Published February 25, 2011, 12:00 AM

Team Jaeckel supports skier sidelined by ALS

It won’t be easy for John Jaeckel to sit out Saturday’s American Birkebeiner ski race. Seventeen times, going back to 1983, he has gone to the starting line. Seventeen times he has completed the 50-kilometer

By: Sam Cook, Duluth News Tribune

It won’t be easy for John Jaeckel to sit out Saturday’s American Birkebeiner ski race. Seventeen times, going back to 1983, he has gone to the starting line. Seventeen times he has completed the 50-kilometer

(31-mile) cross-country ski race.

But don’t be surprised if you see a lot of headbands on skiers at the race with the words “Team Jaeckel” on them. Twenty-six competitors in the Birkie and its shorter sister, the Kortelopet, are wearing the black headbands with green lettering in support of Jaeckel, 53, a special education teacher at Hayward High School. More than 50 others who plan to watch or help at the race also will wear the Team Jaeckel headbands.

Last July, Jaeckel was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The neurodegenerative disease robs its victims of muscle control, eventually causing death.

Jaeckel still is teaching and coaching football at the high school where he has taught the past 21 years, but loss of muscle control in his arms and hands will keep him on the sidelines Saturday.

“I have kind of mixed emotions,” said Jaeckel, reached at the high school on Thursday. “I’m very humbled that they would do that for me. But it’s bittersweet because it’ll be hard not to be there actually in the race and skiing it.”

Understand, Jaeckel is the guy who usually is inspiring those around him.

“He has a very demanding job, and he’s very positive,” said Janet Wisdom, a Hayward kindergarten teacher whose daughter, Meghan, came up with the Team Jaeckel idea. “He always has a smile on his face and a positive comment when he meets you. He can take a very unwilling student and get them to think positively about themselves.”

Jaeckel’s “presence makes anyone’s day go well,” said fellow teacher Tom Heinrich of Hayward. “John Jaeckel is the kind of person who does something for everybody.”

When Meghan Wisdom, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, was skiing the Birkie Trail while home on breaks this winter, she missed seeing “Mr. Jaeckel” on the trails. Although she hadn’t had him as a teacher, she considered him an important influence.

“He’s just one of those teachers in high school, when you were walking down the hallway, he’d say, ‘Hi, Meghan. How are you?’ He genuinely wanted to know,” she said. “I feel like it was that way for all the students in the school. He had no boundaries on the social groups he would reach out to.”

Meghan thought it would be nice if skiers could show their support for Jaeckel when they skied the Birkebeiner. She came up with the idea of a black headband because Jaeckel frequently wore all black while skiing.

Meghan composed an e-mail about the Team Jaeckel idea, and her mom sent it out to school staff and others who knew Jaeckel.

“That evening, I went to check my messages, and it was just flooded with

e-mails. People responded so fast,” Janet Wisdom said.

Ken Frame of Hayward, who will sing the national anthem before the race, will be wearing his Team Jaeckel headband.

So will Hayward residents working a food station along the course, Janet Wisdom said.

Photos of everyone on Team Jaeckel will be mounted into a collage and presented to Jaeckel someday following the race, she said.

Jaeckel has had more than his share of adversity lately. In 2009, he suffered a sub-arachnoid hemorrhage — bleeding between the brain and its lining — from which he successfully recovered. That kept him out of last year’s Birkie. True to his nature, Jaeckel is taking a positive outlook about the ALS diagnosis.

“I’m also a recovering alcoholic, 26 years clean and sober,” Jaeckel said. “This has really forced me to go back to that one-day-at-a-time idea. Basically, it has allowed me to appreciate each day for what it is. None of us are guaranteed tomorrow.”

But tomorrow, when the Birkie starting gun goes off, Jaeckel is guaranteed to have the visible support of many who will ski the race. They, perhaps best of all, understand how much he would like to be out there on the trail with them.

Sam Cook is a Duluth News Tribune columnist and outdoors writer. Reach him at (218) 723-5332 or Follow him on Twitter at “samcookoutdoors.”