When asked to recall the date of the phone call, assistant football coach and defensive coordinator Luke Cutkomp’s brow furrowed slightly. He hesitated—rare for a coach praised by his players as confident and decisive. His eyes searched the air in front of him, as if he was trying to skim through his own memory—the dates had been “kind of running together” lately, he admitted.
Then, he placed it: March 23. A Wednesday evening.
“Coach Kropke’s brother called me and said, ‘Hey, I got some bad news,’” Cutkomp said. “‘John had a major stroke and is in intensive care at the University of Chicago.”
Defensive line coach John Kropke entered his 10th season with the Maroons in 2021; since the stroke, he has been unable to speak or use the right side of his body. Kropke has been surrounded by his family and loved ones as he begins to navigate the road to recovery.
Since his injury, Kropke’s absence has left a void within the athletic and greater University communities alike; Cutkomp describes Kropke as a “mainstay” of the UChicago football program.
“For eight years, for every one of our meetings, Coach Kropke has sat in the back right corner of the VVR,” Cutkomp said. “Each team has its own identity and makeup, which is understandable, as kids come and go, but Coach Kropke has always been a cornerstone of my time here.”
Arriving at the University just one year before Cutkomp, Kropke took a distinctly unconventional path to the world of coaching. A successful player in high school, Kropke’s talents led him to a football scholarship at Illinois State University and nine seasons in the Canadian Football League (CFL) with the Ottawa Rough Riders, Winnipeg Blue Bombers, and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Following his “cup of coffee in the CFL,” as Cutkomp put it, the defensive coordinator praised Kropke for his profound influence not just the on trajectory and success of the Maroons, but on Cutkomp’s own coaching career.
“Everyone around you makes you better in coaching, and as a coach, you want to take advantage of the experiences other fellow coaches have had,” Cutkomp said. “Coach [Kropke] has had a great impact on me professionally, in terms of understanding the game, how I teach and prepare…I have really enjoyed our time together.”
The pair have worked alongside one another for the past nine years. Cutkomp underscored how Kropke’s contributions to the program and University extend beyond his prowess as a leader—he has also been a day-to-day role model.
“During the season, you’re with your fellow coaches more than your own family. You get to know them as people, and so it was very hard,” Cutkomp said, emphasizing his next few words. “Because John is such a good person. A good human being.”
Left with the almost insurmountable task of navigating spring quarter without a beloved member of their team, the Maroons immediately began making their own phone calls.
“When we heard about the news, it was obviously really shocking, and a lot of us just started calling each other to support one another,” recent graduate and linebacker Oliver Morton said.
Morton, alongside defensive lineman and fellow recent graduate Davis Govrik, quickly organized a GoFundMe fundraiser that has now raised almost $60,000 from over 350 donors. The fundraiser hopes to aid in Kropke’s rehabilitation expenses, as well as to generally reciprocate the dedication and support Kropke has extended to his players throughout his entire career.
“Our goal was [to raise] $25,000 when we first made the fundraiser—we raised $25,000 on the first day.” Morton said. “It's amazing to see how many people he touched, and how many lives he has positively impacted.”
Morton and Govrik, while grateful for the chance to support their coach, rejected any praise of their initiative or quick action with smiles on their faces.
“This is not something that's just been us two—this has been the result of an entire network of support, composed of the team, along with a lot of other communities Coach Krop has impacted.” Morton said. “The fundraiser was a quick mobilization of everybody sharing the same mindset of ‘this guy has done so much for us—how can we possibly do anything?’ And, for all he’s done for us, this is really the least we can do.”
Govrik echoed Morton’s words. “We’ve had a lot of successes as a team, especially this past year, and we had a really good team both on and off the field,” Govrik said. “We were basically all brothers. And seeing the outpouring of support now, it all comes full circle. It’s just about the community.”
Govrik said his own relationship with Kropke was formative in his time on and off the field; the defensive lineman saw the coach as a defining figure in his personal and professional development during his time at UChicago.
“When I was recruited, I didn’t really know who Coach Krop was. But right away, he took me under his wing,” Govrik said. “He’s always been there for me.”
“Just this past year, during the first game of the season against WashU, I had to go to the ER for some full-body cramps. While everybody was celebrating, I was there for four or five hours. Finally, I needed somebody to pick me up,” Govrik said. “And on his Saturday night, Coach Krop came in his car to the hospital and drove me back to my place. That’s who Krop is—he’s a caregiver.”
Morton went on to share his own fond memories of Kropke, laughing as he recalled how he and Kropke, both passionate fans of Boston and Chicago sports, would chat about the highs and lows of “both Sox—not just the White Sox.”
People gave countless examples of the ease with which Kropke was able to form deep, lasting connections with his players—even through the smallest acts of kindness. “Us linebackers bring the equipment in at the end of the day,” Morton said. “And as we’re walking out from the field, he’d always give you a fist bump on the way out and tell you to have a great day. Always putting a smile on someone else’s face, that’s what I always think of.”
“It’s been certainly great to see our kids come together for Coach Krop because it’s so obviously apparent what he means to the program,” Cutkomp said. “He’s appreciated by both his current players and former players for what he did for them.”
Alongside his honesty and humility, Kropke’s dedication to the stability, longevity, and success of the team shone through all that he did, according to Cutkomp, which is a spirit that has transcended both his roles as professional player and coach. “In either ’91 or ’92, when [Kropke] played for the Ottawa Rough Riders, he came in while the team was just getting started,” Cutkomp said. “And while John was certainly establishing himself, he was willing to renegotiate a contract to get more players available to the team to make the entire team better. The GM said that stuck with him for years…and that is just Coach, to a T.”
And while Morton and Govrik will soon be saying goodbye to Hyde Park, Morton expressed that, despite the tragic circumstances, he felt blessed for the chance to repay Kropke for his support before leaving campus.
“I would just say it’s remarkable,” Morton said. “'It’s a horrible situation that has brought about a way to reconnect with my experience here, and the people who really mattered to me—Coach Kropke being one of them.”
“We’ve had a lot of great memories together. And I can’t think of just one defining moment, one certain win or practice that stands out,” Cutkomp said. “But we always seem to be laughing.”
In terms of his hopes for the future, Cutkomp stressed that the awe-inspiring community response is a reflection of, fundamentally, who Kropke is, and will continue to be upon his return to the Maroons.
“We hope this moment captures what Coach Kropke means to his players and the program,” Cutkomp said. “We want it loud and clear to everyone just what type of a human being he is and how much of a valued member he is to our athletic and University communities.”
Govrik shared Cutkomp’s sentiments, summarizing it plainly: The foundation of Kropke’s legacy and career is his commitment to others. “Kropke didn’t have to do this,” Govrik said. “This guy was a CFL Northern All-Star. He could have gone for a ‘higher up’ job, not Division III. But he decided to settle down in the middle of Hyde Park, Illinois, and to be a part of the community. And he loves it here.”
The fundraiser to help support Coach John Kropke's medical expenses can be found here.