framed on the wall near a flat screen TV.

Sports memorabilia is everywhere, and it slowly overwhelms one with its sheer joy for the games we play.

There are jerseys autographed by Rizzo and Kris Bryant, each hanging just below photos of the Cubs stars offering Justin words of encouragement.

Autographed boxing gloves from Muhammad Ali and an autographed Steve McMichael football catch your eye as you finish down the stairs.

Signed footballs and helmets from both Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes helmets own real estate down in the deep corner.

Personalized signed photos for Justin from Mark Buehrle and Dan Hampton also grace the wall.

Directly below Justin’s Redhawk football jersey sits the signed Kansas City Royals jersey of Nicky Lopez, around the corner from the stairs.

Lopez, the ever first Redskin/Redhawk alumnus to reach the big league level, was Jason’s teammate on the 2013 Redhawk baseball team.

That year, Lopez threw Justin’s name into nomination as one of Naperville Central’s representatives at the now-defunct J. Kyle Braid leadership conference in Villa Grove, Colo.
Lopez was a member of a committee comprised of those intimately familiar with JKB and what it stands for.

“I thought he was a great fit, obviously,” Lopez said. “Anybody who knew him knew the type of guy he was, knew the type of character he had and he was just an infectious guy.

“So it was definitely an easy nomination on my part. But he was someone that – even though he was two years younger – he was easy to look up to and someone I looked up to and laughed a lot with and joked around with when I passed him in the halls.”

Most years, four people – two boys and two girls – were nominated and asked to go out to the JKB ranch in the summer between their sophomore and junior years.

Nowak also was nominated to participate in JKB in the summer of 2013.

Through the course of the week, participants went through different leadership and role-play exercises to help cultivate true change back home.

And it wasn’t considered lip service by any stretch of the imagination.

“Once you go to the camp, you come back and (parents) notice that you change,” Nowak said. “You’re part of that then. You’re part of the JKB group and you mentor and you’re somebody people look up to in a sense.

“That was Justin. He was somebody that everyone kind of rallied around and he was a leader. JKB helped sharpen those skills and truly made him a better person. I think he realized that. He always loved helping others and that was part of it.”

Just be kind

Humble and kind.

Those two words mark the credo Justin espoused.

Barry Baldwin, a communications arts teacher at Naperville Central, saw it on a routine basis during Justin’s time as a student and after he graduated.

Baldwin has been instrumental in helping run a gift card drive that was initially used as a way to help pay some of the Wegners’ costs while down in Houston.

But it’s something Baldwin, a JKB sponsor and board member for the school, has carried on to honor Justin’s memory since his passing.

“There’s a story where I was taking donations for the gift card drive – the very first year – and Justin had just got sick,” Baldwin said. “And it was like a year after he got sick. Right around (2016-17) and a girl walks in and she was a senior. She gave me a $100 bill. She goes, ‘You know what? This is my savings. I withdrew it from my bank account.’

“And I go, ‘I don’t want to take that.’ She goes, ‘You don’t understand. When I was a freshman, Justin was the only person that would talk to me and he was a senior and he didn’t know me. He’s the only person I talked to during the day.’

“It was just some random freshman girl. He was just nice to her. He was just nice to her in the halls. I believe they had like a study hall or something together and she goes, ‘He was just nice.’”

Stock, a dean at Naperville Central, was comfortable letting Justin take charge – on and off the field.

Leading up to Naperville Central’s basketball visit to Naperville North on Feb. 6, 2015, Justin put lessons learned at JKB into practice.

As a way to engineer an anti-bullying campaign, Justin organized a bags tournament that was the highlight of a “purple out.”

“Nobody handled people better,” Stock said. “Nobody got more people rallied. There’s nobody people wanted to be associated with more than Justin. He worked hard with our Adapted PE kids. He was a leader there. He just was a kid that whether it be older kids like Nicky Lopez or kids younger, people just engaged with Justin because of how he treated them.”

Justin’s legacy at Naperville Central continues to be defined and built upon.

The JWEGSTRONG foundation annually doles out three awards – two sports related and one open to the general student population.

Justin’s leadership (baseball) and character (football) leaves his imprint on both those programs while the “Strongest Redhawk” brings the entire school into focus.

Stock names a junior to be named a captain and wear No. 21 – Justin’s number – the following year as a senior.

The finalists for the “Strongest Redhawk” each submit short videos, demonstrating why they personify Justin, and the foundation picks a winner.

“Whole point was Justin was much more than at just an athlete at Naperville Central,” Kinney said. “He was a school leader, he was a community leader, he was an Adapted PE leader. He did all that stuff. So they wanted to be very inclusive.

“That’s how he was. So we said, ‘Let’s cast a very wide net’ and let the administration and the people who run the school identify that person that most resembles Justin – the traits that Justin had.”

What matters

Born 15 months apart, Jason and Justin were never afraid to put themselves out there amid a sports competition.

They were always doing something together at home – whether in the front yard, backyard or the basement.

Boredom was seldom an issue.

“Obviously we both played a ton of sports growing up, so that was a way we bonded,” Jason said. “But honestly we could get along and we could have fun doing anything together.”

But for the 1,119 days Jason watched Justin deal with the unforeseen circumstances thrown his way at a young age, the admiration for his younger brother grew exponentially.

The way Justin carried himself and dealt with and not complaining and protecting those close to him from the whole truth was pure Justin.

Even as he was going through the battle of his life, Justin’s eyes and thoughts were always trained on others.

And that’s the lesson his older brother now carries.

“He’s taught me to be the man I am now and it’s really unfortunate that everything like this happened,” Jason said. “But he’s with me every day and I know he is. That’s all that matters.”

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Blake Baumgartner
Blake Baumgartner
Raised in Naperville, Blake Baumgartner is a 2001 Naperville Central alumnus and a 2005 graduate of Michigan State's School of Journalism. Since March 2010, he has covered football, boys' basketball and baseball for both The Naperville Sun and Positively Naperville. Follow him on Twitter @BFBaumgartner.

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