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JOY in the JOurneY

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Hays junior Jaren Kanak emerges as FBS prospect, overcoming childhood tragedy

  • The McGrath family: Scott, Lilian, Lisa, Benton, Lynsi, Jaren, Layci. (Photo by Andrea Rodger Photography)
    The McGrath family: Scott, Lilian, Lisa, Benton, Lynsi, Jaren, Layci. (Photo by Andrea Rodger Photography)

Lisa Jennison grew up in Healy in a family that valued faith and athletics. The family attended the United Methodist Church in Healy, a town of 234 people located 24 miles from Scott City.

Her mother, Diana, has long served as a positive influence. Lisa’s father, Richard, stands 6-foot-8 and played basketball at Garden City Community College, and both her brothers were also involved in sports.

Lisa was a three-sport standout in volleyball, basketball and track. In 1995, Jennison threw the discus 120 feet, 4 inches and won the Class 1A title for Healy. Jennison is the lone Eagle girl state track champion in the past 47 years, according to Kansas historian Carol Swenson.

Lisa held aspirations of playing collegiate athletics, though eventually decided to focus on academics. At Fort Hays, Lisa met Jason Kanak, an Atwood native who played on the FHSU golf team. The two married on Nov. 17, 2001 and later had a son, Jaren, currently a Hays High junior. In the last week, Jaren, who has overcome his own injuries, earned college football scholarship offers from in-state FBS programs Kansas State and KU.

Jason became a certified public accountant and worked at Brass Tax in Scott City. Lisa earned a degree in Medical Diagnostic Imaging at Fort Hays. Lisa was eight months pregnant with a daughter when the family went to a baby shower for her in Healy on July 30, 2008.

On the way home on westbound K-4 highway, a deer, hit by another vehicle, flew through the windshield and killed Jason, 31.

“All anybody ever says is how awesome a guy he was, just the greatest guy ever,” Jaren said. “That in itself can be really motivational to be like, ‘Wow, that is how I want to be, and when I pass, that’s how I want people to talk about me.’”

Lisa and Jaren received minor scrapes, according to news reports. Everyone was wearing a seat belt. Lisa used her hand to push the brake and stop the vehicle after Jason was unconscious.

“My faith was probably the strongest it had ever been at the time of his death, which I believe, in and of itself was probably a God thing, because it then gave me something to stand on to get through the grief,” she said Friday afternoon in Hays.

Even with her rock-solid faith, Lisa still questioned God. She clung to a line – “God is faithful even when you are faithless” – during the trauma.

“It wasn’t that I was faithless, it’s just that I didn’t feel like I could fully be close to God and stand firm in my faith at that time, because I felt so confused and just couldn’t understand why a loving God could allow something like this to happen,” she said. “I was very conflicted, because I was like here I gave God the glory for saving my life and my kids’ life, then at the same time, taking my husband.”

Lisa was confident that Jason went to Heaven based on the conversations they had, along with his active church involvement. Lisa found peace knowing where Jason went, a feeling that crystallized after a dream she had shortly after he passed. Lisa “felt completely different” once she woke up.

“My dream pictured him in Heaven, and so that was really a big sign for me,” she said.

Lisa said the dream was one of many “signs of God” she had in her life, sometimes signs she saw in retrospect. Anytime she saw an object, such as a leaf or rock, in the shape of a heart, Lisa called it a “love note from God.”

Another sign came when Scott McGrath and his two children entered her life. Scott and his wife, Cari, were married in 2001, the same year as Lisa and Jason. In ’08, Cari passed away within a month of Jason.

“That was where my faith really started to grow,” she said. “…Even though this horrible thing happened, this tragic thing happened, yet He was still there for me and provided for me, and then that’s when I felt like it was divine intervention that Scott and the kids even came into my life and that our lives were joined because of that faith.”

Love emerges from tragedy

Scott McGrath is from Beloit and enjoyed cross country and track. He went to Colorado Mountain College for resort management in ’96-97. He had considered running a ski resort, though eventually circumstances brought him back to Hays. He attended FHSU from ’98-02 and completed his Bachelor of Business Administration.

Scott eventually took over as president of the family business, McGrath Publishing Company, in Nov. 2012. McGrath operates advertising focused shopper publications – the Waconda, Plains and Hays Traders, highly regarded well-read direct mail marketing solutions serving northwest and north central Kansas.

Scott’s wife Cari became friends with Jason’s sister, Linda, when they were at Fort Hays. Scott and Cari lived in Beloit and then Hays. They had two children, Benton and Lilian.

The family became concerned when Cari began blacking out and had fainting spells. On Aug. 29, 2008, Cari passed away from a heart condition believed to come from a genetic issue.

Scott read that someone shouldn’t make a major life decision until at least a year had passed after the tragedy. He tried to follow the advice. Scott grew up in the church but struggled with his faith after Cari’s passing.

“I really just kind of locked myself in my office and didn’t really want to have much to do with the outside world except for taking care of my kids,” Scott said.

Linda informed Lisa of Cari’s passing. Lisa, who had just lost Jason, sent Scott a sympathy card and included her email address. Because of the shared experience, Lisa wrote Scott “feel free to reach out” if he ever wanted to talk to somebody.

A month later, Scott emailed on Sept. 22. They emailed several times that first day, a pattern that continued for several months before deciding to meet in person. Scott was in Hays, and Lisa in Scott City. Once, Scott was traveling to Colorado, and the families decided to meet Nov. 16, 2008.

“It kind of solidified the situation that we had become these friends over email, but to actually meet in person and meet his kids and him meet my kids, it made it more real,” Lisa said.

The first meeting revolved around their former spouses. Lisa talked a lot about Jason, and Scott discussed Cari. Lisa called the meeting “very natural” and an “instant friendship.” Benton and Lilian played with Jaren and his sister, Lynsi.

“When you lose your spouse and you don’t have that dialogue with your spouse going on, you really kind of miss that, and so it was almost like just to have that dialogue with someone, it was really much needed,” Lisa said.

Scott and Lisa continued correspondence and their friendship grew. They started dating. Lisa discussed not working full-time anymore. Scott told Lisa it “would be great” if they lived closer to Hays. In summer 2009, the Kanaks moved to Hays, and Lisa and Scott bought a house together. Scott said the families “just kind of took it a day at a time.” The blended family solidified once school started in 2009.

“It felt like this was what our family was supposed to be,” Scott said.

Finding JOY in the JOurneY

Lisa and Scott married in the family backyard on Oct. 24, 2009. Scott was dressing Jaren when Jaren asked him: "Do I call you dad now?"

“That just hit me,” Scott said. “Like this is how life is supposed to be. I think that’s what we have done is just made it as normal as possible.”

In 2018, Lisa wrote a book called “The JOurneY Between Us: My Faith Walk: Overcoming Grief to Find JOY in the JOurneY.” The book, available on Amazon, has 22 reviews, all either 4 or 5 stars. At first, Scott was uncertain how the book would sell. Then, Lisa had to keep ordering boxes every few weeks.

“Been really interesting,” Jaren said. “We have got a bunch of varying personalities in the family. A lot of different people, different ages. Sometimes we get along. A lot of times we don’t, but that’s just kind of how it works out.

“We have grown up together for a long time, and when it all comes down to it, we are there for each other and we love each other a lot,” he added.

Once Lisa started to work on the book, Scott began to soul search his own faith. Lisa has become a public speaker and shared her story on many platforms, including churches in Hays, Hill City and Beloit. Her Facebook page “Lisa McGrath JOY in the JOurneY” is updated often. Lisa is a voracious reader of books and devotionals and leads a women’s bible study.

“It was hard, and sometimes you didn’t feel like at times prayers were answered and stuff like that,” he said. “I am one of those put your nose to the grindstone, and you work hard and you do things, and there’s going to be challenges, there’s going to be setbacks, and you just take it that that’s life. It’s not a punishment or things like that.”

Lisa and Scott have appeared on the “Vibrant Happy Women” podcast and discussed topics that included “how to make decisions when there’s no rulebook for the situation that you are going through,” and “the secret ingredient for shifting out of ‘I’m a horrible mom and wife’ into more empowering thinking.” The couple has had a child together, Layci, now six.

The family has close contact with all four sets of grandparents.

“A lot of people were very interested in our story, and a lot of people were touched by the story, but also by what God provided,” Scott said. “There’s no sure thing, and that’s what we try to teach our kids, too. You are going to have struggles, you are going to have injuries, you are going to have a battle with a parent, but as long as you know that there’s your faith and your love for your family and everything, things will turn around for you. Her book shows that. I think our life kind of shows that. Jaren, he’s gone through his thing. He’s worked very hard. He’s been down, too.”

Jaren emerges as top football recruit

Jaren has long had a goal to become a Division I caliber athlete, though has had to overcome several injuries and the coronavirus pandemic. In the past couple seasons, Kanak has had limited opportunities and zero collegiate interest before the annual Sharp Performance Showcase held July 10 in Salina.

In eighth grade, Kanak suffered a hamstring pull. He was released for the league meet, though fell on a hurdle, broke his arm and couldn’t compete. In February ‘19, Kanak hurt his back and had to completely take off activities for three to four months.

Kanak didn’t have a track season because of the back injury that he labeled “excruciating” at times. Kanak had several starts and stops where he would strain it during summer weights and then take off two more weeks.

“The entire rest of my body was capable of doing something, but my back wasn’t,” he said.

Because of the back, Kanak could do little at key summer ’19 camps/combines, including McPherson College and the Sharp combine. At last year's Sharp combine, he felt “really good,” and then made a cut and felt “sharp pain.” Kanak was concerned about the ’19 football season, but his back started to heal and the muscles supporting his spine gained strength. Once the school year started, Kanak wore a back brace all the time.

Last fall, Kanak battled through with 34 catches for 526 yards and 1,057 all-purpose yards for the 5-5 Indians. As a sophomore, he was statistically the Western Athletic Conference’s second-best receiver behind Great Bend’s Alex Schremmer, a first team all-state player who will play at Fort Hays this fall. Kanak's back currently feels much better.

Then, the coronavirus cancelled spring 2020 track. Kanak and several Indian teammates, including his friend, senior defensive end Gaven Haselhorst, took advantage of the opportunity to work out at least twice, sometimes three times a day, during quarantine.

“He’s probably at an even higher level right now because of the coronavirus, because he has had the time and the opportunity to work out,” Lisa said.

Hays High head football and track coach Tony Crough believed Kanak could run 4.4 in the 40, 10.8 in the 100 and earn FBS offers – he just needed the opportunity.

“Kanak is an elite, elite athlete,” Crough said.

Many of the combines and camps were postponed this summer because of coronavirus. Sharp elected to have his showcase and more than 400 athletes came to Kansas Wesleyan on July 10.

“We were just really excited and hopeful that they would have it, so that he could go showcase some of his talent and hopefully perform well,” Lisa said.

He ran 4.41 in the 40-yard dash, second-best at the event. Listed at 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Kanak posted 4.2 seconds in the pro agility and jumped 37 inches in the vertical, both elite marks. He also showcased impressive strength, posting 11 reps with 225 pounds on the bench press.

That night, longtime K-State recruiting coordinator Taylor Braet contacted Kanak. On July 16, Kanak received calls from defensive coordinator Joe Klanderman and head coach Chris Klieman.

He earned offers from the Wildcats and later the University of Kansas, for his first football offers. Kanak is part of a highly regarded group of Indians that includes Haselhorst (Division II offers), junior linebacker Gavin Meyers (FBS offers) and junior quarterback Dylan Dreiling (Tennessee baseball commit). Safety Tucker Veach, running back Roy Moroni and defensive lineman Trey Adams are also top players.

“Just beaming with pride,” Lisa said. “I am so proud of him, because he has done this. He has worked hard to get to where he is, and so to see that pay off for him, it’s been so exciting the last couple days.

“I have pretty much been in tears anytime I think about it or talk about it the last two days, because I am just so proud of him and so excited for him to start to get noticed,” she added.

Conor Nicholl is a sports writer from western Kansas with more than 15 years experience covering high school, college and professional athletes and teams from Kansas and across the Midwest. He can be reached via email at cnicholl1@gmail.com.

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