Soccer is a common denominator in John Marinkovich's family.
The 62-year-old Omahan coached his three sons in youth leagues and clubs and later followed them through high school and college in the sport known in Britain as “the beautiful game.” Andrew, the oldest, played at Nebraska Wesleyan. Joe, the youngest and a former Creighton Prep standout, now is a junior on the University of Nebraska at Omaha men's squad.
On Saturday, the family plans to take John, who has cancer and recently has taken a turn for the worse, to the team's first match on UNO's new pitch at Caniglia Field to watch Joe play.
“That's one of the things he's been looking forward to all season, is my brother and the team playing in the new stadium,” Andrew Marinkovich said.
Family and friends also will be selling T-shirts to support John and to raise funds for a newly created scholarship in his honor, the John Marinkovich Maverick Soccer Scholarship. Officials will make a brief announcement before the 4 p.m. game. The UNO team also will wear T-shirts they had made on their own to support Marinkovich and their teammate.
“It's the least we can do to let him know that we're thinking about him and that we're praying for him,” said Jason Mims, the Maverick men's head soccer coach. The team now is in its second full season.
Andrew Marinkovich said his father and stepmom, Connie Mangano, who is the mother of his two younger brothers, John and Joe, have attended the team's games and hosted players at their home. Mangano teaches P.E. at Norris Middle School, where she also coaches swimming and cross country.
“He thinks he's an official coach, but they make him sit in the stands,” Andrew Marinkovich joked.
And yes, John Marinkovich really has been waiting for the opening of the new pitch, delayed by a rainy spring. So much so, Andrew said, that when Mims visited him last week and told him that the team was hoping to play on the new field this week, John Marinkovich looked at his wife and quipped, “Honey, get the wheelchair.”
The elder Marinkovich is known for his sense of humor and for his gift as a conversationalist.
An occupational therapist by training, he's worked for more than 20 years in the helmet clinic at Children's Hospital & Medical Center, making, fitting and monitoring plastic helmets for children whose heads were misshapen in the womb.
In the early days, that meant creating plaster molds and making helmets that would gently redirect the skull's growth, similar to how braces adjust teeth and jaws, said Dr. Gary Lerner, medical director for the Children's Developmental Clinic.
With technological advances, Marinkovich's work shifted to scanning with lasers to create models and supplying the data to a helmet manufacturer. But he continued to fit the helmets and instruct parents in their use and care. During monthly checks, he talked sports with the dads and distracted the moms while he worked with their babies.
“I'll tell you truthfully, everybody adores him,” said Lerner, who estimated that Marinkovich has created 3,500 helmets.
One of those helmets was for the now 3-year-old daughter of Dave Nelson, who operates the Omaha branding agency Secret Penguin. Nelson designed the T-shirts for the family, creating a shield with images important to the senior Marinkovich, including a soccer ball, a bicycle and head silhouettes symbolizing family, team and his profession.
Nelson said the prospect of a helmet was nerve-racking for first-time parents.
“He made that kind of scary process easy and comfortable,” Nelson said.
Andrew Marinkovich said he's been amazed at the way friends and family have rallied to honor his father. Another Omaha company, Ink Tank Merch, did a rush job to make the shirts. The whole thing, including the shirts and the scholarship fund set up through the University of Nebraska Foundation, has come together in about a week.
But John Marinkovich's cancer has moved fairly quickly, too.
He'd had melanoma about 20 years ago. It was removed surgically.
This spring, he had a cough. Doctors found a tumor in his lungs and more in his brain. He's had radiation and chemotherapy. This summer, he and his wife and his two younger sons celebrated the couple's 25th wedding anniversary with a trip to Italy.
The family told him about the scholarship fund at a dinner last weekend.
“We thought this would be something that would be important to him,” Andrew Marinkovich said.