With the start of their two-a-day football practices this past week, the seniors on the Marion Local football team – the Flyers are the defending Division VI state champs, have won six state titles in the past seven years and 10 crowns overall – met one recent evening to decide what the team motto would be for the upcoming season.
Every year the players come up with a maxim that gets mounted on the fence surrounding the football field on the edge of town.
“This time the guys came up with ‘Play Strong, Stay Strong, Super Strong,’” said Kim Habodasz, whose son Nolan is a senior running back. “The Super, that’s for their coach, Dan Thobe. His nickname growing up was Super.”
Thobe – now a 46-year-old math teacher at Marion Local and an assistant football coach in charge of safeties and quarterbacks – was once a multi-sport star himself at Marion Local.
He then went on to a record-setting career as a safety at the University of Dayton, where he was the Flyers co-captain, won first team All Pioneer League honors and still draws effusive praise from UD’s legendary former coach, Mike Kelly.
“He’s as good of an athlete as I ever had,” said the College Football Hall of Fame coach. “Oh Lordy, he was just an outstanding competitor. He could have played multiple positions for us.”
After UD, Thobe — whose three brothers also played at UD — began a career coaching high school football and track that included 14 years at Vandalia Butler, including five as the Aviators’ head football coach, four years as an assistant at Fort Loramie and he’s now beginning his fifth season at Marion Local.
“Dan has always been just such a super athlete,” said Habodosz, who has known him since she was in kindergarten and now is a neighbor to him, his wife Erica and their three children, Aubrey, Kinsey and Gavin.
“We basically got that nickname from Superman,” she chuckled. “He excelled at everything. It seemed like there was nothing he couldn’t do.”
Right now, though, Superman is facing his toughest challenge.
“Last fall I went through some difficult mental states,” Thobe said as we sat in a family room overlooking his wooded back yard just south of town. “Around Christmas I went through a period where I was up all night. I just couldn’t fall asleep.”
After doctors had speculated on some other causes, he finally got an MRI in March and with it came the devastating diagnosis.
“They found a tumor on my brain,” he said quietly. “It was like, ‘Holy crap, that’s what ‘s been causing all this.’ So then we wanted to find out what to do next.”
And that’s when things became more unsettling.
He went to the James Cancer Hospital at Ohio State where, he said, doctors decided they didn’t want to risk an operation on the Grade 3 glioma tumor.
“They said, I’d wake up a different person who probably wouldn’t know a lot of people, wouldn’t remember a lot of things,” he said. “They wanted me to do a lot of chemo and radiation instead.
“My wife and I weren’t really big fans of chemo and radiation, so we got some other opinions.”
They went to the Duke Cancer Institute and, in Thobe’s words, “were thrown for a loop.”
“They said, ‘Let’s go. We’ll dig in there and do surgery right away,’” he recalled.
He said the Cleveland Clinic leaned toward surgery, as well.
“We went back to Ohio State and they said if you can’t be guaranteed that 80 or 90 percent would get taken out, they wouldn’t mess with it,” he said.
When he was told possibly 60 percent could be removed, he decided against surgery. So while he continues to be treated at Ohio State, Thobe said he’s “taking a little different route for now.”
It’s a holistic approach that includes his deep embrace of his Catholic faith, a drastic change in diet, and lots of juices, exercise, herbs and supplements.
In a small town like Maria Stein, word spreads quickly – especially when a beloved community figure like Thobe is involved – and everyone wanted to help, though, at first, no one knew what to do.
A group of Dan and Erica’s friends – led by Habodasz and Kelly Fleck Pleiman, who now lives in Oakwood – huddled after the diagnosis and came up with some ideas.
Habodasz took the lead in organizing a 5K charity run for Thobe, who has remained self-conscious accepting help.
He’s used to helping other people.
Putting together the race in just 27 days, Habodasz hoped 500 people might take part.
Instead over 2,700 ran and walked the course and Mike Kelly, who was there, said it looked like maybe 4,000 people showed up at the Marion Township Park that day.
Much of Maria Stein was on hand, but the crowd reflected the other places Thobe has had an impact, as well.
“A lot of Dayton people showed up, including some of UD’s past players,” Habodasz said. “There were teachers and students from Vandalia Butler. And busloads of Fort Loramie people came over, including their whole football team. The Loramie people respect Dan and miss him a lot.”
Along with the 5K – and following much convincing of Thobe, who first balked at the idea – Pleiman set up a GoFundMe page to help the family with medical costs and groceries, especially since Erica took off work this summer to join her husband in their fight.
Pleiman set a GoFundMe goal of $5,000.
“Once it went live, I checked it an hour later and it was like ‘Oh my God!’ We already hit $2,000!’” she said. “By the time I went to bed that night, we’d hit our goal and within 24 hours we were right around $10,000.”
Now, after four months, the GoFundMe page is closing in on $40,000. The St. Henry State Bank and the Osgood State Bank are also accepting donations.
“We’ve got something like 1,600 comments on our page,” Pleiman said. “If you read through them, you see the positive effect Dan has had on so many people over the years.
“One guy wrote how he was on a wayward path and ‘wouldn’t have the wife and family I have now if you hadn’t helped me Mr. Thobe.’
“Another young gentleman posted a picture of his wife and kids and said, ‘I wouldn’t have what I have without you.’
“And there was a coach who said, ‘I met you at state football and saw the program you ran and thought, ‘How could I make my program like yours?’”
Thobe admits to being “overwhelmed” and” humbled” by the outpouring.
He also was taken aback by something that occurred during the 5K, which, by the way, he and Erica completed.
“I want to show you something,” he said as he slipped into another room and returned with an enlarged photo a woman had taken at the race.
It showed the crowd gathered in the park and up above the pale blue sky was marked with a large, white cross that appeared to be something similar to the contrails sometimes left by jets.
“I couldn’t believe it,” Thobe said. “It was beautiful. I hope it means something. I hope it’s a sign.”
‘Fight for Dan’
Thobe grew up in a dairy farm between Maria Stein and Minster. Besides learning the no-excuse work ethic that comes when you have to milk cows twice a day, he, like his brothers, learned the value of sports from their late dad, Dutch Thobe.
He had played four years of football, a year of basketball, wrestled and ran track at what was then Findlay College.
When it came time for his own college, Dan had offers from several small schools, but chose Dayton.
“They had just got done winning a national championship, their facilities were better than a lot of places and they had a good staff, especially Coach Kelly,” he said. “He and I are really tight now.”
While all four Thobe boys played at UD – and Mark remains there as a strength and conditioning coach – Dan especially stands out to Kelly.
“He was the best of the four and one of the easier ones to coach,” Kelly laughed. “A couple were hard-headed, strong-willed guys, but you also love coaching them because of that.
“Dan is just a wholesome, honest, straight-forward guy. Like the old saying, he’s a man’s man. He’s got a heart of gold and he cares about so many of the right things.”
After college those traits followed him into the classroom and the community. He’s the president of the parish council at St. John the Baptist Church in Maria Stein.
His biggest impact, though, still may come on the football field.
“Our seniors this year, obviously want to win for the community and the team, but they also want to fight for Dan,” Habodasz said. “The way he talks to them and comes across, he’s just a very genuine person and kids see that.
“They respect him. They idolize him.”
Thobe and Habodasz – she was a two-sport athlete and a cheerleader at Marion Local – have been friends a long time and after each married and started families, they ended up living in Troy and socializing.
“We talked about it before,” she said. “Both our lives felt perfect, yet something was kind of missing.”
It was the hometown embrace and each eventually ended up back in Maria Stein.
When Thobe got the teaching and coaching job at Fort Loramie in 2010, he and Erica – who’s from nearby Minster – built their home on Voskuhl Road and today their kids are immersed in the sports scene at Marion Local.
Aubrey, who is a senior, and Kinsey, a sophomore, are volleyball and track athletes. Gavin, an 11-year-old sixth grader, is a manager on the Flyers’ football team.
Habodasz returned to Maria Stein after her nephew, 19-year-old Jordan Diller, was one of four local teenagers killed in an auto accident when another driver, who police said was under the influence of alcohol and cocaine, ran a stop sign and hit their car north of St. Sebastian.
“The day it happened I looked at Mike, my husband, and said, ‘I’m gonna have to move back home to help my sister and my parents,’” she said. “’Our family is small and it’s where I need to be.’
“Back then, I saw the way everybody came together for my sister and I thought to myself, ‘If something happened to my family, I’d want to be surrounded by this community, by these people. They look out for you.’”
That’s what’s happening now with the Thobe family in ways big and small.
People regularly drop off meals for them. Others take part in prayer services,
Dan pointed to a box in the corner stuffed with cards.
“I’ve gotten tons of cards,” he said. “Some came with Walmart and Kroger (gift) cards. It’s amazing. People just want to do something for you.
“We just got two dozen ears of corn and somebody brought tomatoes and peppers, People give you suggestions to go here and try this. It’s a little overwhelming.”
While he appreciates it, he gets uncomfortable at times.
“One day I want to give all this back,” he said. “I want to help people.”
While he still does help others, much of his time now must be spent helping himself.
His diet is now fruit and vegetables, but no meat or dairy products. He said he tries to drink 13 to 16 cups of juice every day, which means he’s juicing carrots, celery and plenty of other vegetables and fruit.
He takes the antiepileptic drug Keppra to stave off some mini seizures he experienced, adheres to a daily exercise regimen – push-ups, squats, triceps extensions and 30 to 60 minutes of running and walking – and he does a lot of praying.
“No. 1 in all this is the Good Lord,” he said. “He’s got the final say and I’m putting my faith in him.”
Thobe said he prays in the morning, tries to say a rosary once or twice a day, as well, and goes to the Maria Stein Shrine of the Holy Relics for its twice a week prayer service.
“Should I be hitting the hospitals more and doing the medical route?” he said. “Well, we got conflicting treatments at the beginning, so we’re taking this path now and I’ll go back at the end of the month for a check-up.”
In the meantime he tries to keep up as much of his normal schedule as he can.
“A lot of people faced with this would have been brought to their knees, but not Dan,” Kelly Pleiman said. “He rolls with it. He’s full of positive energy. He’s full of life.”
He’s coaching at one of the two-a-day sessions right now. He weathered the withering heat at the Country Concert in Fort Loramie last month and, in a couple of weeks, he’ll be back in the classroom at Marion Local, teaching four classes of high school geometry and an eighth grade algebra class, too.
“When this happens to you, you have a choice,” he said. “You can say, ‘Oh, I’m pretty much done. This is over for me!’ Or you can say, ‘I’m gonna do what I can because I’ve got a lot more to give. I love people and want to make a difference for them.
“I want to live so I’ve just got to keep praying and talking to the Good Lord. And I’ve got to keep fighting.”