Mr. Wildcat! A fan like none other

Devastating stroke took popular teacher from classroom but not from Henry County games. Or hearts.

By John Herndon,

NEW CASTLE, Ky. — Every high school has that superfan, but only Henry County has Jeff Stein.

You know the type. It’s that person who makes it a point to be at everything possible.

Basketball games. Soccer matches. Track meets. Softball games. You name it, Jeff Stein has been there. It didn’t matter if they were home games and away competitions. He was there, sporting the maroon and white.

It’s just that while other schools might think they have the world’s greatest fan, only Henry County has Mr. Wildcat.

And even after a rare and debilitating stroke took Jeff Stein, a popular science teacher, out of the classroom last March, he’s found a way to make his way back to the school — and most importantly, the kids — he loves.

Jeff Stein leads a cheer at a Henry volleyball match in 2018. (Photo courtesy Henry County Local.)

He’s not running from one end of Roy Winchester Gymnasium exhorting Wildcat fans anymore. But between the first and second quarters of the Wildcats’ game with North Oldham on Jan. 25, he maneuvers his wheelchair on the court with the Henry County cheerleaders.

“C! A! T! S! Cats! Cats! Cats!”

That Stein joins the cheerleaders like he once did is beyond amazing since Mr. Wildcat’s life was drastically changed by a debilitating stroke last March.

“C! A! T! S! Cats!”

“He’s a fixture at every sporting event,” says Henry County boys’ basketball coach Enoch Welch. “It doesn’t matter if it is the football games, the volleyball games, the soccer games. He had a calendar and he could tell you what games he was going to that week. We are the only winter sport — us and the girls — so he is in the gym constantly. He was always at our home games and honestly, at a lot of road games.”

Wildcat fans soon noticed. “He was at everything. I gave him the name, ‘Mr. Wildcat,’” says Henry County parent Vicki Stephens, whose son, Parker, played basketball and soccer for the Wildcats before graduating last spring. 

Jeff Stein’s devotion to Henry County students earned him the name ‘Mr. Wildcat.’ (Photo by John Herndon)

“When spring rolled around, he was at baseball and softball,” Welch continues. “It became such a thing for the kids that Mr. Wildcat was at the games. It was awesome for his class because going to all those games showed how much he cared about the kids….Fixture is the best way to describe it. He was at all of our stuff and it wasn’t just sports. It was school plays, band concerts, everything.”

Stein, a native of Cincinnati, just made it a point to immerse himself in school activities in 19 years of teaching in Ohio and Kentucky. He’d coached golf and tennis and kept basketball scorebooks in past stops. At Henry County, where he’d been teaching for three years, he sponsored the school’s chess club.

“Any game the students asked him to go to, he would go,” says Stein’s wife, Jillian. “Anything.”

And as the son of a coach, Stein often found himself chatting with Wildcat coaches. It was never about strategy. “Most of the time, he was just talking about the kids,” Welch says with a big smile in his voice. “He wouldn’t talk so much about the game but what the kids did in the game and how proud he was of them.”

That commitment to kids was shining brightly the night Jeff Stein’s life drastically changed. Henry, as it has done every year since 1963, was hosting the Boys’ Eighth Region Basketball Tournament. The Winchester gym is one of Kentucky’s largest, seating approximately 6,000 fans, but with the crowds comes the issue of finding places to put cars in limited space. 

“In order to make money for the chess club, they would park cars at the tournament,” Jillian Stein says. “He was actually here (at Henry County High) when he was having the stroke.”

While Walton-Verona was defeating Oldham County for the regional title inside, Mr. Stein was taken to Jewish Hospital in Louisville. Even though he had suffered from diabetes, there were few warning signs.

Mr. Wildcat poses with Alex Hadden (left) and Chaney New at the 2019 Henry County Homecoming. (Photo courtesy Vicki Stephens.)

“He had had a heart attack in November,” Jillian Stein recalls, “and he was really watching his diabetes and everything. On the day of the stroke, he said he was feeling drunk that morning. I thought it was a byproduct of the diabetes and I didn’t see him all day.”

And, in reality, there was no indication that the stroke would be more than a temporary setback for Mr. Wildcat. “When he first had it, we were told he would be back at school in about six weeks. He was walking and he was talking. He was able to get up and go to the bathroom on his own for about a week after the stroke,” Jillian recalls. “It was a little tough but it just kept going after that. Unfortunately, it took everything — his ability to walk, to talk and to stay awake.”

The kind of stroke that had attacked Mr. Wildcat was a Cerebral Peduncular Infarction, a very rare kind of stroke in which the devastation is not immediately apparent. The stroke had been diagnosed on March 3 and Stein was sent to the Frazier Rehab Institute with the intention of being home soon. Instead, he was back at Jewish Hospital on March 17.

“He doesn’t remember anything about it, which is a blessing,” Jillian says. 

But it was also time for people who had been touched by Mr. Wildcat to give back. The stroke’s effect on his speech makes communication very difficult, but he tells his wife to tell about cards that have adorned his wall. “Every team and every class at Henry County made him a card and everyone signed it. All of the teachers got him a giant card,” she explains.

That was a small beginning.

“We knew he’d had a stroke, but I don’t think anybody knew how bad it was,” Henry baseball coach Stuart Dill recalls. “It didn’t really hit our kids until after spring break. That’s when we started playing a lot at home and he wasn’t there.”

Soon after, a senior girl approached Dill about Henry baseball sponsoring a Mr. Wildcat Night. Dill was all in. 

Mr. Wildcat and his wife, Jillian, take in the Henry County boys’ basketball game against North Oldham on Jan. 25. (Photo by John Herndon)

And so was Mr. Wildcat. “He was at Crestview Nursing Home in Shelbyville. I told him at the nursing home that our daughter (Tori) and I were going to Mr. Wildcat night and he said, ‘I’m going,’” Jillian smiles. “At that point, he had never been out. He’d never been home but he said, ‘I’m going.” The nursing home said, ‘As long as you can safely transport him, you can take him.”

The Steins had been living in Shelbyville ever since he had taught at Collins High School several years before and Centenary Methodist Church provided a van for Mr. Wildcat to be at the day in his honor. 

“He was so happy,” Jillian says. “It has really helped with his healing. I can’t overemphasize how much the kids and the faculty and the community have really aided us.”

Even though the Steins attend church in Middletown several congregations in Shelbyville and Henry County have stepped forward to help. Centenary also installed a ramp at Stein’s home and First Presbyterian in Shelbyville have assisted in paying insurance premiums when Jillian had to leave her job to care for her husband and be with him for therapy. 

And last fall, the Henry County volleyball team sponsored another Mr. Wildcat night. 

It’s simply giving back to one who has given so much. 

The Henry County volleyball team poses with Jeff Stein and his wife, Jillian, during Mr. Wildcat Night last fall. (Photo courtesy Vicki Stephens).

We asked Mr. Wildcat what he taught. He replied, “Sciii-ennce.” It was difficult to understand but one could easily see the spark in his eye when thinking about his favorite subject. He talks about chemistry as part of his speech therapy. “He knows the terminology so well,” his wife says. “He had no movement in his right arm but has regained quite a bit. He couldn’t even make a sound when he was talking but he was teaching (his therapists) the Pythagorean Theorem the other day.” 

But his connection with students was not merely academic.

“What I see is someone dedicated, not just to the curriculum and the system and improving academics, but Jeff is interested in improving the child’s life,” Welch says. “They go into his classroom and they get that he cares, but when he shows up at their concert or shows up at their ball games, they know. They think, ‘This man is giving time from his life. He could be doing anything he wanted right now, but he’s here.”

And now those same kids are there for Mr. Wildcat.

Henry County principal Shannon Sageser poses with Jeff Stein at an away basketball game this season. (Photo courtesy Vicki Stephens)

“I think a lot of kids who have graduated have come back to the ball games. They know he will be there and they want to come back and tell him how much he matters to them,” Welch says. “I think Jeff, if even for just a moment, wanted the kids to know he cares and wanted to be a positive part of their journey.”

Nearly a year after a stroke took Mr. Wildcat out of the class room and limited what he can do, he’s still trying to be a positive part of the journey.

“The support he has gotten from Henry County is amazing,” Jillian says. “I am totally floored by the amount of prayer and love and kindness.”

Chances are Mr. Wildcat will be watching when the Wildcats open their tournament journey at Gallatin County later this month. “He gets so excited to be out here,” Jillian says. He would be at every game if I could handle that. He would be everywhere at once.”

But wherever he is, you can rest assured that Mr. Wildcat will be there, raising his arms and exhorting the Wildcat faithful.

“C! A! T! S! Cats!”

‘Mr. Wildcat,’ Henry County teacher and superfan Jeff Stein. (Photos courtesy Vicki Stephens).

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