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Walking in the truth: How Drew Ekart's impact remains deeply felt

By Jacob Knabel on Jun. 22, 2023 in Football


On a typical summer Sunday in central Kansas, the Ekart family would venture to the nearby pool. Melissa could be seen carefully wading into the chilly blue water, allowing her body to acclimate to the temperature. Her husband Drew threw such caution to the wind, grabbed one of their eldest children, either Faith or Boston, and cannonballed into the deep end. As Melissa would say of Drew, “That’s how he lived his life. He lived it to the fullest and jumped into every experience with a childlike approach and sense of adventure.”

Such passion for life shined through in obvious fashion no matter what hat Drew wore. His energetic style was felt profoundly by those he interacted with in his vocations as a husband, father, brother, coach, teammate, friend and vice president of Alden State Bank in Sterling, Kansas. Former secondary teammate Nathan Robbins went so far as to refer to the example Drew set as “inspiring.” Drew would even be called “innovative” for the way he played the game of football. More than anything else, Drew became known for his passion for Christ.

As his passing became imminent in the late spring of 2013, Drew took comfort in the Bible scripture that read, “I have no greater joy than this: to hear that my children are walking in the truth” (3 John 1:4). As Drew’s Earthly life succumbed to brain cancer, his children Faith, Boston and Eckley were ages 7, 5 and 3, respectively. Already, they were beginning to learn what it meant to walk in the truth. When you trusted in the Lord, you feared not a cannonball into the depths of frigid water.

To tell the story of Drew Ekart is to tell the story of a man with an unwavering fervor for life. When that trait was paired with his growing faith, Drew became the person many spend their entire lives aspiring to be. Ten years after his passing, Drew and his legacy live on within the Concordia community and beyond. Former roommate Karl Miller referred to Drew as both empathetic and relatable in attempting to put a finger on why so many people feel Drew’s impact in the present day. Former Bulldog Defensive Coordinator Tim Preuss heaped praise upon Drew that had nothing to do with his prowess on the football field.

As Preuss said. “Some people would say that coaches are not supposed to have favorite players. That’s not true – everybody does. Drew’s one of my all-time favorite Bulldogs because of the man he was, because of the husband he was, because of the father he was, because of the leader he was and because of the player he was. For those who didn’t know Drew, he showed what it really means to be a Christian man and the influence that people like him can have.”

Life as a Concordia Bulldog


(Photo: Drew Ekart, left, with TJ Folkers, right)

Though he grew up in Superior, Nebraska, Drew Ekart took a liking to the Colorado Buffaloes and had dreams of playing football in Boulder. Eventually there came a realization for Drew that he would likely never earn playing time at a school like Colorado. Plans changed and the small colleges of Nebraska became attractive to the Ekarts. With Drew still in high school, older brother Todd had narrowed his college choices down to schools like Doane, Hastings and Concordia.

Current PE Department Chair and coach at Lincoln Northwest High School, Todd explained his choice in saying, “I would get letters from bigger schools and I would send information back and never hear from them. I was a senior and it was me, Drew and TJ Folkers going up to state wrestling in Lincoln. I just decided while we were going up there, we would take this visit to Concordia and check it out. I really liked it and decided this was where I was going. Everybody in the family ended up following suit. Drew came a couple years later and then both of my sisters (Jill and Krynn) followed.”

Todd began his collegiate career in the fall of 1993 and Drew made his way to Seward in the fall of 1995. Todd had the misfortune of breaking his collarbone as a freshman, but it came with the hidden blessing of an extra year (three years total) as a teammate to Drew. Todd wore No. 3 and then passed that number along to Drew once he graduated and moved into the coaching and teaching profession. Years after their playing days, Todd and Drew still talked about the wacky finish to a September 1995 clash with Bethel College. On the final play of the game that was knotted, 14-14, Texas native Nathan Robbins picked off a pass and pitched the ball to Todd Ekart, who raced into the end zone for the winning touchdown. Concordia won, 20-14. In those moments, an already close brotherly relationship was strengthened.

In following in Todd’s footsteps, Drew would go on to become one of the top safeties in program history. Drew did not play high school football until his junior year (after running cross country and track), but he was a natural at the safety position. Drew would team up with Robbins on an impressive one-two punch at the position. Two years older than Drew, Robbins stood out as one of Drew’s first mentors among his Concordia teammates. Robbins had converted from quarterback to safety. As a safety tandem, Drew and Nathan spent a great deal of time together both on and off the field.

“I kind of took him under my wing,” Robbins said. “We were both tall and skinny guys. We kind of gravitated towards one another. I tried to teach him everything I knew at the safety position. He was extremely passionate and positive. You think about a glass half-full guy, Drew was that guy. He became a very inspiring person to me. I took more of a business approach to football and loved it to death. He helped me see how to be passionate and how to express joy in the sport. He was a great person to be around. He changed your outlook on things because he was so positive and upbeat.”

Whatever Drew may have lacked athletically, he made up for with max effort and a keen understanding of his responsibility on each play. Drew used these gifts to maximize his talent. He earned three All-Nebraska-Iowa Athletic Conference awards and was named both first team all-conference and NAIA Honorable Mention All-America as a senior in 1998. That final collegiate year, Drew piled up 106 tackles, forced four fumbles (recovered two) and plucked three interceptions. Robbins saw Drew as an innovator for the way he relentlessly attempted to strip opposing ball carriers – and often it worked.

Defensive Coordinator Tim Preuss lauded Drew as another coach on the field. Drew was one of those players who did the extra stuff – lifting weights and watching film incessantly. In those days, Drew had to pester the coaches to make VHS tape copies of game film for him to take home. Said Preuss, “He made the other guys better. He believed in the program and the school and came to us before we got good. He knew his assignments and knew what was supposed to be happening in front of him. He saw things right away and was great at giving players feedback in a way that was supportive and encouraging. He was just a very positive guy. If he had wanted to stay in coaching, I would have hired him as a full-time assistant in a heartbeat.”

Off the field, Drew was known as a fun-loving young man who seemingly knew how to relate to all types of people. He went to parties, but he never drank alcohol. Instead, he would happily serve as a designated driver while still being social and outgoing. At an early age, Drew had already developed a servant heart and a desire to help others. During his time at Concordia, Drew began to see and think about Christ in ways he hadn’t previously. A roommate of Drew’s for two years, football teammate Karl Miller (Potter, Neb.) saw a transformation take place.

Miller fondly recalls the “air band” road trips that involved lip syncing and jamming to Bon Jovi songs. If there was a street dance in Milligan, Drew would drive a group of friends there and back. As a roommate, Drew was “clean and tidy” and known to be an outside-the-box thinker. During their time as roommates, Karl witnessed a change in Drew. Said Miller, “Drew’s story, in my opinion, is God’s grace in action. Faith alone can be enough. Drew found God and became a witness to others … the growth he had here was just crazy.”

Drew’s collegiate playing career overlapped with eventual All-American tight end Ross Wurdeman (Columbus, Neb.), who came to Concordia in the fall of 1997. By that point, Drew had become an established member of the program and someone who was highly respected. Wurdeman even recalls being a bit intimidated at first by his upperclassman teammate. Wurdeman quickly formed a bond with both Drew and Todd. The friendship grew to the point that Wurdeman insisted that he wear No. 3 (even as a tight end) once Drew had graduated. In the early days for Wurdeman at Concordia, he was tested by a secondary that featured Drew along with Folkers and Robbins. Wurdeman couldn’t help but get better at his craft while going up against a top-notch group of defensive backs. Said Wurdeman of Drew, “He had a big personality and he backed it up with his performance on the field. It was kind of intimidating at first. I really didn’t get to know Drew until we became friends my second year at Concordia. Once I started coming around, it turned into a great friendship … He was a true friend. If you said you needed something, he would drop everything and help you. He was one of those guys who gave 110 percent in everything he did in life.”

Sometimes that meant veering away from the well-traveled paths. Sometimes he zigged when others zagged. Hence, his Colorado Buffalo fandom at a time when much of Nebraska despised that program to the west. Todd laughed when saying, “He did some crazy stuff that made people think, ‘I can’t believe he’s doing that.’ When he played, he had long hair and he would perm it and then dye it blonde. It was one of those things that was just like – why? No one else is doing that. He just wanted to be a little bit different than everybody else, but he also wanted to help everybody.”

With the help of Drew, the program went from a 1-9 record in 1997 to 4-5 in ’98. The wheels were beginning to turn for Concordia. After graduating in 1999, Drew returned to the program soon after as he resumed his academic pursuits. At the same time, Drew became a coach and mentor as the Bulldogs were hitting their stride under Head Coach Courtney Meyer. Drew worked closely with the defensive backs and developed tight relationships with the likes of Sean Stewart and Chuck Brewer. Stewart rose to an All-American level himself for the 2001 GPAC championship team.

Around that same time, Drew’s attention was diverted in the direction of an incoming women’s basketball student-athlete named Melissa Frees. Melissa had come to Concordia along with her twin sister Laura (both from Ellsworth, Kansas) in the fall of 2001. Comically, Melissa had dubbed Drew “water boy” after observing him working in the athletic training room. It turned out, they had eyes for each other. Drew fell in love and followed Melissa south to Sterling, Kansas, as she and her sister transferred to Sterling College beginning with the 2002-03 academic year. The move for Melissa and Laura was mostly due to homesickness and not due to any shortcomings felt at Concordia.

For Drew, this meant the end to his playing/coaching career at Concordia. However, he would forever be linked to his alma mater and the memories that came with it. Coach Meyer never forgot about what Drew meant to Concordia and to him personally. Said Meyer, “During my time as the head coach, we enjoyed a special connection with Superior and Geneva high schools. The Blechas and the Ekarts brother combos come to mind. Drew competed in what I call the transition years. When I came to Concordia, we did not win a conference game in my first three years as head coach. My recruiting mantra was to tell recruits we were going to go from losing big, to losing close, to winning close to winning big. Drew played during those years when we were winning close. His leadership in the secondary and among his teammates at that time laid the groundwork for a conference championship (in 2001) and the program’s first appearance in the NAIA playoffs. Drew’s accolades speak for themselves and his respect in the conference was well-deserved. His impact was as a leader on a team composed of a brotherhood of teammates who loved each other and played for each other. Most important, however, I know the spiritual base his teammates enjoyed had the most lasting impact on his life.”


(Photo: Coach Drew Ekart, left, with Sean Stewart, right)

Drew takes on brain cancer

It still hits Todd Ekart like a train when he thinks back to those most difficult days. In one instance, not long before Drew’s passing, Todd saw first-hand how much his younger brother had been beaten down physically. In the ebbs and flows that came with his cancer, Drew felt determined to get out of the hospital and return to his home. Medical staff told Drew he wouldn’t be permitted to leave unless he could manage to shower. Todd agreed to help Drew with this task, but what Todd saw was not the physically strong and independent brother he had always known.

As Todd recalled these happenings more than a decade later, he struggled to keep his emotions in check. Said Todd, “That was – that was probably the toughest part. It was hard to see a strong, independent guy become pretty dependent on everybody else. I know he really didn’t like it, but he always tried to do everything he could. He even wanted to plant grass one day so we had to go to Home Depot in Hutchinson, Kansas, so he could get grass seed. It was also his birthday so we went to Chili’s so he could get the free birthday dinner.”

The initial symptoms seemed rather innocent as Drew experienced a bit of sickness and fogginess. It was enough to push him to see a doctor. After getting a scan, one of Drew’s first calls went out to his brother Todd. Drew informed him that they had found a spot on his brain. Next came surgery in Wichita, Kansas, which resulted in some positive developments. However, the doctor had been honest with Drew and Melissa. The doctor told the couple to forget about making any five-year plans. At the time, Melissa was five months pregnant with their second child, Boston. Patients with health conditions similar to Drew did not have a high success rate.

Said Melissa, “Holding onto faith gave him the courage to walk out with whatever amount of time God was going to give him. We then had Boston and the doctors told us we would not have any more kids because of the radiation, chemo and all that sort of stuff. Along the way, God blessed us with our third child, Eckley. Those little miracles helped remind us that God has a plan. We don’t fully understand everything. One of Drew’s favorite songs was ’10,000 reasons,’ and that explains a lot of what his mindset was.”

The chorus goes like this:

Bless the Lord, O my soul,
O my soul, worship His holy Name.
Sing like never before, O my soul.
I’ll worship Your holy Name.

What Drew was going through would not be in vain – there was a reason. Melissa explained that their first-born, Faith, got that name to remind both her and Drew to have faith. A fine athlete in her own right, Melissa helped lead Sterling College to multiple appearances at the national tournament in Sioux City, Iowa (just as Concordia appeared there). She missed her senior season due to being pregnant with Faith. Whatever disappointment Melissa may have had in being sidelined from the court subsided when she and Drew became parents for the first time. They were married the summer before Melissa’s senior year of college.

When cancer struck, Drew attempted to keep family life as normal as possible “for as long as possible,” as Todd put it. He would do things like throw footballs to his children while sitting on a stool. Said Todd, “He was always trying to push the limit. It wasn’t going to affect him that much. He’d set a stool up and his kids would run routes, and he would throw it to them.”

Eventually, word spread to friends and teammates about the ominous outcome that doctors anticipated. Nathan Robbins was one of those teammates who made the trip to show his support. Recalled Robbins, “When Drew was going through treatment for his tumors, I visited him in Kansas. Even in those moments, his passion was for Christ. He wanted all his friends to know Christ. His passion for football and for life had gone into an evangelistic mode. It was awesome to see the guy I knew in his late teens and early 20s turn into a family man passionate for Christ and a leader in his community and his church. That positive optimistic energy continued.”

Added Ross Wurdeman, “Even when things got tough with the cancer, he always had a positive attitude. He wasn’t going to let the cancer beat him. He was encouraging and never got down on himself or down on anybody else. He never laid blame on anybody about it. I’m sure it was hard for him, but he kept it under wraps pretty good.”

Drew lived with cancer for better than five years as he battled for additional time with Melissa and their three children, who frequently accompanied him to doctor’s appointments. They became accustomed to doing puzzles in waiting rooms while Drew went through chemotherapy. As Melissa repeated more than once, “God gave us great kids.” Melissa says some of their memories of their father are faint, but they are in there – and his influence carries on in their lives. From time to time, the grandparents will tell the two boys how much they remind them of Drew. All three children are active in the present day in track and field.

Drew is surely proudly watching from his place in Heaven. It’s where he was sent on May 28, 2013. He passed away that day while at Rice County District Hospital in Lyons, Kansas. On that date, Todd had been driving from western Nebraska, hoping to make it in time to see Drew one last time. Roughly two-and-a-half hours away, in Phillipsburg, Kansas, Todd received a call from his sister Krynn. Drew had taken his last breaths. Thankfully, Todd and his family had spent that Easter with Drew. Said Todd, “It’s weird how you remember details like being in a FedEx parking lot in Phillipsburg, Kansas. I get to the hospital and my mom’s there. It was a pretty bad day.”

The pain of that day still lingers, but there’s also plenty of joy in remembrance of Drew. The life, legacy and what Drew stood for will never die. His passing was mourned and his life was celebrated with a service at United Methodist Church in Sterling on June 1, 2013.

The legacy of Drew Ekart

There are at least 10,000 reasons why Drew Ekart should be remembered. On the day of Drew’s funeral, attendees laughed as the story of one of his high school exploits was retold. As it goes, Drew had qualified for the mile at the state meet and developed a strategy that he kept to himself. Knowing he had little chance to win, Drew sprinted the first lap and got out in front of the pack. Of course he crashed and burned without medaling, but that was fine with Drew. He led the field after lap one and heard his name called over the PA system – that was all he wanted.

That was simply one of those uniquely Drew stories. He certainly knew how to bring a smile to people’s faces. Coach Tim Preuss remembered the image of Drew running out of the tunnel before a game with his pregame coffee. That’s right, he couldn’t play unless he had finished that full cup of coffee. Before kickoff, Drew would hide that dyed-blonde hair under a bandana and smear eye black on both of his cheeks. He would then proudly wear the No. 3 jersey onto the field at Bulldog Stadium.

Those who only saw him play football will remember him for his ability to be in the right place at the right time or for his knack of coming through with the big play. Family, friends and neighbors remember him for a lot more. He was a family man and without a doubt, a man of Christ. The way he lived his life inspired a neighbor in Sterling, Kansas, to write to the local newspaper. The short passage, titled “An exemplary neighbor is gone,” included the following words: “His love for the Lord and for his wife and children, Faith, Boston and Eckley, gave him the energy to continue the courageous fight, long after mere mortals would have surrendered. I will miss looking out my front window to watch Drew romping with his kids, waving to the family from his bicycle as he left for work and seeing them out together on a stroll through the neighborhood. But most of all I’ll miss the image of a Godly ‘man’s man,’ husband and father, one whom we wish all men could be.”

Drew’s leadership qualities emerged clearly as a young man. Preuss pointed out how impressively Drew had become the vice president of a bank at such a youthful age and credited him with how naturally he took to coaching for those early 2000s teams that achieved championship glory. Before he passed away, Drew wanted to make sure his former pupils Sean Stewart and Chuck Brewer knew he was thinking about them. Drew was that type of guy.

It struck Karl Miller when Drew had told him, “Life’s not about dying, it’s about living.” Miller continued, “Everyone’s going to die. He made the most out of everything … his leadership style was about attacking things. He could empathize and relate and I think that’s what endeared him to a lot of people.”

There’s sadness in Drew’s circumstances, but his ultimate story is a powerful one that should not be forgotten. It should be celebrated. Out of his time at Concordia, Drew became better equipped to take on the world, to battle brain cancer and to show others how to walk in the truth. As Todd says, “Drew was always strong in his faith. I still struggle with it. It really opened him up. Following me to Concordia was really good for him. He became a better person at Concordia.” Added Nathan Robbins, “It’s a great story of how Concordia had that Christian impact on the Ekart family.”

Drew’s Christian values continue to live out in the family, friends, neighbors, teammates and coaches that he impacted along the way. That’s Drew’s legacy. Said Coach Courtney Meyer, “I trust that, as one of God’s children, he is with his savior and awaits reunion with his teammates and especially with his family. I’m thankful to God he’s remembered by his coaches, teammates and friends.”

Indeed, many reunions are yet to come. As Melissa summed it up, “The greatest joy Drew gets is to know our children are walking in the truth. That was the only thing in life that mattered. The rest of it is fun. Work hard at it, but remember to keep that perspective.

“I’m very thankful that I got to spend that time with Drew. I learned so much from him and in my walk with Christ.” As the emotions hit her 10 years later, Melissa fights back tears and continues, “We can’t wait to give him a hug when we see him again.”