“People say to me, ‘you went from being one of the top Division I coaches in the country, a professor at a college, to teaching Middle School kids and coaching youth wrestling?’ and I always tell them ‘this is where I can do the most good.’”
Jeff Ragan could have coached at any number of top tier college wrestling programs. The current Woodward Academy wrestling coach and Middle School math teacher spent his college years competing at Oklahoma State, one of the top wrestling schools in the country, and then coached at The Citadel, where he balanced his coaching duties with an adjunct professorship in Calculus. He seemed poised to eventually take over one of the top flight wrestling programs in the college athletics. He was a supremely busy guy, working routine 12-hour days, and basically never called in sick.
Then, about five years ago while teaching at The Citadel, Ragan walked into his classroom and something just wasn’t right.
“I lost my sight,” Ragan said. “I was teaching that morning and suddenly things started getting darker. I couldn’t see. I got to practice, and I just couldn’t do it. I left before 5 that day, which I never do, and I remember all the kids saying ‘Ragan’s going home early, what the heck.’ I had to drive home with my brights on, and when I got home, my blood pressure was something like 280 over 240, whatever the number was.”
Ragan was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors discovered fluid build-up in his lungs, causing the blood pressure, as well as kidney failure. After several surgeries and scares, Ragan spent two years on kidney dialysis -- but that didn’t stop him from staying busy.
“I had dialysis four times per week,” Ragan said. “So I’d get up at 4:30 in the morning, do my dialysis, then be in my classroom by 9 teaching. I’d run practice during the day, then teach my youth kids, then get home around 8, grade papers, go to bed at 1, get up at 4, and do it all over again. I would schedule my dialysis all over the country, traveling for matches, and I had one clinician say she had to to more travel arrangements for me than the entire clinic combined.”
After two years of constant dialysis, Ragan finally received his transplant -- from his brother, an Air Force pilot.
“Here I am going through all of this stuff, and I didn’t even tell my parents, I’m just trying to do my own thing and keep it private,” Ragan said. “But my brother finds out about it and he says to the Air Force, ‘I’m going to give him a kidney.’ There’s a whole long process he doesn’t tell me about, where he might have to get discharged for giving me the kidney, but he just emails me the day before my birthday and says, ‘happy birthday, bro, I’m going to give you a kidney.’”
Soon after, Ragan considered his options and decided on a course change for his coaching and teaching career. While coaching college kids was rewarding, he thought that he might be able to make a bigger impact at an earlier age.
In 2014, Ragan arrived at Woodward Academy, where he has continued to work tirelessly for the benefit of his students, both in the classroom and in the wrestling room.
“I left being a professor to being a 7th grade, 8th grade math teacher, and I did it because if I can teach kids at this age, I can do them so much more good,” Ragan said. “I tell these parents -- your kid may not wrestle in college, but if I’m teaching these kids to be champions in life, then I’m doing my job. That’s what we’re here for.”
This season, the wrestling team is poised for success, with one of the top sophomore wrestlers in the country in Nick Masters. But Ragan’s ultimate goal for Woodward is loftier than a successful season.
“I want to turn the wrestling program into a dynasty here at Woodward Academy,” Ragan said. “And the first step in accomplishing that goal is to bring another state title to our historical program.”