‘I was lucky enough to call him my friend:' Jim McKeon leaves a legacy of love on and off the field

Jim McKeon's passing shook the Bemidji football community to its core. He will be remembered as a good coach, a great father and a tremendous friend.

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Gianna McKeon, right, was honored at halftime with her dad, Jim McKeon, during the Bemidji football team’s game against Sartell-St. Stephen on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021, at Chet Anderson Stadium.
Pioneer file photo

BEMIDJI – Patrons of the Bemidji High School football team could hear the hollers of longtime assistant coach Jim McKeon echo throughout the grounds at Chet Anderson Stadium.

His booming voice and ear-to-ear smiles were embedded in his love for Bemidji football.

On Feb. 12, McKeon, 46, went into cardiac arrest while ice fishing with his son and a close friend in Nevis. Despite the efforts of bystanders and paramedics, he passed away.

McKeon was from Mazeppa, a small town of under 1,000 people north of Rochester. He played center on the offensive line for the Bemidji State football team in the late 1990s before meeting his wife, Hayley, in 2000. They raised three children together – Rocco, Ruby and Gianna.

For over two decades, McKeon dedicated his life to family and football.


"He was completely selfless," former BHS head football coach Troy Hendricks said. "His ability to connect with kids in the program made him who he is. All of the things you read about him are because of the love he gave to the people around him. If there was a kid who needed something, he'd get it for them. He put so much love into the people around him when he didn't have to."

Jim Mckeon, right, walks off the field at Chet Anderson Stadium during a Bemidji High School football game.
Contributed / Lainie Hiller Photography

McKeon's ability to connect with people was one of his most remarkable traits. BHS senior Ethan Biehn will remember him for his enthusiasm that rippled through the gridiron scene in Bemidji.

"He loved football, man," Biehn said. "He had the drive to win every game and get us pumped. You could see it in his eyes. He would give anything for our football family and our team. It was so awesome to see how many people he brought together. He's the type of guy who gets you excited for games and gets you pumped."

"He played at the college level, and he got to play for a state championship when he was in high school," former BHS assistant football coach Steve Thompson said. "He just wanted to share his passion with the kids, and he brought a ton of it. If you were there on Friday nights, you'd hear Jim's voice across the field. His passion for the sport and for the kids would shine through in everything he did."

Losing Gianna

Sadly, the McKeon family is no stranger to heartbreak. On Feb. 8, 2021, Gianna was diagnosed with telangiectatic osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer. She died a year later at the age of 10.

"There was a year when he wasn't around when he was battling with his daughter," BHS head football coach Bryan Stoffel said. "One of my favorite moments with Jim was after he'd been gone for a bit, he was able to return to our homecoming game that fall. To see the kids excited to have him back on the sidelines with us was really special.

"Another one of my favorite memories of him was when he had himself, Gianna and his family at one of our games. They did a whole thing at halftime, and that was really special."

Jim McKeon, left, gives a pump up speech to the Bemidji High School football team before a game at the Chet Anderson Stadium.
Contributed / Lainie Hiller Photography

After McKeon stepped away a year earlier, Biehn cherished seeing him on the sidelines during his senior season.


"He was such an inspiration," Biehn shared. "I've known him for four years now. He was gone during that stretch with the hardships their family already had. But he came back for my senior year of football. He was just so motivational.

“He's an amazing coach and an amazing person. He was a friend to everybody. It's just so sad to see him go."

Even after he came back, McKeon was understandably a shell of his former self.

"The hardest part about all of this for me, the guys on our team and the coaching staff is it felt like we were starting to see the old Jim come back to us little by little," Stoffel said. "We saw him find little tiny moments of happiness, and you could see him start to put the pieces together and give him a chance to move forward. That's the hardest part. It's just so tragic."

Remembering his legacy

Hendricks and Stoffel said the BHS football program will find a way to dignify McKeon's impact on the hundreds of kids he coached.

"We will make sure his legacy and remembrance lives on in some way," Hendricks noted. "I don't know what that looks like yet, but his impact on our community for over 20 years was big, and we need to make sure we honor him in a way that will last long after this."

On Feb. 16, a GoFundMe campaign was started to help pay for the expenses of McKeon's passing. As of Monday, March 6, community efforts have raised $29,350. The drive is still accepting donations.

McKeon's positive effect on people showed in the outpouring of love from his community following his death. He will be remembered as a good coach, a great father and a tremendous friend.


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Jim McKeon leads the Bemidji High School football team onto the field at Chet Anderson Stadium before a Bemidji High School football game.
Contributed / Lainie Hiller Photography

"Football was his passion for a long time," Stoffel added. "His greatest love was his family. After them, football was right up there. We were fortunate enough to have him share that passion with us."

According to Thompson, the ability McKeon had to connect with students and bring the best out of them was evident year in and year out.

"The one thing Jim brought to the table that was really special was his heart,” Thompson left off. “His heart and love for people was so big, and he was the kind of guy that was there for everyone who needed him. I was lucky enough to call him my friend."

Jared Rubado took over as sports editor at the Bemidji Pioneer in February 2023 after working as a sports reporter at the Alexandria Echo Press and sports editor of the Detroit Lakes Tribune, Perham Focus and Wadena Pioneer Journal newspaper group.

He graduated from the University of Augustana in 2018 with journalism and sports management degrees.

You can reach Jared at or (218) 316-2613. Follow him on Twitter at @JaredRubadoBP.
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