GREAT FALLS — In the days since East Middle School teacher and Great Falls High assistant basketball coach Ken Maddox passed away from COVID-19 on Saturday, there have been countless memories and stories shared about his life and impact from friends, family, students and former players.
After more than 40 years in the district, Maddox managed to touch the lives of nearly everyone he came in contact with due to his selfless attitude and big heart. But there’s one relationship that perfectly sums up what kind of man Maddox was.
The bond between Maddox and his grandson Jake Wetzel.
Maddox and Wetzel weren’t related by blood. After moving to Montana from Cincinnati in the 1970s, Maddox married Wetzel's grandmother Billie Jo in the 1990s.
But their relationship couldn’t be stronger. Maddox was there when Wetzel needed him the most.
“My dad was in and out of the picture. He was there as much as he could but struggled with addiction. My mom wasn't necessarily there all the time,” Wetzel said. “So I went through the foster care system and lived in a group home, and my grandparents got custody of me when I was in about second grade.”
Maddox didn’t hesitate to take Wetzel into his home and under his wing.
“So my grandpa really filled that father figure role and tried to give me the best life he could,” Wetzel said. “And I think that's exactly what he did.”
Wetzel took the life lessons from Maddox and ran with them. He was a star student and basketball player at Great Falls High and earned a basketball scholarship to the University of Providence, where he enjoyed a standout four-year career for the Argos.
This year he graduated with a double major in psychology and addiction counseling and is currently pursuing his master's degree in social work at the University of Montana.
Wetzel is quick to point out that any success he achieves in his life was directly due to the influence and support of Maddox.
“Who knows where I would have been without him, honestly,” Wetzel said. “I see a lot of people come from places I've been and they didn't necessarily make it out like I did, and I give all that to my grandpa. He just showed me the ropes, showed me how to do things the right way and taught me what's right and not right.”
The hardwood was the common denominator in their relationship. The two would spend hours every night shooting hoops.
“And the game of basketball was really our connecting point,” Wetzel said. “You know, I loved basketball before I moved in with him, but he really used that as a tool for me to cope with a lot of things.”
Wetzel misses his grandpa dearly. This week has been hard, filled with an untold amount of tears. But if there’s one thing that Maddox taught him, it’s how to find ways to overcome adversity and be there for your loved ones.
“Even though it's an unfortunate circumstance that he's not here with us today, one thing I can guarantee is that my grandpa would tell us not to worry about him,” Wetzel said. “He's good. He's in a good place now. He taught me how to cope in healthy ways for myself and for my family, he taught me how to be a leader for my family and the ones around me.”
Wetzel and his family are still sifting through hundreds, if not thousands, of messages from those that knew Maddox offering love and support. They’re working on details for a memorial service.
But on Tuesday Wetzel took the time to stop by Great Falls High where the senior steps are filled with letters, mementos and some of Maddox's favorite things. There’s a box of Popeye’s chicken, a WWE figurine, boxes of candy and photos with faculty at East Middle School.
“Whoever brought the chicken, Kenny loved his chicken man,” Wetzel laughed. “The Swedish Fish and the candy, those are all things that equal Ken Maddox.”
The collection amused Wetzel. But most of all, it made him proud.
“It's just humbling,” he said. “And it just makes me feel good about the man my grandpa was and the legacy he left behind. And it makes me want to pick up where he left off."