UW Health Sports Medicine 

For Bielema family, toughness a trait passed from mother to son

ON WISCONSIN <b>Marilyn Bielema is an annual participant in her son Bret's Football 101 for Women fundraiser.</b>
Marilyn Bielema is an annual participant in her son Bret's Football 101 for Women fundraiser.

June 25, 2011

MADISON, Wis. -- Marilyn Bielema’s son didn’t hesitate to acknowledge her impact on his life. “I probably get a lot of my toughness from my mom,” Bret Bielema said.

When that was relayed back to Marilyn Bielema, who was in Madison recently, she said, “I don’t think I’m tough. But I kind of stick up for what I believe in. I think he’s inherited that, don’t you?”

She grinned. Yes, that was a rhetorical question. But there is no questioning her toughness as a two-time breast cancer survivor; especially now that she has been challenged again.

“I just went through a surgery and I’m going to go through chemotherapy and radiation,” Marilyn, 71, was saying now. “I was really kind of frightened by it all, too.”

She didn’t have chemo or radiation the previous two times.

“I’m not overly religious,” she went on, “but someone sent me an e-mail and it said, ‘You can’t ask the Lord to walk with you, if you don’t move your own feet.’

“I thought, ‘If I don’t take this treatment -- because I’m afraid to have it -- I’m not moving my feet.’ So I’m going to have it.”

That really speaks to her convictions -- about which she’s willing to speak to others.

Mike Lucas
UWBadgers.com Insider

That was the case on June 8 at Camp Randall Stadium when she took part in Football 101 for Women, an annual fundraising event to heighten awareness of and raise funds to battle breast cancer.

Through the instruction of Bret and his assistants, 300 women were exposed to the game’s fundamentals -- with all proceeds benefiting the Madison affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Before speaking to the women, Marilyn said, “No matter how nervous I am, no matter how big the group is, if I can make a difference and make one person go for that mammogram, it’s all worth it.”

What followed was another very telling admission which revealed more about her commitment. “I will put myself in an uncomfortable situation to help others if necessary,” she said.

Part of the challenge in any such public forum is dealing with the emotion because it’s such an emotional subject that impacts so many lives and families on different levels.

“To this day, she won’t let me listen to her speak. She won’t let me be present; me or my dad,” said Bret, who can relate because he knows how personal the topic can be.

“I will give a little speech on why I’m involved with Komen for the Cure and it’s always hard emotionally for me to speak while she’s in the room. It’s gotten a little better with time.”

Twenty-one years ago, Marilyn went to her doctor and asked for a mammogram.

“When I turned 50, I wanted one,” she said. “but my doctor said, ‘Well, you really don’t need one.’ I said, ‘Yes, I do’ and I insisted on having one because I just felt like I needed one.”

There were no signs, no premonition, but she learned that she had breast cancer.

“And I just decided that I would take every step that was available to me to get well,” she said, “because I still had a 13-year-old (Brandi) at home that needed her mom.”

Mother and son Marilyn and Bret Bielema on graduation day at Prophetstown High School

That was 1990, and Bret was a sophomore football player at the University of Iowa.

“I really didn’t know at the time how serious it was,” he said, “until later on when I began to learn more about the disease and what she went through.”

The breast cancer returned in 2001. This time, Bret came to his mother’s side.

“It was one of the few times in my professional business life, I had a week at home,” said  Bret, then an Iowa assistant, “and I was able to sit at the hospital with her for a couple of days.”

Laughing at the recollection, she said, “Bret clucked over me like a mother chicken over her baby chicks. He wanted to help me do everything. He’s been so supportive. My husband has, too.”

The whole family has shown their support, she said. That would include Bart and Brandi, who are living in Lyndon, just outside of Prophetstown, Ill.; and Barry, who’s living and working in Asheville, N.C.

Marilyn and Arnie Bielema are celebrating their 51st wedding anniversary this month. Both are retired. Marilyn directed a day care center. Arnie ran the hog farm and worked at the Geneseo Co-Op.

“She’s a very tough and hard-working person,” Bret said of his mom. “She put in so many hours taking care of five kids, from grocery shopping to meals to cleaning the house.”

Marilyn also took good care of Arnie, whose toughness also helped shape Bret. “My middle name is Arnold, I was named after my father,” he said proudly.

“He’s definitely an example of hard work, having sacrificed personal time to help us out as kids,” Bret continued. “He’s had his own setbacks and health issues but he has persevered.

“My parents are two good reasons why I am where I am today.”

At that, Marilyn saw something in Bret at a very early age; a drive to be successful.

“When he was in the third grade,” she said, “we had a parent- teacher conference and his teacher told us, ‘Bret says that he’s going to be a pro football player. Don’t you ever doubt him.’

“I thought that was a funny thing to say. But it’s true; he overachieves. He pushes, pushes, pushes. He doesn’t like to back down. It wasn’t going to be pro ball, so this is what he was going to do.”

Bret was going to lead others as a football coach.

On his growth in the profession, she said, “He’s still 100 percent football. But he’s mellowed.”

How so?

“Young coaches so often try to manage too much their first couple of years,” she said.” But once you get accustomed to your staff, you can relinquish a little bit and learn how to coordinate more.”

The Bielema family in Bret's early years

In this context, she added, “You learn what you want in your program and from your coaches.”

Over his formative years as a head coach, Bret has taken the advice to heart.

“She really keeps me grounded,” he said. “And she really has some interesting perspectives for me professionally to apply to my job that I would have never gathered on my own.”

On last season’s Rose Bowl team, she observed, “The chemistry of that team was wonderful. They just seemed to be a ‘we’ team instead of a ‘me’ team. They played the type of football he likes.”

So true, though she stressed, “I’ll give him little tips now and then but nothing about football.”

Has success changed Bret Bielema?

“I don’t think so,” Marilyn said. “And if you’d ask any of his friends, they’d say no. A lot of times he will come home for the Fourth of July. We have big fireworks at the state park.

“Bret always looks forward to seeing his friends that he went to high school with and many of the people he’s known all his life. Prophetstown is a small town (less than 2,000), but it’s a caring town.”

It’s the type of town where neighbors will bring food if someone is ill and can’t cook for themselves. “If someone is sick,” Marilyn said, “there’s usually someone right there to help you.”

You can take the boy out of Prophetstown, but you can’t take Prophetstown out of Bret.

“The other day, he said to me, ‘Mom, I got a card from our church,’” Marilyn recounted. “We have an outreach committee and when he got inducted into the Hall of Fame, they sent him a little card telling Bret how proud everybody was of him. You know it pleased him because he told me about it.”

In May, Bret was inducted into the Quad-City Sports Hall of Fame. Although he had a prior commitment and couldn’t make it back for the ceremony, he’s big into respecting his “roots.”

Bret was born in Silvis, Ill., and the family lived in Moline, part of the Quad Cities, before moving to a farm outside of Prophetstown, which is 35 miles from Davenport, Iowa, and 100 miles from Madison.

Marilyn and Arnie will drive up for the home games at Camp Randall. If persuaded, Marilyn will make her homemade pizza for a house full of friends and guests, though Bret himself is a very good cook.

All the Bielema kids share one trait.

They were taught to consider others first, Marilyn said, and give of themselves.

When Bret’s sister, Betsy, died from a fall that she took while riding a horse, she was riding for the foundation that benefited underprivileged children.

Bret is generous with his time and energy, whether it’s Big Brothers/Big Sisters, the American Family Children’s Hospital or the Komen Foundation, among other charitable organizations.

“Bret is such a social person,” Marilyn pointed out. “When he started kindergarten, I was working, so my mother had him in the morning and sent him to kindergarten in the afternoon.

“She always had to feed my aunt at the nursing home because she couldn’t feed herself. So Bret would go every day to the nursing home with grandma and push the wheelchairs down to the cafeteria.

“I still think it’s important for him to connect with people.”

Bret poses for a photo with father Arnie, mother Marilyn and sister Brandi prior to an Iowa football game

Which Bret has with his fiancé, Jen. They will be married next spring.

“I was wondering if it was going to happen,” Marilyn said of the engagement. “You could see there was a connection there. But Christmas passed and so did their birthdays, they’re a day apart.

“I thought, ‘Well, geez, maybe I’m reading this all wrong.’ Then he called the night he proposed and he was almost in tears. He was very, very happy.

“Jen has already lasted through the football season and understands it. That’s not easy. A lot of times Bret’s gone to the office before 6 in the morning and doesn’t get home until after 10 at night.”

When quizzed on his mother’s reaction to getting married, Bret said, “That was something she always struggled with; whether I had balance in my life between personal and professional.”

When Marilyn arrived last week for her speaking engagement at Football 101 for Women, some of the women kidded her about Bret now being “Marilyn Bielema’s son.”

Such is the respect she has garnered for taking an aggressive and positive stance on educating people about breast cancer. She really has carved out her own identity beyond being “Bret’s mom.”

“I’ve spoken here different times to the Komen Foundation,” she said, “and it’s always good to see old friends and meet new ones. It’s just really neat to get a chance to see everyone and know that some of them have walked the same walk that I have.”

Bret’s secretary, Lisa Powell, is also a breast cancer survivor.

“I tell the ladies to be selfish and put themselves and that doctor’s appointment for a physical or a mammogram ahead of everything,” Marilyn said. “Even though I’ve had a double mastectomy, I still have mammograms every year; where there’s tissue, there’s a risk of cancer coming back.

“Listen to your body and take care of yourself.”

Don’t you ever doubt him, or her.

Mike Lucas

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