KOCHVILLE TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Players young and old know the drill.
Before you can step onto the Saginaw Valley State University practice football field, you have to stop for a moment and greet the man with his hand outstretched.
Shake his hand. Ask how he's doing. Tell him the Cardinals are taking home the title.
It means more than ever to Ted Hackenberg this year.
For years, Hackenberg and his wife, Ann Marko, have performed the practice ritual, doing what they could to bring a smile to players' faces while uniquely ingratiating themselves into the SVSU football program. Last year, the Saginaw couple was seldom seen as Marko underwent treatment for lung cancer, diagnosed in September 2011.
And this year, Hackenberg is at SVSU by himself. Marko died in June.
"It's still pretty tough," said Hackenberg, 75. "If I wasn't doing this, I'd be sitting at home. I'm glad to be out here. These guys are great."
Hackenberg and Marko rarely missed games, home or away, over the past 15 years. They married in August, the month before Marko's diagnosis.
To fellow SVSU fans, Marko earned a game-day reputation as the self-described "bell lady" for her enthusiastic use of a cowbell. After years of Marko ringing a bell for hundreds of SVSU players, they're now returning the favor.
Coach Jim Collins, Athletic Director Mike Watson and other members of the SVSU athletic department memorialized Marko with an oversized cowbell at Wickes Stadium. SVSU players ring the large bell, which has Marko's bell mounted on top, before they enter the field for games.
"She loved everyone in this program unconditionally," Collins said. "Win, lose, whether you did good, did bad, or whether you knew her real well, she still loved you. That's the type of support, 18-, 19-, 20-, 21-year-olds love to have."
Players rang the bell for the first time Sept. 1 against Valdosta State, a game that also featured a moment of silence for Marko.
Hackenberg sat in the stands wearing a shirt with a picture of Marko on the front and the words "Ann, ringing her cowbell from heaven" on the back. Forty of their friends and family members, wearing matching shirts, sat with him.
The athletic department organized an on-campus memorial in August, attended by coaches, staff members and players.
"It was outstanding and obviously very emotional," Collins said of the ceremony. "It was a nice thing to do simply because she meant to much to us."
Hackenberg and Marko's impact extends beyond the stadium.
On top of attending nearly every game, practice and weekly coach's radio show, the two regularly opened their home to a few players each season, focusing on the ones from out of state without family in the area.
Whether they were future NFL players, such as Florida native Glenn Martinez, or walk-ons who didn't see the field, players knew they could have a home-cooked meal or just a few hours away from campus.
"It's like having another mom and dad," said Martinez in 2009. Martinez played for the Denver Broncos for three seasons and for the Houston Texans in 2009.Comment on this story
"They're great people, I love them to death," Martinez said then. "They mean the world to me."
When Hackenberg and Marko needed a boost last year, SVSU was there. Hackenberg said he and his wife were supported by everyone from SVSU President Eric Gilbertson down to the players when Marko took ill.
While it may look like Hackenberg is the one providing support on a warm September day before practice, the support is mutual.
"It's been pretty rough on me," Hackenberg said, "but these guys have made it a little easier, I'll tell you that."