Lions' top pick wants to use outdoors to help others, honor late father

ALLEN PARK, Mich. -- The idea first sprouted in a meeting at the end of 2016, part of a sales pitch from Bret Bielema to his star center, Frank Ragnow. The former Arkansas coach and his most talented pupil had become close over the past few months and now, they were sitting in his office. Bielema was explaining the reasons Ragnow should consider coming back to school for one more season.

One idea stood out. For months, Ragnow mourned his father, Jon, who died from a heart attack at their Minnesota home on Oct. 1, 2016. Bielema had been there for Ragnow then. And he was there again, this time with the thought of doing something to honor Jon to keep his memory alive.

Why not use his celebrity to help other kids who were going through what he was dealing with? No one truly understands what it’s like to lose a parent until it happens -- the pain, the grief, the feeling nothing will ever be the same again because it won’t. Together they came up with the beginning of a plan that is starting to fully form now, during Ragnow’s rookie year as the starting left guard for the Detroit Lions.

The idea? Create a foundation to work with children who have lost parents to help them grieve by using what brought Ragnow and his father together so often throughout the years: the outdoors.

"We were meeting quite a bit, just talking, and he said it would really help me just kind of feel more hope," Ragnow said. "And kind of feel like at least, yeah, my dad passed, but we are getting some sort of benefit, some sort of plus, positive."

Initially, Ragnow and Bielema discussed starting it Ragnow’s senior year at Arkansas. Then football, as it happens, took over and the two decided it might be best to wait until Ragnow reached the pros. As Ragnow maneuvers through his rookie year in the NFL, he has his agent, J.R. Carroll, working on the foundation while he plays football, including returning home Sunday for a game against the Minnesota Vikings.

After the season, they’ll sit down, finalize everything and, hopefully, start helping kids.

"My vision for it is to help kids and really just families who have lost a parent and help them with the grieving process," Ragnow said. "And by doing it, involving the outdoors because that was kind of my dad’s passion and what he really pushed on my family and that’s what we really did and really enjoyed.

"And I think it really helped me with grieving his passing, the outdoors, so I think just being able to help kids, whether it’s through fishing, being able to take a kid fishing."

The program, which likely will start in Michigan and Minnesota, will be aimed at helping kids learn to how to discover their new normal without their parent around anymore. There is still a lot to be planned, although the hope is that volunteers -- perhaps fellow NFL players -- can find time to spend with grieving kids doing activities in the outdoors that they once did with their late parent.

Not everyone has the support system Ragnow does. If he can help, whether it’s to take a kid fishing or buy him a new fishing pole or whatever it takes, it would be a way to honor the man who gave him so much.

"Frank just wants -- and I think it comes down to a lot of himself -- he just wants to feel normal. He wants, especially kids, to feel normal and not feel like that," Carroll said. "I think a lot of it, too, is the stigma of going to school and having to listen to the fact that so-and-so went fishing with their dad this weekend and they don’t get to do that anymore because mom’s not a fisherman.

"It rehashes all the feelings that these kids have about losing a loved one. And so that’s just basically the premise and that’s where we’re headed with it."

In the months after Jon died, Frank drifted to the activity he spent the most time doing with his late father: Fishing. Already an avid fisherman, Frank Ragnow has a plan post-football to grow the Grizzly Man Outdoors social media account he runs with his younger brother, Jack. Fishing became his release.

He had only one class his final semester. Most mornings he could go on the water, fish and get lost in his thoughts.

"Everybody kind of thought you should be flying high right now, you just became a millionaire overnight, you're in the NFL, you're a first-round draft pick. But then I think that's when it was really tough for me because I was thinking about ... just how much greater everything would be for him to be here." Frank Ragnow

"I would reflect on my life, what has all happened and how I imagined it would happen and how it hasn’t taken that course," Ragnow said. "I think a lot about what my dad would be saying, what he would be thinking, what he would be wanting. Kind of all that.

"His opinion and how he parented me is really important to me, and making him proud is something that’s really high on my priority list."

It should have been the happiest moment of Ragnow’s life. Surrounded by family and friends, hearing his name selected by the Lions in the first round of the NFL draft, this was a time of celebration.

The text messages, phone calls and social media messages rolled in, the congratulations from all the people in attendance watching the draft in his Victoria, Minnesota, home. Ragnow was happy. This was the accomplishment of a lifelong dream, the culmination of a goal years in the making -- something he and Jon envisioned for years.

He went to Detroit, did his news conference and started to practice. Something, though, felt missing, a vacancy in his mind and his heart left by the man he planned all this with.

"Everybody kind of thought you should be flying high right now, you just became a millionaire overnight, you’re in the NFL, you’re a first-round draft pick," Ragnow said. "But then I think that’s when it was really tough for me because I was thinking about the what if and the what-ifs about it and just how much greater everything would be for him to be here."

Ragnow went through the rest of college so focused on football and reaching their shared NFL dream he never allowed himself to actually process all of the emotions of losing a parent, particularly one who was his family’s anchor and maybe his best friend. For almost two years, Ragnow thought everything was fine.

Everything wasn’t fine. And it took a break in the summer after reaching the NFL to realize it. Ragnow thought he had grieved. He hadn’t. First he wasn’t sleeping. Then his mind struggled to think about anything else.

"I think I ran away from it, and I think it’s something that you shouldn’t do," Ragnow said. "Because he passed away ... and then that following Thursday I was back at college playing football, and I don’t think I ever really faced it.

"That’s why, I think right now, and this summer after the draft and everything settled down, it really caught up to me. Like 'Wow, he’s not going to be here.' So, grieving, I’ve talked. I’ve talked to my mom a lot, just reflecting on the memories, and I think that’s important, just talking and communicating about everything that you’re feeling."

This was the start of a long process for Ragnow, one he admits he still isn’t all the way through. He’s getting better, but there are moments when the emotions come back.

"It’s just like a smack in the face. It sucks. It’s just like, it can really take over," Ragnow said. "It can leak into every part of your life, everything. It just brings you down, and it’s just something you really have to face because if you don’t, I think it’ll just keep weighing you down."

Ragnow sought therapy and started openly dealing with it. It changed his mood, his demeanor and his relationships. Therapy and family helped him find his way out of the grief and back to the new normal of his life.

"I was always kind of like, 'No,'" Ragnow said. "But I encourage people, 'Do it. There’s nothing wrong with it.' I did it this summer. I finally did it, and it helped a lot. A lot of relief off my shoulders, just being able to talk through things, talk about why I’m feeling this way, reflecting on everything.

"It’s helped a lot."

As he went through therapy and started connecting with his own emotions, he opened up more to his girlfriend, Lucy Rogers, whom he’s known since freshman year of high school and who now lives with him along with his younger brother, Jack, and his dog, Bear, in Michigan. He found being around family -- after coming from one as close as his -- became more important to him.

They’ve re-created a family atmosphere, with game nights, dinners, and Rogers and Ragnow dressing this year for Halloween as the cheerleaders Will Ferrell and Cheri Oteri portrayed on "Saturday Night Live."

"I came out here for training camp over that first weekend, and after having to leave and come back to Minnesota and sending his family back to Minnesota and not being able to go, it was just, it wrecked him," Rogers said. "So, like I said, the NFL is a lot harder than people understand.

"So, might as well do it as a team."

Team Ragnow grows exponentially this weekend, when the Lions travel to Minnesota, his home state. He has no idea how many family friends, classmates and acquaintances are going to be inside U.S. Bank Stadium on Sunday afternoon when he lines up to face the Vikings.

But this game -- this week -- it’s been on his mind. Yes, he’s thinking about the on-field opponent. But at night, before he goes to bed, his mind wanders to everything else involved. How could it not? As he works through his grieving process, he couldn’t help but think about this game. His first NFL game was emotional enough, thinking how awesome it would have been for his father to watch him play.

This? It's a different level.

"In reality, every game I walk on the field and think, ‘Oh my gosh, my dad would be going nuts,’" Ragnow said. "But obviously, this week has a little extra oomph to it. But yeah, every game I think, ‘Wow, he’d be going nuts.’"

He’ll step on the field and, for at least a moment, he’ll think about Jon. He’ll think about everything he’s been through and everything he’s still going to do.

Inside the stadium and through the great outdoors of his childhood, Ragnow is trying to make a difference in his actual home and his adopted home. It took the worst tragedy of his life and working through his own grief to get there. He hopes his platform and the foundation he’s trying to build can help.

"People should know that I’m just like anybody else," Ragnow said. "Just because someone’s in the NFL, it’s OK to deal with grieving or just deal with depression or any sort of mental health issue, because it’s real. I’ve faced it myself, and I’ve kind of come to fruition that it’s real.

"I just want people to know that I want to help people who are grieving. Eventually I want to help people who are grieving, and I think the outdoors is a great way to do it."