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Father’s writing ‘to survive’ loss of young son turns into inspirational book

Alumnus Stephen Panus created scholarship for football walk-ons at USC

a man and two boys stand in front of a backdrop

Stephen Panus didn’t know where to put his grief when his 16-year-old son died in a car accident nearly four years ago.

Described as a charmer who could light up any room, Jake Panus had planned to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend the University of South Carolina. Jake loved all things Gamecocks and he loved football.

So initially after his son died, Stephen Panus, 1991 international studies, decided to create a scholarship for walk-on football players at South Carolina. Coach Shane Beamer selects each year’s recipient. Panus says he asks the coach to choose someone who is deserving for his hard work ethic, but who also exhibits other characteristics of his late son.

“Jake was just different,” Panus says. “By age 5, he could actually hold conversations with adults. He was very confident and he just had a way. He was unique, magnetic.

a man and a young boy stand together

“I initially started writing to survive. And it was really a letter to Jake initially. And I would stop and start a lot because it really hurt.”

Stephen Panus

“He was the type of kid that when he walked into a room, he lit it up. You knew he was there. His energy was electric. It was just who he was. He was very comfortable in his own skin and was, from an early age, able to be exactly who he was. And that was by the grace of God.”

Honoring his son’s memory with the scholarship helped, but Panus’ heart still felt heavy. So the former attorney, who has also worked as a publicist and sports agent and serves as president of the Jockey Club's America's Best Racing brand, became a writer. At first, the writing was just for himself and his younger son, Liam, who was 11 when Jake died.

“I initially started writing to survive,” Panus says. “And it was really a letter to Jake initially. And I would stop and start a lot because it really hurt. 

“I recalled that I used to have this tradition where I would write my boys little morning messages on sticky notes. They were inspiring, uplifting and hopeful quotes that talked about different characteristics and values in life that I thought mattered and that I wanted to instill in them.

“I was trying to make sense of my life, trying to make sense of those quotes, like, where was the meaning, the truth in them after just having lost Jake,” he says. “You question everything, and I knew that I had to make sense of those, not only for myself, but more importantly for Liam. I needed to set or model a way out of this for Liam.”

book cover with drawing of a bear and the words walk on stephen panus

He began writing about those inspirational quotes and what they meant now that Jake had died.  

“I didn't start out to write a book. I just started it to write it, and maybe it would be something that I would give Liam down the road,” he says. “But after I reached what I thought was the end point, I said, well, maybe this could help others beyond Liam, and that's where the book idea came from.”

Panus says a significant portion of the book’s proceeds will go to support the Jake Panus Walk-On Scholarship at USC, which has awarded three scholarships so far and is typically awarded at the beginning of football season.

Images: In the top image, Stephen Panus stands with his sons, Jake (left) and Liam. Inset image is of Stephen and Jake.