Jerry Bretag never got the chance to be an athlete, but his impact on sports in and around the state of Illinois is unquestioned.
Bretag, a former sports writer for The Times in Ottawa, 25-year sports editor of the Quad City Times and a highly-honored, longtime statistician for the Illinois High School Association, passed away Wednesday at the age of 82.
"It's a terrible loss for the IHSA," said Scott Johnson, assistant executive director of the IHSA in charge of, among other things, information technologies and history and records. "Jerry was a great guy. He always had an upbeat, positive attitude despite the many problems he had to face in his life. He was always willing to help out and go the extra mile. He always wanted to keep busy, to stay involved in sports and feel like he made a difference, and he certainly did for us.
"Jerry had an amazing life. He was not expected to live into his 20s, and to make it all the way to 82 and to do all of the things he did, it's just an amazing story. An inspirational story."
Bretag was born with spina bifida, a disorder that leaves its victim with an open spine. However, he overcame that affliction to not only excel scholastically, but to cultivate his passion for sports. In his sophomore year at Ottawa, he became manager of the football team then led by coaching legend Bill Novak, and as a junior was tabbed a special statistician for fabled basketball coach Gil Love.
He put his stat skills to work for The Ottawa Daily Times his senior year, working as a part-time sports writer. After getting a degree in journalism from Western Illinois University, he went on to write again for The Times, then for the DeKalb Chronicle, where he eventually worked his way up to sports editor.
He later took the sports editor's job with what is now the Quad City Times, doubling as official statistician for the Mississippi Valley Conference, later the Quad Cities Conference.
During all those many years, Bretag did his job, often suffering in schools, press boxes and gymnasiums that back then and even now are not well equipped to accommodate the handicapped.
Health issues eventually forced Bretag to retire from those posts in 1984, but a phone call from then IHSA executive director Jim Flynn began a 30-year labor of love as a statistician for Illinois high school sports. His work included reviewing performances nominated by parents, fans, coaches and media for inclusion in the organization's records books. In many cases, he'd find some noteworthy efforts on his own from going through newspaper and media reports around the state.
Over the years, he was also charged with entering state tournament box scores and statistics into IHSA annals, all from his home in north Ottawa done at first via an old manual typewriter and later through a computer and the internet. It continued even after he moved into the La Salle County Nursing Home in November of 2009.
His works, which are estimated to have included well over 90,000 entries and records, have not gone unrecognized. In 2008, he received the IHSA's Distinguished Service Award and, in 2013, he was inducted into the Ottawa Township High School Hall of Fame.
"What Jerry Bretag was able to do was remarkable," said Dan Eilts, former Daily Times sports editor and now himself the official statistician for Ottawa Pirates football and basketball. "In his Hall of Fame speech, he said that while he couldn't couldn't be out there on the field or court, he loved sports and wanted to be part of it, and he found his way ... through his career as a sports writer and with the great job he did for the IHSA, helping them with a monumental amount of records.
"It was quite an accomplishment to overcome what he did, to get his education and impact sports around the state the way he did. Hats off to him. Wow. The things he did were amazing."