Jeremy Izzo’s funeral was one of the most profound and moving experiences of my life. I’m home now—returned to an adult world from a few days in my childhood surroundings and among childhood friends/family. But after an intense few days spent with people I love and amidst grief so thick it clogged my throat and threatened my ability to breathe, I’m having a hard time readjusting.
There are so many things I don’t know and can hardly explain; however, I know one thing for certain. I am changed.
Since the moment I learned of my dear friend’s son’s passing, everything around me felt different. I call it a “death haze.” I’ve seen it before—like when my parents died—or when I lost my father-in-law. . . or when my beautiful, 20-year-old niece suffered a fatal heart attack.
Jeremy also had a heart attack. He had a genetic disorder called “Marfan syndrom.” Marfan’s affects the body’s connective tissue, and it emerges during puberty. People who have it are typically quite tall, with elongated features—long limbs and thin fingers. I remember when he was 12 and he came to Sandy Point Resort along with his mom and dad, and brother and sister. I marveled at this extraordinarily tall young man—far taller than his parents—who spent every waking moment on the basketball court. “Wow,” I said to his mom. “You’ve got a real jock on your hands.”
It wasn’t long after that when Jeremy, already a basketball star, collapsed on the court. When Marfan’s was diagnosed at the age of 13, the doctors told his mom “he had the heart of a 75-year-old man.” He would never be able to play competitive basketball again.
Although his heart was also breaking with disappointment, Jeremy did not let that stop him from living. This amazing child, who faced a wall that could have stopped him in his high-tops, did not allow that wall to crumble down upon him. He became the first student coach at his high school, Nazareth Academy. He was such an inspirational figure they named an award after him: “The Jeremy Izzo Love of the Game Award.” This is given each year to a senior who demonstrated a true spirit of love for the game and inspiration to the team.
Before landing a head coaching position at Joliet Catholic Academy, where he also taught history, Jeremy went to the University of Illinois. There he was the student manager under such big names in the world of Illini basketball, as Lon Kruger, Bill Self and Bruce Weber. There was definitely a buzz in the funeral home when Weber showed up to pay his final respects to his close friend, Jeremy. In fact, the place was filled with athletes and students whose lives Jeremy had touched. The line of people snaked around the lobby of the large funeral home and I watched as his family stoically stood in a receiving line for over five hours.
The next day, Joliet Catholic was closed and its students were bused to the church in LaGrange. Their solemn, cherubic faces lining the stairway—the pathway for the casket—broke my heart. This enormous, exquisite church was filled to the rafters with mourners, all there to support this lovely family. Voices sung out in spite of the tightened throats and tears flowed.
Jeremy’s mom asked me to stand at the podium and deliver a letter she had written to her son, which she had worked on late into the night. In spite of her overwhelming grief, she put together a eulogy containing such strength and beauty, I felt it did justice not only to her son’s spirit and accomplishments, but it also was testimony to all of those who loved him. “Jeremy’s mom, Laura (Santos), asked me to read this letter . . . and it is my honor to do so,” I said into the microphone. And with a deep breath and a pounding heart, God’s grace enabled me to read her letter to the thousands of tearful eyes looking back at me.
I can’t tell you what it feels like to lose a child. I do, however, know the pain of losing someone whom I love with all my heart. And I have learned to understand the lessons the dead teach us. I’ve learned to believe that death is what comes at the end of a life and that funerals and eulogies are meant to celebrate that life—in spite of our grief. When we remember our dead loved ones, I feel it’s their way of reminding us to celebrate our own lives—while we are still living them. And it’s our responsibility to live them well.
The amount of effort Jeremy’s mom and dad, step-dad, brother, sister and young wife put into the arrangements was extraordinary. There was an impromptu candlelight vigil organized within hours of his passing; there were poster collages and slide shows, and even an Illinois State Police escort for the funeral procession. And that letter! How my friend found the courage and the strength to put together those powerful, heartfelt words can only be accredited to faith in a higher power.
Jeremy has left behind a wonderful legacy of a short life very well lived. His efforts to make the most of each day clearly showed he knew how to thread the eye of a needle. I pray his family will see this gift each day in the bright blue eyes of his one-year-old daughter, Addison Faith. And I know she will hear stories of him throughout her life.
To anyone interested in contributing to the Jeremy Izzo Trust Fund to help support the education and wellbeing of young Addison, please contact me (or hit the above link) for more information. Meanwhile, please keep this family in your prayers . . . and also, remember to hug your children as much as possible.