Wolfgang Kemp is the 2015-16 IHSA nominee for the NFHS Spirit of Sport Award:
There are few better days in the life of a high school student than that final day of school in mid to late December.
The sense of euphoria that results when coupling the relief of completing final exams with the excitement of the holiday season, and of course, a lengthy reprieve from school.
It is a day Wolfgang Kemp vividly recalls during his sophomore year at Woodstock North High School. Hours after finishing his final exams, he would spend the night in a church shelter for the first time in his life.
Wolfgang’s spirit has been put to the test since junior high, and the tribulations of his adolescence could have crippled him mentally and emotionally, yet he has managed to persevere and overcome thanks in part to his high school athletic experience.
Born and raised in McHenry County, Wolfgang enjoyed a “normal” childhood with his parents. His father owned a business and spent time employed as a mechanic and driving forklifts. Wolfgang’s first passion was wrestling, and although he says he was “overweight” and “not all that athletic” in grade school, he loved to wrestle and embraced his role as the team’s heavyweight.
However, problems began to surface at home around the time Wolfgang was in seventh grade and eventually his parents divorced. His mother’s absence took a toll on his father, who struggled with steady employment and mental health issues, which led to the loss of the family business and, ultimately, the family home. Wolfgang and his father stuck together, “couch surfing” at the homes of friends and relatives throughout most of his eighth grade and freshman years.
Wolfgang joined the Woodstock North football team as a freshman in 2012, but admits now that he simply “wasn’t ready for high school” as he dealt with the uncertainty in his home life. His interactions with Woodstock North head football coach Jeff Schroeder were not coming on the gridiron, but rather in Schroeder’s other role, as the high school’s Dean of Students.
Despite his issues, Wolfgang managed to remain in good enough standing to wrestle for the Thunder that winter, but his grades would begin a downward trajectory in the spring. He lost his sophomore football season to academic ineligibility, and as couch surfing options dwindled, he was on a crash course with that fateful December night.
“Everyone else was getting ready to celebrate Christmas and we were about to sleep at a church shelter,” recalled Wolfgang. “People talk about being down in the dumps, well, we were at the very bottom. You find out who your true friends are at times like that.”
The time that followed was an almost nomadic existence, moving from church shelter to church shelter in Cary, Crystal Lake, Woodstock, and Wonder Lake depending which was open each day. Never sure of how they would get to these places and if there would be meals provided when they did.
Like over 600,000 other individuals in the United States, Wolfgang and his father were homeless.
“There was a lot of drama. A lot of tense moments at the shelters,” said Wolfgang. “There were arguments and fights over beds or people accusing each other of stealing things.”
Not surprisingly, Wolfgang’s grades didn’t improve amidst the turmoil, and his academic ineligibility wiped out his sophomore wrestling campaign.
“That was when I was at my lowest. Just depressed, absolute rock bottom,” recalls Wolfgang. “Some of my greatest experiences in high school were on the football field. I love to wrestle. Not having sports in my life was devastating.”
Amidst the hopelessness, Schroeder encouraged Wolfgang to continue to stay connected to the football team, practicing with the team and lifting weights while ineligible.
That involvement remained a bright spot for helping Wolfgang cope, and better news was finally on the way. Wolfgang and his father were approved for the county’s transitional housing program PADS (Public Action to Deliver Shelter) in the spring of his sophomore year. PADS provided the pair their own 12x12 room with two beds and two dressers, but accommodations aside, the simple stability of knowing where he was sleeping at night was far more important on Wolfgang’s psyche.
“I was a completely different person once we got settled at PADs. I got my feet back on the ground,” said Wolfgang.
The only challenge created by PADs was its location, almost six miles from Woodstock North High School (out of the North attendance area, Wolfgang remained eligible at North via the McKinney–Vento Act). Wolfgang didn’t see that as a challenge, and the result would be the development of a legacy that may as well be known as the “Wolfgang walk.”
Wolfgang started his summer vacation by waking up before the sun to walk roughly two hours to summer football camp at Woodstock North, where he would practice, and then walk home in the searing heat. Eventually word got around about Wolfgang’s situation and Schroeder bought him a bike, while teammates also began to help out with rides.
Talking with Wolfgang’s teammates Jake Fiorito, Nicco Mazzanti, Randy Kline and Jared Zientz, they respectively used the following phrases to describe when they first heard that Wolfgang was homeless: “surprised,” “shocked,” “didn’t believe it at first,” and “blown away.”
All four had the same reason why, as fellow wrestler Zientz expanded on.
“He was always so happy-go-lucky, like nothing ever bothered him. He always has a great attitude. It’s pretty awesome to be on a team with him. Even when we lose, he is so positive and upbeat. When you think about what he’s going through and how much he puts into wrestling, it makes it more enjoyable and we appreciate him that much more.”
With his academic eligibility restored his junior year, Wolfgang was a three-sport student-athlete, participating in football, wrestling, and track & field.
He describes the feeling of returning to sports with a singular, emphatic word: “awesome,” and acknowledges how staying “in-season” helped keep him on the right track academically and around positive influences.
Despite his positive progression as a junior, Woodstock North coaches and administrators continued to keep the Kemps’ situation close to vest, not wanting to expose them to unnecessary scrutiny or spotlight.
Early in his senior football season, Wolfgang was finally ready to share his story, as Joe Stevenson published a riveting account
on Wolfgang and his father in the Northwest Herald
(the story would also alert the IHSA to the situation en route to the Spirit of Sport Award nomination) on September 26, 2015. The story would receive far more attention than anyone expected and an outpouring of community support ensued. One family donated a car, while another covered the insurance so Wolfgang could get to and from school and practice. A woman touched by the story started a GoFundMe account to help the Kemps, while others dropped off checks, clothes, or filled up his lunch payment card anonymously at the school.
“Everyone wants what’s best for Wolfy (Wolfgang),” says Schroeder. “It has felt like a collective effort. His dad, the teachers, the coaches, the school, and the community are all trying to help raise him and point him in the right direction.”
Wolfgang admits that the attention and support was both overwhelming and even at times awkward, but he always remained appreciative. Still, while he couldn’t pay it forward in the same way as others were for him, he did find a way to give back.
Woodstock North Principal Brian McAdow helped arrange for Wolfgang to tell his story to members of the Leadership of Greater McHenry County (LGMC) during a meeting on homelessness.
“He is kind of shy about everything and I know he was really nervous about speaking at LGMC,” said McAdow. “He never uses his situation as an excuse. If you didn’t know him, you would have no idea. He just got up there and told his story and it was phenomenal. There wasn’t a dry eye left in the house when he was done.”
Wolfgang’s father has found steady employment as their time at PADs draws to a close. Wolfgang joined the yearbook staff and enjoyed a strong senior campaign in wrestling, but doesn’t know if track & field will be a part of his plans this spring. He has talked to a Marine recruiter about enlisting after graduation in May, and he may forego track to get a head start on some of the testing the Marines require for enlistment.
Wolfgang is ready for the future and will no doubt embrace it with the iron will and soft-spoken resolve that has defined his past six years.
“I used to fear change, but now I embrace it,” said Wolfgang. “I’ve been through some tough situations, but I’ve pushed through it. I think I am doing pretty well for myself.”
Schroeder agrees and believes the “resiliency” and “determination” he saw from Wolfgang on the football field will serve him well in the future.
“If he applies the same determination to the rest of his life that he has to his high school sports career, he is going to have a successful life.”