Thompson embraces Spartan connection

Jill Thompson takes a photo with her nephews – Austin, Logan, Dylan and Justin – after a Grundy Center football game in 2019. Jill has been in attendance for every Grundy Center football game since Austin's senior year – and she plans to keep attending games while the Knaacks are suited up in maroon and white. (Photo from Facebook)
Jake Ryder
The Grundy Register
Jill Thompson loves sports, small towns, and family.
The Marshalltown native and East Marshall graduate, who now lives in Cedar Rapids, has overcome many challenges to be able to enjoy those things she loves, one way or another.
And above all, she made a promise to her nephew, Austin Knaack.
"I told him that I would go to every one of his games, no matter how far, his senior year of football," Jill recalled. "… You know, as you get older, you realize these kids aren't going to be busy like this for much longer."
When Austin graduated from Grundy Center to go on to play at Central College, Jill figured that might be the end of it. But a couple weeks before the 2019 season, she got a call from Austin's younger brother, Logan, who played with Austin on the Spartan team as a freshman.
"He said, 'You'll be at every game, right?'" Jill said. "And I said, 'Oh yeah!'"
That was the beginning of what's become a tradition for Jill, making the journey from Cedar Rapids every Friday night to see Grundy Center play, whether at Spartan Stadium or abroad. She's followed Logan to back-to-back state championship game appearances. And even when Logan graduates after the 2021 football season, there's still Dylan and Justin Knaack, who will be entering their sophomore seasons next fall. And the promise still stands.
"I just love it," Jill said. "It's become tradition."
The Knaack boys have grown close with Aunt Jill, and Logan's made another tradition of taking a photo with Jill after every win – and even some of those tougher losses like the Class A championship games in 2019 and 2020.
Logan, the star quarterback for the Spartans, had been keeping his emotions in check in the post-game media scrum after Grundy Center's championship game loss to Iowa City Regina, staying cool under the hot lights of the cameras from the TV stations, until Jill's name was mentioned.
"I love her. She's my motivation, she's the fire," Logan said, taking a deep breath to steady his voice but ultimately giving into the emotion. "To see her here, it's pretty great. She's the biggest supporter of her family, her friends, of our program. It just means the world to us."
When Jill Thompson was born in Marshalltown, her pediatrician told her parents that Jill would either live a short life or a longer, miserable life.
"That's not one of my mother's favorite doctors," Jill said. 
Born with osteogenesis imperfecta (OI) – also known as "brittle bone disease" – in 1979, the doctor was merely relaying the amount of knowledge he knew about the disease – medical technology had not quite advanced into Central Iowa to prepare medical staff on how to approach the genetic disability.
However, there were two doctors in that hospital that had completed their residency at Shriners Hospital in Chicago, one of the foremost hospitals equipped to treat OI.
"I always say God works in all ways," Thompson said.
The next day, one of those doctors advised Jill's parents to take her home, make life as normal as possible. When she was three months old, she made her first trip to Shriners.
From the age of four to thirteen, Jill went under the knife as doctors put rods in her femurs, tibias, right humerus and back.
Those strong rods helped Jill to not break as often as she had before, and she doesn't break much anymore, if only because her body stopped growing at a certain point.
But from there, Jill was able to move on to her next challenge – embracing sports when she couldn't directly participate.
So she became a devout spectator, attending all the sports she could for her three siblings – including Vicki (Knaack) Thompson. When she was in high school at East Marshall, she kept the scorebook for the East Marshall softball team, while Vicki was doing assistant coaching – Vicki was a two-time all-state player for LDF-SEMCO in 1989 and 1990 before they merged to become East Marshall. After the consolidation, the Mustangs made trips to state in Jill's freshman and sophomore years.
Jill graduated from East Marshall in 1997 and then made life-long friends at Central College with girls that helped her adapt to dorm life. Two weeks after graduation, she moved to Cedar Rapids and got a job at Collins Aerospace as an accountant, where she works to this day.
She's able to live on her own and has been able to set up her apartment to do everything she needs to do herself.
"So why not go to football games?" Jill asked rhetorically, adding jokingly, "Sure, I have challenges, but I figured I kinda live a boring life."
Jill wonders what experiences she would've missed of her siblings if she had been able-bodied herself.
She wouldn't have seen Vicki help lead LDF-SEMCO to a second-place finish at state when all classes competed against each other in softball.
She wouldn't have seen her brothers play sports at Central: Travis on the football field, Kevin on the basketball court.
"I got to do all of those things, and be supportive," Jill said. "I make these promises because especially when they're in college, that's it, they're done, you know? Going to those games means a lot. These times are limited, and they go by fast."
Jill was one of many Spartan fans that were disappointed to hear of Governor Kim Reynolds' restrictions on high school sports attendance prior to the state football championship games, which resulted in only two tickets allotted to each competitor on the Spartan roster.
While there were three Knaacks on the team, the math still didn't quite work out to include Jill on the ticket list.
But the Maroon Monsoon wasn't going to let Jill miss her nephews taking the field for another shot at a state championship.
One Spartan parent, Holly Jirovsky, stepped up to offer one of her tickets. Jill's father was willing to give up his ticket, too. But it was brother-in-law Gary Knaack, who is an assistant coach for the Spartans, that pulled some strings to get her an administration ticket.
Jill noted that when she was at the championship game, several people came up to her and mentioned how she was the first person that came to mind when they had heard tickets would be limited, and how they hoped Jill would find a way to the Dome.
"I've cried several times just thinking about how this community has welcomed me," Jill said. "When we were lined up at the UNI-Dome, I thanked Holly and gave her a hug. It meant the world to me that someone that I had just met a couple years ago, had made that offer to me. I was so glad that we were both able to go.
"And of course, I told Gary that he was my favorite brother-in-law, and he goes, 'I'm your only one!'"
That small-town Iowa mentality makes the road trips, often a three-hour round trip to Spartan Stadium just for starters, a lot easier on Jill, who adds that she probably knows more people in Grundy Center than she does in Cedar Rapids, where she's lived for almost 20 years.
"That's what I love about Iowa, that's what I love about small schools," Jill said. "They don't see me as, 'Oh, there's some lady that goes to every game,' they know that that's Logan, Dylan and Justin's aunt, that's her place that she sits at the football games."
Jill can't believe that Logan will be a senior next year, and she's been hearing from him about college coaches that are reaching out to him.
She hopes that Logan will choose somewhere closer to home, but promises she'll always be watching, even if she can't be there physically.
"I'm excited for Logan's future," Jill said. "He's a good kid, a smart kid, and he's got enough people in his family too that can bring him down to earth if he tries to get too big."
Jill will always cherish the post-game photos with the Knaack boys, the way Logan makes a beeline to Jill for a photo, then asks to see the photo to make sure his hair looks good.
"That's the Logan I know and love," Jill said. "It's so funny to see him on the field and think, that's just the same crazy kid. I love how good he is with the kids off the field, how they look up to him, and that's important to me to see how my nieces and nephews hold themselves in a way that parents want from their kids, and I think they do that."
Last year's Grundy Center football run was exciting enough for Jill, and to see them do it again was even more incredible.
"What a joy," she continued. "I love watching this team play, it's been such a great run and I hope it continues."
"But no matter what happens, I will be there."


The Grundy Register

601 G. Avenue - P.O. Box 245
Grundy Center, IA 50638
Telephone: 1-319-824-6958
Fax: 1-800-340-0805

Mid-America Publishing

This newspaper is part of the Mid-America Publishing Family. Please visit for more information.