The Lions took center Frank Ragnow out of Arkansas with the No. 20 pick on Thursday night. Meet the newest Lion.
It was December of 2015 and Frank Ragnow had just gotten back from Wal-Mart, where he went to buy a Santa Claus mask for a party he was planning to attend, when his phone rang with some disturbing news.
Marty Ragnow, Frank’s mother, was on the other line, calling to tell her son she had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Marty tried to stay upbeat during the call, reassuring Frank that everything would be fine, that it was a small tumor barely in Stage 1. But the news still hit Ragnow like a truck.
Seven-hundred or so miles away from his Minnesota home, Ragnow wanted to be there for his mother, the woman he calls “my backbone.”
His grandfather, Frank, had died of cancer when he was 5 or 6 years old, and Marty’s sister, Wendy, passed away years earlier at the age of 30 from Hodgkin’s disease.
Ragnow grew emotional, and after he hung up the phone, he spent the rest of the night in his room with no desire to play Santa anymore.
“It’s just like a takes-your-breath-away kind of moment, cause you always, you kind of grow up thinking, ‘Ah, none of this stuff’s going to happen to me,’” Ragnow recalled Friday. “You see things all around you, ‘None of it’s going to happen to me.’ I’ve got two great parents, we live a happy life, everybody’s healthy. And when it happens it’s like, ‘Oh.’ It makes you grateful, it makes you thankful for every second.”
Marty Ragnow beat cancer, thankfully.
Doctors caught the disease early. She had a lumpectomy to remove the cancer, went through six draining weeks of Monday-through-Friday radiation treatments, and when she went for her most recent checkup last month she sent a group text to all five of her children telling them she was still cancer-free.
But her fight, along with another tragedy the Ragnow family endured, the passing of Frank’s father, Jon, to a heart attack in October of 2016, brought mother and son closer in a relationship that will be front and center when the Detroit Lions host the Green Bay Packers in their “Crucial Catch” cancer awareness game Sunday at Ford Field.
“With everything my family’s gone through, and just how she’s been, it’s never been about her, which is cool,” Ragnow said. “She makes it about everybody else and she’s been a fighter, she’s been Wonder Woman, and it’s just I love that woman and I’m so thankful for her.”
When Marty Ragnow first learned she had cancer, her heart sank.
“I’ve had cancer in my family, so I think you’re very sensitive to the word,” she said. “I lost a sister who passed away at 30 and so it’s scary. It’s very scary. But I think looking back, it was minor. It was a cancer that was very fluke.”
Marty and Jon sat in the parking lot of a local Minneapolis-area meat market, Mackenthun’s, after her diagnosis, trying to figure out how best to break the news to their kids.
They wanted to tell Frank first, lest he find out from social media while he was away at school at Arkansas, and they called the rest of the family together for a meeting that night in their kitchen.
Frank was “emotional, but scared” when he got the phone call, Marty recalled. “And I think he grew up a lot having to be away and having these things happen, getting those phone calls. It’s just weird to look back now because we’ve been through so much more.”
The Ragnows drove to Frank’s Liberty Bowl game against Kansas State a few weeks after Marty’s surgery, and shortly after they returned home, Marty started radiation.
The treatments only took about 30 minutes, but they were five days a week and exhaustive enough that Marty began working part-time at her job.
“The biggest part is just driving there, the preparation, driving home. It’s exhausting,” Marty said. “I really didn’t expect to be so tired. I was working and I ended up having to go to half days during those treatments because it kind of built up and then by the end of it you’re just wiped out. So I can’t imagine what chemo’s like. I was blessed to not have to do that.”
At one point, Marty visited Frank in Arkansas to reassure him everything would be fine. The two spent a few hours fishing at a nearby lake, and when the battery died on Frank’s boat, they ended up paddling back to shore.
“We both are pretty quiet, so it was just nice to be together just the two of us,” Marty said. “And the water was very calming to me. Very peaceful.”
Ragnow said it was his mother who had a calming influence on him, whose resolve in the face of adversity convinced him she would be fine.
“She was still positive,” Ragnow said. “She made sure that I knew she was going to be OK, it’s OK to be far away and everything’s going to be all right.”
Marty won’t be at Ford Field on Sunday when Frank makes his fifth career start at left guard, but she’s had a big hand in just about everything he’s done.
Recently, she joined Frank’s brother, who’s attending Eastern Michigan, girlfriend, dog and boat on a road trip to Michigan, and when she watched her first game at Ford Field. She couldn’t help but marvel at how far her son has come.
“The first time in the stadium I had to sit down,” she said. “I walked in and it was unbelievable to see him down there and I so felt Jon with me. It’s like, ‘Look, he did it. He did it.’ It’s just, it’s very awesome and he’s worked so incredibly hard, so it’s fun to see now.”
Ragnow, after a few rookie hiccups in his first two games, has been one of the Lions’ best linemen the last two weeks and he’ll face a tough test Sunday against Packers defensive tackles Mike Daniels and Kenny Clark.
He said he rarely thinks about his mother’s cancer scare now, though he often thinks about his mom.
“I call her my backbone,” Ragnow said. “I mean, we went through some dark times and she’s the only person I wanted to talk to for a long time. She’s the person I call late at night, she’s the person I call whenever I really need her and she’s kind of always been there for me and she’s always kind of brought a smile through it all, which is pretty incredible.”
Marty said being a cancer survivor is pretty incredible, too, and something she counts her blessings about every day.
“It’s awesome,” she said. “Health is everything and sometimes you learn that the hard way, but it is so important.”
Contact Dave Birkett: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett. Download our Lions Xtra app for free on Apple and Android!