For Jake Panus And His Family, The Race Is Far From Over

hot rod jake

In the days leading up to Christmas, a devastating winter storm brought 30 inches of snow, high winds, and subzero temperatures to South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, forcing some stranded residents to heat their homes by burning clothing for lack of firewood.

Home to the Oglala Sioux Tribe and the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890, Pine Ridge is one of the largest Indian reservations in the United States. It is roughly the size of Connecticut, but the distance between those two places is more vast from a socioeconomic standpoint than it is in terms of raw geography. Connecticut is, in many parts, the portrait of comfort and affluence. The Pine Ridge Reservation — plagued by poverty, lack of opportunity, and the residual effects of both — is anything but.

Yet Pine Ridge, alluring as it is desolate, has a pull on people — even people from Connecticut.

“It’s beautiful out there,” said Stephen Panus, whose family belongs to a church, Southport Congregational in Southport, Connecticut, that has sent a group of high school students to the Pine Ridge community of Red Shirt Table for missionary work every summer for the past 15 years.

Panus is a beloved figure in the U.S. horse racing community, having helped start America’s Best Racing, a Jockey Club venture designed to attract new fans and bettors to the sport. In 2019, Panus’ teenage son, Jake, was among a group of students who journeyed to Red Shirt Table to run a summer camp for children. Jake’s connection to the campers, who range in age from infant to grade school, was strong from the start.

“The kids loved him,” said Rev. Laura Whitmore, Southport’s associate minister. “He loved the experience. He soaked up everything we have to offer. We do summer camps, but then in our off hours, we do all the cultural stuff. He was really interested and asked a lot of questions.”

Jake Panus with a young camper on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

Jake was determined to make another missionary trip to Red Shirt Table and the Pine Ridge Reservation before he graduated from Fairfield Ludlowe High School. He was also determined to attend the University of South Carolina, his dad’s alma mater, and possibly walk on as a member of the Gamecocks football team, of which he was a diehard fan.

He was determined to do all those things because “is” and “will” aren’t possible now. In August of 2020, Jake died at the age of 16, a passenger in a single-car accident in which the driver — who, along with the vehicle’s other passengers, survived — was arrested for driving under the influence.

Stephen, his wife, and their younger son were devastated. Not only did they have to endure a family’s worst nightmare, but they had to start their grieving process during the dog days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the salve of in-person interaction was largely confined to one’s home (or yard).

Stephen had to get out of his head, had to make sure he and his family retained their sanity, had to make sure Jake’s memory lived on. In the days, weeks, and months following Jake’s death, Stephen received a steady stream of sympathetic calls and messages from his vast network of personal and professional acquaintances, among them Doug O’Neill, one of America’s elite thoroughbred trainers.

Their conversations would spark a charitable journey from Southport Church to Churchill Downs, from South Dakota to South Carolina, with Jake’s everlasting spirit touching lives — both human and equine — along the way as part of a legacy that continues today.

Raising awareness on a Hot Rod’s back

If there’s one thing that’s consistent on the backstretch of any track in the United States, it’s that every horseman pays his dues.

“My uncle won the [Kentucky] Derby in 2012 after picking up horse poop not too long before that,” said Patrick O’Neill, Doug’s nephew.

Patrick, who was 21 when his dad (Doug’s brother) died from skin cancer, grew up in Hawaii and played college football at Brown, where he ate into his and his roommates’ beer funds by spending $6 a month to add TVG to their communal cable package.

He invited those roommates — all fellow football players — to Del Mar for a day of racing one summer. Turning someone on to horse racing by escorting them to that San Diego-area racetrack is about as difficult as turning a heterosexual male on to women by setting him up with Margot Robbie. Sure enough, Patrick’s pals were smitten with the ponies, to the point where they immediately wanted to pool their funds and purchase a racehorse.

“I was the first one who said no,” recalled Patrick. “But once we all agreed we were doing it for the right reasons, we caught lightning in a bottle.”

Lightning came in the form of Hot Rod Charlie, a talented young horse owned by Patrick and his pals’ syndicate, Boat Racing LLC (named after the drinking game), who lost his first three races at Del Mar before breaking his maiden at Santa Anita. Uncle Doug, naturally, was Charlie’s trainer.

Doug and Stephen Panus got to talking about how Hot Rod Charlie, who finished second in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as a 2-year-old and would earn a berth in the 2021 Kentucky Derby by virtue of his first-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, might be utilized to spread the word about a pair of scholarship funds — one at the University of South Carolina and another in Red Shirt Table — set up in Jake’s memory.

The two men decided that they would outfit Charlie with a custom blanket featuring the Gamecocks’ logo and an integrated visual component inspired by a bear pendant Jake wore to commemorate his time working with the kids on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Charlie, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont Stakes, wore the blanket throughout a highly visible 3-year-old campaign. Not only did the blanket become a conversation piece, on and off camera, but it led to admirers donating over $100,000 to the scholarship funds created in Jake’s memory.

“It was really a matter of Stephen coming up with a way to keep Jake’s voice alive and well and to keep giving,” said Doug O’Neill. “So, in the smallest way possible, I just said if there’s any way we can possibly help, we landed a horse that may get some extra eyes on him, so we came up the idea of him rocking a blanket with the logo of the Gamecocks and just trying to spread the word of the generosity of Jake. It was cool. We honestly had hundreds of people who were like, ‘What is that?’ All of us were soldiers on the mission of Jake’s giving. It was very emotional.”

“The symbol that Stephen created to honor Jake was very unique,” added Patrick. “When we took a step back and said awareness was the best way we could bring value to this cause, all the eyes were on Charlie leading up to the Triple Crown. We all wore hats, but Charlie was receiving all the airtime, so a blanket was created. These horses run off the spirits of the people around him, so any way you could bring Jake’s aura closer to Charlie, I wouldn’t put it past to say it had a lot to do with Jake’s spirit being in Charlie that [Derby] day.”

A very young Jake with Post Malone at the Preakness Stakes

An extraordinary team meeting

When Matthew Bailey played Pop Warner football in Deland, Florida, a kicked extra point counted for two, whereas what’s commonly recognized as a two-point conversion just counted for one. The reason for this is that it’s a lot easier for a squadron of pre-teen tykes to run or pass a pigskin across the goal line than to snap and kick it through the uprights.

Sitting north of Orlando, Deland is in the part of Florida that can still rightfully be considered the South. And in the South, football is everything, or something close to it. Bailey was acutely aware of this when he began dabbling in long snapping in junior high, thinking that if he was to punch his ticket onto his varsity squad in ninth grade, he’d have a better shot doing that than attempting to make it as a tight end or defensive end.

“I was like, ‘If I want to play on varsity, I need to work on this,’” Fisher recalled. “I was able to play varsity my freshman year, which in our small town is huge.”

Fisher excelled as a long snapper in high school and had offers from Wofford and some smaller colleges to continue playing ball. But he couldn’t shake the feeling that becoming a Gamecock was his destiny.

“When I came here on visits, I just truly fell in love with the place,” he said of his trips to the Columbia campus. “Then on signing day, as soon as South Carolina called, I’m like, ‘I’m going.’”

This wasn’t a scholarship offer, to be sure. Rather, Bailey was invited to walk on. The opportunity was thrilling nonetheless. After getting into one game in 2019, Bailey emerged as the Gamecocks’ first-string long snapper shortly after Jake Panus’ death in 2020 and has thrived in the role since.

During the 2021 college football season, Bailey and his teammates got a text from the coaching staff informing them that there’d be a team meeting before practice the next day, for which they’d have to arrive 30 minutes earlier than usual. At that meeting, Bailey was startled to learn that his tuition would be paid for the following year as the first recipient of the Jake Panus Walk-On Scholarship.

“I was a walk-on, so those guys are partial to me,” South Carolina head football coach Shane Beamer told US Bets in a statement. “When hearing Stephen talk about Jake, he’s describing the ideal guy to me that we have playing football here at Carolina. To be able to honor his legacy means a lot to me, and I’m honored I was able to have a small part in it for sure.”

Special teams, special kid

Every year, each major college program gets to nominate one player to be considered for the Burlsworth Trophy, an annual award that recognizes the best walk-on player in the country. Baker Mayfield won the award twice at Oklahoma, and Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett won it for this current season, besting a field that included Payton Mangrum, a special teams standout at the University of South Carolina.

A wide receiver at East High School in Greenville, South Carolina, Mangrum didn’t receive any scholarship offers out of high school, but jumped at the chance to be a preferred walk-on at the University of South Carolina, where both his parents went to school.

Mangrum had played special teams in high school, serving in the relatively glamorous capacity of kick returner. But if he wanted to play as a Gamecock, he would have to learn a more grunt-like role.

“I joined the team as a wide receiver,” he said of his early days in Columbia. “In high school, I was the returner on everything. All our kickoffs were defensive people. I wasn’t on the punt team. I didn’t think about what goes into making those types of teams.”

He got up to speed in a hurry, serving as a constant fountain of positive energy for his teammates.

“He comes in bright-faced, never in a bad mood, and embraces the University of South Carolina attitude,” said Bailey.

This past August, Mangrum became the second Gamecock walk-on to receive the scholarship created in Jake Panus’ memory, and Stephen Panus remains in regular contact with both recipients.

When one succeeds, we all succeed 🤙

Congrats, @PaytonMangrum!

— Gamecock Football (@GamecockFB) August 15, 2022

“Jake’s dad, me and him text a lot, especially before and after every game,” said Mangrum. “He’s a nice guy. He gave me a hat and two cards with a picture of Jake on them. I have one in my room and one with my football stuff. I wear the hat almost every day. It’s got the Panus Foundation logo on the front of it.”

“What a wonderful soul [Jake] was. I’ve yet to hear one bad thing about him or the family,” added Bailey. “Me and Mr. Panus, we call or text once or twice a week. I come to him if I have any problems and he’s there for me if I need anything. He’s been a great resource to have throughout my college experience.”

Stephen Panus, flanked by Payton Mangrum (#85) and Matthew Bailey (#34)

The Comey connection

On Aug. 4, 1995, future FBI Director James Comey and his wife, Patrice, welcomed a 7-pound, 6-ounce son, Collin Edward Comey, into the world.

The next day, Collin was admitted into intensive care with a blood infection. On Aug. 13, he died while holding hands with his two older sisters. 

Sometime after Collin’s death, the Comeys set up a charitable foundation in his name, and about eight years ago, they dispatched two of their daughters, Abby and Claire, to visit Red Shirt Table on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation with a contingent from their church, Southport Congregational.

“They came out and really fell in love with the community and the kids,” recalled Rev. Whitmore. “When the girls came back, they wanted to do something more.”

Upon their return, the Comeys established the Collin Comey Angel Red Cloud School Scholarship Fund, which covers the full cost of tuition (just $100 a year, but still a tremendous burden for most families on the reservation) and school supplies for any student from Red Shirt Table Elementary who passes Red Cloud Indian School’s entrance exam. Since the fund was established in 2014, the scholarship has paid for 15 students to attend Red Cloud, a private, Jesuit-run school that has a near-perfect graduation rate and a strong track record of seeing its graduates off to four-year colleges or some form of post-secondary education. (This stands in stark contrast to high dropout rates at public schools on the Pine Ridge Reservation.)

But when January Tobacco, who grew up on the reservation, returned there after graduating from Stanford with a B.A. in Native American Studies and took a position as director of graduate success at Red Cloud Indian School, she noticed that the vast majority of grads failed to complete college, often “just going off for one semester and coming back.”

“Not a lot of our kids have parents who understand what it actually takes to gain their education and what it means to support their child,” explained Tobacco. “There are not a lot of jobs, not a lot of housing. With those factors combined, everyone is kind of running on an emergency basis. We’re all in survival mode, essentially. A lot of our communities are very spread out, and a lot of our kids have to travel an hour and a half each way just to get to school.”

Tobacco added that she was “really fortunate to have a mother who really instilled in me to have a strong educational background.” But even she experienced challenges “adapting to a new way of life” in Palo Alto, as well as financial struggles.

Thankfully, she said, “Stanford had an amazing Native American cultural center and a lot of staff who could relate to me. Also, building up my own community and friends on campus helped.”

Since the 28-year-old Tobacco joined the Red Cloud staff, about 30% of the school’s grads have completed their college education — up from 11% before she came on — and more than 70% have finished their first year of college.

When kids from Red Cloud get into college, much of their tuition is usually paid for through various financial aid packages. But that still leaves living expenses — and the Panuses, in partnership with Southport Congregational, have stepped into that void.

‘A very understanding and caring family’

The Jake Panus Post-Secondary School Scholarship Fund provides $10,000 a year — for living expenses, not tuition — to any Red Shirt Elementary School graduate who has completed their education at Red Cloud Indian School and plans to attend a four-year college, community college, or trade school. 

“When Jake died, Stephen said, ‘I want to do something.’ We already had the Collin scholarship and I said, ‘What if we take them from Red Cloud School and beyond?’’ said Whitmore. “One of the really difficult things for Native kids assimilating to college, they don’t have new comforters, a pillow, a refrigerator, money for snacks, money to get home once they’re there. We decided that we wanted to do a living scholarship so they can go to college and have everything they need to have the best opportunity to stay there. The dropout rate is high — not because of the academics, but because of the societal change and feeling really far away from home.”

The recipients of the first two Panus scholarships, Cheree Ferguson and Rubi Good Buffalo, are both freshmen at Black Hills State University. Both were among the first attendees of the Southport summer camps at Red Shirt Table some 15 years ago, and both attended Red Cloud Indian School on Comey scholarships.

Tobacco said that Ferguson is “an amazing student and runner” who “wants to try out for the Black Hills track and cross country teams next year” after using this year to get accustomed to life on campus, where she plans to major in exercise science. 

As for Good Buffalo, Tobacco said, “Rubi comes from an amazing family. She’s very passionate, bubbly, and bright. Her dad is a Vietnam veteran and does an amazing job of supporting her and seeing what she needs. She’s talked about going into nursing since her freshman year in high school — either pediatric nursing or midwifery.”

Tobacco called the Panuses “a very understanding and caring family” who “really understand the need for the extra support for these girls to attend college.”

“Cheree and Rubi, I’m constantly checking in with them to make sure they’re okay, that they’re enrolling in classes, making sure they have transportation to school and access to books,” she added. “That’s where the scholarships are really important.”

Jake at the beach with his younger brother Liam

Photos courtesy of Stephen Panus

Author: Justin Jones