Leistikow: Mary Ferentz interview takes unexpected turn

Chad Leistikow
Mary Ferentz, left, and husband Kirk first got to know Christopher Turnis, now 11, in 2011.

IOWA CITY, Ia. — When your profession is to write about college sports, rarely does the preciousness and fragility of life surface as the primary topic.

Going into our pre-arranged interview last week, I knew Mary Ferentz, the wife of Iowa’s 18th-year football coach, wanted to pitch the upcoming Iowa Ladies Football Academy. But I wasn’t sure what — if anything — I’d write, until the event’s 2016 Honorary Captain piqued my interest.

Christopher Turnis wasn’t supposed to live more than an hour.

Today, he’s 11 years old.

Christopher attends Carver Elementary School in Dubuque. He plays basketball and video games. Though that sounds normal, his life has been anything but.

Every day brings unknowns. There are good months and bad months.

Starting with an operation at 2 weeks old to repair his urethral valves, Christopher has endured 40 surgeries and more than 1,000 days in the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.

He was born with a defect that causes a chronic kidney disease.

“We were told when I was 31 or 32 weeks pregnant that his condition was not compatible with life,” his mother, Kristina, said. “They had not expected him to live more than an hour after birth.”

Kristina and her husband, Ron, hoped for the best, but braced for the worst. Christopher survived.

Another setback came in 2007. Christopher was diagnosed with the most severe case of an inflammatory disease called Eosinophilic Esophagitis (EE) that the UICH had ever seen. EE causes vomiting and extreme discomfort.

Three times, most recently a few months ago, his body has rejected a 2010 kidney transplant. He’ll likely need another kidney in 2-3 years, and finding a match will be difficult.

Christopher fights on.

There’s a moving YouTube video that shows Christopher powering through the health struggles, often with a smile on his face.

“Part of it is he’s grown up with it, so he honestly doesn’t know any different,” Kristina said. “But he is very tough. He has endured more and put up with more than any adult ever has.”

A feeding tube provides Christopher with all of his essential nourishment. A nurse is by his side during school. When hospital visits surface, he can keep up with classes via Skype.

It takes a lot of good people to keep his life moving. That’s where Hawkeye football comes in.

One of the two children’s hospitals in Iowa happens to be located across the street from Kinnick Stadium. It’s become a place of outreach for many Iowa players over the years. Some of the first Hawkeyes to meet Christopher were Ricky Stanzi, Brett Morse and Jeff Tarpinian in 2010. Kristina recalls them coming to see Christopher one Monday after a road loss.

Christopher Turnis, second from left, is shown with 2015 Iowa football seniors (from left) Jordan Canzeri, Adam Cox and Macon Plewa. Christopher is the Honorary Captain for the upcoming Ladies Football Academy.

“They walked in the room,” she said, “and Christopher said, ‘You (lost) the other day, you should really be practicing.’ ”

One-liners like that provide laughs in rooms where joy is sorely needed, where it’s sobering to remember not all kids make it.

It’s why Kirk and Mary Ferentz have made this place a philanthropic cause during their time in Iowa City, even if doesn’t get as much attention as depth charts and touchdown passes.

It’s why players are compelled to give their time to brighten young Hawkeye fans’ days. It’s why on June 4, the 2016 team’s biggest stars will come back to campus a few days early to volunteer for the Ladies Football Academy clinic (and yes, C.J. Beathard will be there).

"The kids do a bunch of stuff that nobody hears about," Mary said.

Every dollar raised goes to the UICH. Women of all ages can still sign up; there are about 75 spots remaining. For a $50 registration fee plus a minimum $500 donation, ladies can partake in a day in the life of a Hawkeye football player, including on-field drill work. (Guys: You’re welcome in advance for the last-minute Mother’s Day gift idea.)

The LFA has raised $1.2 million for the UICH to date. The first $1 million went toward a new building under construction, and the next $1 million is going to fund research at the UICH that benefits children such as Christopher.

As Honorary Captain, Christopher plans to attend the June 4 academy.

Until then — like all of the other Christophers who fight their own battles in the beds of the UICH — he’ll take life the only way he knows it: One day at a time.

Iowa Ladies Football Academy

  • The purpose: To raise money for the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital.
  • The sixth annual event: June 4 at the Iowa football complex (including Kinnick Stadium), from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. About 75 spots remain; participation is capped at 400.
  • Registration: Minimum donation (tax deductible) of $500 is required, plus a $50 registration fee. Space is limited to 400 women. Average donation is around $800.
  • On Facebook: For more on Christopher Turnis' journey, search "Christopher's Champions" on Facebook.
  • Website: iowaladiesfootballacademy.com