Jason Henkel loves baseball and he loves keeping in touch with his former players and students.
So in the fall of 2020, the South Albany High School teacher and coach committed to a daily routine that connected those interests. Starting on October 1, he would play catch every day for the next year.
It wasn’t an original idea. Henkel was inspired by the book “A Year of Playing Catch” by Ethan Bryan. But it was a project that felt very personal to him. Now 39, Henkel had already been through two severe episodes of cancer and in both cases the month of October had been tough for him, his wife, Elizabeth, and their children Eli and Blair.
“We decided to take October back,” Henkel said.
Everything went smoothly for about a month but then Henkel started experiencing severe headaches. They persisted and he went for an MRI to see if that would reveal the problem.
He was at home in the backyard playing catch with his father when he received the phone call with the results. The test revealed a brain tumor and he needed to travel immediately to Springfield to talk with his doctor.
But even as he prepared for surgery, he kept up his daily routine of meeting with a friend, colleague or family member to play catch. His surgery was scheduled for the Monday of Thanksgiving week and on the morning that he went in for surgery he and Elizabeth played catch.
He had surgery that day and the following evening was able to keep the streak alive.
“Tuesday evening I ended up playing catch with my physical therapist at the hospital. I played with my doctor the next day,” Henkel said.
Having gotten through the surgery, the tradition continued whether the weather was clear or rainy and whether he woke up feeling like he had the energy to follow through on that particular day.
“It hasn’t been easy, to say the least, to play catch every day, especially when you’re going through chemo, radiation, major surgeries, but there’s more to life than the struggles we go through,” Henkel said. “I think this experience of playing catch has meant more to me than anybody else. It gets me going a little bit. I don’t think I’ve had a bad day of catch.”
The back and forth rhythm of playing catch serves as a form of meditation, freeing the mind from its daily concerns. Tossing the ball back and forth also provides a great opportunity for conversation.
“I’m a big believer in playing catch. It just feels good. For me, this idea of playing catch, it’s a huge relationship builder,” Henkel said. “I use the word intimate. I don’t know if that freaks people out a little bit, but there’s really nothing more intimate than playing catch.”
On Thursday, Henkel was joined in the backyard of his Albany home by his family and one of his regular catch partners, Jeff Douglas. They celebrated the culmination of one year of playing catch every day.
The event also served as a celebration of Henkel’s recovery from the brain tumor.
“Everything’s great. Everything’s clean in his brain,” Elizabeth Henkel said, adding that he is mostly on a maintenance routine at this time.
She said the family was very grateful for the care Jason received from Dr. Andrew Kokkino and the team at PeaceHealth in Springfield. After the surgery, Henkel underwent Gamma Knife radiation therapy, a state-of-the-art treatment which is highly focused.
Instead of having to go through an entire schedule of radiation treatments, this was a one-time procedure. Chemotherapy also has changed since Henkel’s first experience.
“The first time he did chemo with his original stomach tumor, it was a 20-year-old treatment. Now he’s on a genetically based one. He can get up and move around and be completely fine. Seven years ago (after chemo) he was out,” Elizabeth Henkel said.
Douglas and Jason Henkel met as students at Calapooia Middle School and have been pals ever since. Douglas is not at all surprised by the way his friend has handled the adversity of the past few years.
“That’s just a testament to him, in general, always a positive guy. Worked with kids forever and always giving back. That’s just the Jason I’ve known,” Douglas said. “Nothing’s changed.”
Douglas owns the Sign Express shop in Albany. He and Henkel have also developed a side business creating and selling baseball shirts and hats. That business is called KatchPartners and the items feature their unique design, which uses the reversed capital K from a baseball scorebook, where it signals a called strikeout.
One purpose of KatchPartners is to donate gloves to young players who love baseball but can’t afford to buy a quality mitt. Douglas said Henkel was motivated by a trip to Mexico in which he played catch with some local young people. They didn’t have gloves of their own, so Henkel left his own gloves with them. KatchPartners hopes to do this on a much wider scale.
“He came to me with the idea and I wanted to support him,” Douglas said.
Henkel regularly puts up blog posts on the KatchPartners website in which he talks about his daily throwing partners.
“I’ve played with a whole bunch of former students, former athletes, people that I’ve coached with. I’ve played with a few strangers on the side of the road up in Seattle,” Henkel said.
The question now is whether or not to keep the tradition alive. Both Jason and Elizabeth are leaning toward keeping it going in some form, even if it’s not every single day. They both say it has become an important way for him to maintain important relationships.