Jon Roehlk was always the instigator, the organizer. He always was looking for something more he could do to improve himself and those around him.
That’s what allowed him to rise from Durant High School to become a two-year starter on the Iowa football team and one of the pioneers in the sport of arena football.
And it’s why so many people are grieving to learn that Roehlk passed away Sunday at the age of 54.
Roehlk, who lived in Davenport in the final years of his life, had battled health problems for many years, including a heart condition. It was ironic in that he always was one of the most robust and grizzled athletes around.
“He was as tough as any player we ever had,’’ former Iowa coach Hayden Fry said many years ago. “He has to be to play that arena game.’’
Roehlk, known to many as “Rock,’’ was the oldest of four children and was a role model for younger brothers Phil and Tony as well as almost everyone who came into contact with him.
“He made us all better,’’ Phil Roehlk said Tuesday. “He made everyone around him better both as an athlete and as a person. He really tried to motivate people. When we were kids, we all followed his lead. He was just a big over-achiever and he was always there for you.’’
The Roehlk family lived just a block from Dutton Park in Durant and Jon was the instigator for everything athletic. He was the one who rounded everyone up to go play baseball. He was the one who organized 5 a.m. workouts.
As a kid, he started something called the Roehlk Relays, which was a competition among the neighborhood kids. He even made plaques from pieces of scrap wood and medals from his mother’s ceramics to give out as awards.
“Everyone looked up to him,’’ Tony Roehlk said. “He was the one that got everything going. He wanted to win. He was just a competitor in everything he did.’’
At Durant High School, Roehlk starred in football, baseball and wrestling. His brothers actually thought baseball may have been his best sport. He didn’t start wrestling until his freshman year but he took to that quickly and by his senior year was one of the best in the state.
He was being recruited to play football at Iowa by head coach Bob Commings but when Commings was fired after the 1978 season, Roehlk began thinking he would need to go somewhere else, probably to a smaller college, possibly to play baseball.
When Fry was hired, one of his assistant coaches, Carl Jackson, got hold of a videotape of Roehlk and liked what he saw. Roehlk got the Hawkeyes’ last available scholarship.
He played linebacker early in his Iowa career, then was moved to the offensive line and became a two-year starter. He was voted one of the Hawkeyes' co-captains as a senior in 1983.
Roehlk attempted to make it with the NFL’s Detroit Lions in 1984 but was let go in the final round of cuts. He caught on with Pittsburgh but went on injured reserve and never played in a game, was briefly in camp with Philadelphia and started three games for the Chicago Bears as a replacement player during the 1987 strike.
He thought his football career was over at that point until he got another shot in the new sport of arena football, which had been invented by Quad-Citian Jim Foster. Roehlk participated in a test game for the sport and played for the Washington Commandos in the first year of the Arena Football League in 1987, then became a star with the Detroit Drive, helping them to four AFL championships in a span of five years.
Roehlk had played in more arena games than any other player when he retired after nine seasons in 1995. He was inducted into the Arena Football Hall of Fame in 1999 and later served as the line coach for the Quad-City Steamwheelers in af2 from 2002-2006.
He worked as a truck driver in recent years but battled persistent health issues and lost a great deal of weight.
“He really was all about his son Michael, who is 10 years old and is kind of Jon’s mini-me,'' Tony Roehlk said. "He’s very involved in Davenport North’s sports programs and has made all sorts of all-star teams. He looks like Jon and he’s big like Jon.’’