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A man comes around

(Submitted) Hancock native Mark Foss is shown in his final arrest mug in 2002 before being sentenced to almost eight years in prison for selling drugs.1 / 2
(Submitted) Brendon Foss, left, Gary Joos, Lorrie Joos and Derrick Foss in their 2012 family Christmas card.2 / 2

A beaten Mark Foss figured he’d finally found rock bottom in the back of a police car in April 2002, heading to prison for the third time. He was wearing state-issue clothes and chains on his hands and feet with all those hazy memories from years of drinking, drugging, dealing and deceiving clouding his mind.

He’d been scuffling along the bottom of his life for years, spending 10 of the previous 30 years in prison, jail or rehab. The rest of the time he was high, drunk or both.

But Foss, true to his nature, stubbornly refused to believe he was who he was or what he was.

This time, though, he believed he was done and he made his pledge to his Lord.

But how does a flock that has been wounded and betrayed by one stray sheep welcome back him back? By that time, no one was buying anything from Mark Foss, now not even the users who paid him for dope.

The life he thought he’d have many years before had long passed him by.

The wife who endured so much finally divorced him and was happily remarried. He rarely saw the two young, handsome sons who would go on to be exemplary students and athletes at Hancock High School and the University of Minnesota, Morris.

The life of son, brother, husband, father – maybe one day grandfather – had been all but squandered. He sat in that squad car convinced he would change and use his talents for good, but he knew there is no blueprint for taking back a life and rebuilding fractured relationships. And no one was going to be conned again, even if they could remember why they had written him off in the first place.

“As children, I remember we’d hear from our family that he was in jail or he was in prison,” said eldest son Derrick Foss, who last fall ended his career as UMM’s starting quarterback. “But (younger brother) Brendon and I didn’t really understand what it meant. The main thing that sticks out in my mind is when we were about 8 and 10 years old, he said, ‘Let’s go for a walk.’ He started crying and told us he was going back to prison. We didn’t know what it would really mean at that age. We just knew he was not going to be around.”

‘I had a reputation’

Mark Foss is a somewhat typical product of mid-1970s Minnesota small-town culture, a fun-loving, gregarious guy who loved playing sports and who could find his share of harmless mischief.

Foss was the batboy for Hancock’s amateur baseball team, the Orphans. As was post-game custom, the Orphans and their fans made sure there were some beers available as they relaxed and talked about the game. Thus began Foss’ choice of paths into adult life.

“I was the batboy and I’d find ways to sneak off with beers and share them with friends,” Foss said. “I was drinking pretty steady by 15, I suppose. Smoking weed.”

That didn’t stop the 1975 Hancock graduate from growing into an all-conference-caliber basketball and baseball player. His athleticism also put him in the company of

Lorrie Evink, herself a top Owls basketball player and track athlete who would later rank at the top of her graduating class.

Foss was three years older and he was smitten. By her senior year in 1976-77, they began dating, despite the fact that she was not a partier and was well-aware that Mark was king of the party.

His gruff charms and good-time personality may have given her the hope that he would outgrow his lifestyle.

After her graduation in 1977, Lorrie enrolled in the Alexandria Technical College’s accounting program. She also played basketball at the college and helped lead the team to a state tournament championship. The couple married in August 1978 and Lorrie didn’t play a second season at ATC.

“She knew I was a partier – kind of wild,” Mark said. “I was always the one starting the parties. Her parents didn’t want her to marry me. I had a reputation.”

He thinks of those times and laughs. “I was a pretty convincing talker, I guess. She was a valedictorian and I was a rascal, to put it mildly.”

Finding the way down

Mark hung around Alexandria a lot when Lorrie was in school there but he never landed anything permanent as far as a job or a career. He worked for carpenters, bounced around and kept drinking more and more.

She began working in Morris after earning her degree. Mark tried but failed to straighten out. He stayed away from home, hung out in bars and began dealing the cocaine and weed he wasn’t using.

“After a while he got so caught up in it he’d be gone for three days at a time,” Lorrie said. “I didn’t know if he was alive. Then, it would get to a point where you wanted him to come home but you didn’t want him to come home because you didn’t know what he was going to be like when he did come home. He wasn’t always such a nice person.”

 “She knew there was a problem there,” Mark said. “But she is a good Christian woman and she hung in there with me and hoped and hoped that I’d get it together.

Kids in the picture

Medical issues prevented Lorrie and Mark from having children until Derrick arrived in 1990. Two years later, Brendon was born.

But while Mark fathered the children he wasn’t helping to raise them. He had other things going on.

By then, the methamphetamine menace was gripping the country and Mark had pushed all his chips to the middle of the table. Long a county jail regular, Foss went big league in 1988. He sold meth and cocaine to a Bureau of Criminal Apprehension agent at a Sauk Centre truck stop and got himself 21 months in Stillwater.

By 1995, Lorrie was the mother of two young boys and the wife of a man she didn’t know anymore. For the last five years, instead working and being home as a husband and father, Mark was living with a woman 15 years younger than him.

“There were so many times when he’d be able to quit using,” Lorrie said of Mark. “We’d be happy for a month or so and then pretty soon he’d get back into it and it was just as bad as it had been. You hear that so many times. After a while, with the lifestyle he was leading, he was starting to be with other women and it was not a good situation. He wasn’t really involved with the kids anymore. He couldn’t handle his own life so it was tough to raise any other kids.”

Families continue to cope

So she was done.

 “There was a point where I was almost losing it there for awhile,” said Lorrie, who divorced Mark in 1995. “I remember that I had made up my mind that I’d rather be alone than in the situation I was in, being married to an alcoholic and a drug abuser.”

“We stayed married 15 years and she hoped and hoped that I’d get it,” Mark said. “I went through a lot of treatment. But I think when the boys were getting older, she could see they might start understanding what I was doing and she got the divorce to spare them, more than anything.”

The boys weren’t too young to remember some tough nights in the house when their parents were still married.

“Lots of times at the house there was yelling,” Brendon said. “I remember it was crazy sometimes. Our mom was always cooperative with us. She’s the best ever. I don’t know how she held it together.”

A new, settled life

One evening, Gary Joos called Lorrie to ask if she was ready to start another relationship. Lorrie knew Gary and there was no pressure.

“I thought that was very nice of him,” said Lorrie, who married Gary in July 1996. “We started dating and I’m very happily married how.”

Gary became the boys’ father and a loving member of the new family.

“With Gary, we’re all very close,” Brendon said. “We respect him a lot.”

Lorrie, Gary and the boys settled into their new life. Mark was freefalling further into his: more bars, fighting, dealing and doing dope.

Fresh in her memory, even after she remarried, were the late-night calls from Mark, suffering from some of his many demons.

“We’d say a prayer that he would be OK,” Lorrie said. “It would get really depressing for him when he was using. He was suicidal. It was like that sometimes.”

‘I can’t blame ‘em’

Life began to sink in. In 1998, Mark was convicted for selling meth and fleeing a police officer near Lowry. That got him 28 months in prisons in St. Cloud and Lino Lakes.

In April 2002, he was convicted of selling meth and was sentenced to 94 months. That’s almost eight years.

In 1999, Mark’s father, Harold, passed away. Mark was in prison.

In 2002, his sister Lynn died. Mark was in prison.

Both funerals were in Hancock and while he was allowed to attend the services, he did so wearing an orange jump suit and chains.

“I could see ma’s house from the church,” Mark said. “Humiliating.”

His transformation was already underway. Foss had committed to change and it all went back to that day, alone, in the squad car.

 “It was April 18, 2002, when I was on my way to prison, I said, ‘I’m done,’ “Foss said, finally finding some clarity in his fog. “I was looking at 94 months. Truth is, I said, ‘Lord, I’m in. I can’t do this anymore.’ And that was it.”

During his last prison stints, he never wanted his sons to see him in locked up but he caved once and asked Lorrie to bring the boys to Moose Lake only to find out that the visiting times posted were wrong and they weren’t allowed in.

“I could see them out the window,” Mark said of his sons. “It just killed me because I was waiting so bad for that visit. I showed (prison guards) the times they had posted and all they said was, ‘Oh, sorry, they were wrong.’ So I yelled at the boys out of the window and they looked back and waved. That’s all I got out of it.”

Mark applied for a “boot camp” style program called Challenge Incarceration, an intensive program through which qualified prisoners can reduce their sentences. Any rules violations and the application is thrown out. Foss said other prisoners will attempt to draw an applicant into violations to ruin their chances. Mark served a year of his sentence, then waited another year for his CI application to be approved.

Once in the program in Willow River, Lorrie brought the boys back. Their dad was in his boot camp uniform and there were no bars. He called and wrote them often. In six months, Mark’s sentence was served.

“Of course, when I got out, I said I was done and nobody believed me,” he said with a laugh. “I can’t blame ‘em.”

Learning to live LifeRight

With the help of friends, he got on his feet after his release from his third prison term. He got back to carpentry, this time as a sober man who kept himself going with religion, not speed.

He started a business and got some jobs to earn some cash. He went to the people he hurt and offered his apologies and vowed to make something of the rest of his life.

He wrote a stark and soul-bearing piece for his hometown papers in Morris and Hancock.

But Mark had bigger plans for his new life. Because of the help he received after his release, he nurtured an idea called LifeRight Outreach, through which he could do the same.

Through LifeRight, Mark envisioned a faith-based environment that would provide those in his shoes a safe place to live while they got in touch with God, got their lives in order, reconnected with their loved ones and sought job skills and employment.

Given his reputation, Foss’ plan smacked of a scam, but he moved ahead anyway and along with his friend, Terry Meierding, purchased a closed church building on three acres in Alexandria in 2007. They converted it to living quarters for 10 men and refurbished the sanctuary and began having regular church services.

They sold the church to the ministry in 2010 and this year LifeRight is completing a 6,300-square-foot office and housing complex next to the church, giving the

Outreach room to house about 10 more former inmates. LifeRight also purchased an adjacent three acres, giving the ministry six acres for potential future expansion.

As Mark was finding his new mission, in 2005 he began putting his home life on the right path, too.

He entered a Caribou Coffee shop one day and noticed a young woman at a table, reading her Bible. He struck up a conversation with Nikol Lemke, who he discovered was dealing with many of the same addiction issues that tore his life apart. Nikol was a graduate of Minnesota Adult and Teen Challenge, a faith-based addiction recovery program.

This year, Mark and Nikol will celebrate seven years of marriage.

Rebuilding a family

After his 2004 release, before LifeRight, Mark was adamant about reconnecting with Derrick and Brendon. Their mom was understandably skeptical.

“She didn’t trust me,” he said. “I started making demands. I said, ‘I’m keeping the kids overnight. You can call the cops if you want but they’ll be fine.’ I had to be really forceful because, of course, she couldn’t trust me. I can’t blame anyone but myself because I wasn’t trustworthy. You can tell people until you’re blue in the face that you’re done and that you’ve changed, but why should they believe you?”

Lorrie stood strong in protecting her sons.

“They hadn’t seen him for a long, long time,” she said. “It was kind of hard because they didn’t really even know him any more at that point. I really believe in forgiveness and that is a big part in him getting better, but trusting after you’ve been deceived so many times was hard. I had to be slowly reassured that he was on the up-and-up this time, for sure.”

Mark said it took at least a couple of years before that trust started to return. Through it all, Derrick and Brendon exhibited maturity beyond their years. They welcomed their dad back into their lives and believed he was sincere about his new life.

“It really didn’t take long,” Derrick said. “He never treated us badly. There was no trust issue at all. God changed his life.”

“We were both happy for him to be able to turn his life around,” Brendon said. “We just went with it. He always cared but he got his life into a big bind. We’re best friends now.”

On the right track

The boys had book smarts, like their mother, and they had the athletic ability both their parents possessed. But Mark isn’t deluded in his assessment of what made his sons who they are.

“I give their mom and Gary all the credit for raising those kids right,” he said. “I’ve always told them, ‘If you can learn from your dad’s mistakes, then it will be worth it. Don’t do what I did.’ But I don’t take credit for that. I give that to Lorrie and Gary.”

In high school Derrick was one of the area’s top quarterbacks and a 1,000-point scorer for the Owls’ basketball team. Brendon was the top area receiver as a senior and he, too, was a basketball standout.

At UMM, Derrick started at quarterback most of his career and is among UMM’s career leaders with more than 4,300 passing yards and 44 touchdown passes. He is playing baseball this spring.

Brendon finished his junior season this fall with 54 catches for 789 yards and 8 touchdowns, despite missing several games with a high ankle sprain. He’ll enter his senior season with 119 career catches, almost 1,900 receiving yards and 22 touchdowns.

In December 2012, Brendon was selected to the Capital One Academic All-America First Team, which he said is one of his greatest honors. This spring, the Dallas Cowboys and Minnesota Vikings requested video of Brendon and the Cowboys worked him out and registered his information with the league, officially making him an NFL prospect.

In basketball, Brendon is among the Cougars’ top scorers and the team’s leading rebounder.

Brendon carries a 3.8 grade-point average and Derrick has a 3.4 GPA, and both have made the UMM Dean’s List. Both will graduate with Business Management majors. Despite all that, there isn’t a horn to toot between them.

“I’ve always strived with them to do the best with whatever they do and encourage them positively,” Lorrie said. “I’m proud of them. They’ve done well and they stay humble.”

Trying to be a father

Mark, Nikol, Lorrie and Gary and Lorrie’s folks make it to as many of Derrick’s and Brendon’s football and basketball games as possible, even if it means weekend-long road trips to Illinois and Missouri. Nikol and Lorrie struck up a friendship. When Lorrie was unable to travel to a football game in Missouri, she and Nikol traded cell phone messages to keep her updated on the game.

Mark also makes time once a week to drive down to Morris to have lunch with his sons.

“I’m trying to be a father, trying to give them direction,” Mark said. “I’m trying to be the responsible dad like I should have been the whole time. I’ve never felt like they hold it against me. They’re the ones who got cheated.”

Both Mark and Lorrie don’t go into great detail about their past with the boys, unless they ask about something.

“As they were growing up, I never said anything bad because I didn’t want them to judge,” Lorrie said. “I never really did tell them all the bad things because, I thought, what good is that really going to do?”

Mark, too, isn’t dredging up his past other than to offer general cautionary tales.

“We’ve had some talks and when the time’s appropriate I tell them some things,” he said. “I tell them that you can’t just shut it off (once involved in a life of drugs and alcohol). I’m not too hard on them. I say it more with concern, I guess. Sometimes, at that age, you don’t want to hear things, just like I was with my dad: ‘I know dad. I know dad.’ They’re smart kids, they get it.”

Not the same kind of crazy

History weighs heavily on all the adults in this story.

Lorrie shared her family’s story so that it might give hope to others going through similar situations.

“God can make good things happen out of bad circumstances if we trust Him,” she said. “There really are miracles.”

Mark, too, keeps no secrets about his fall and redemption in the belief that sharing the details of his story may give someone on the same path a chance to rewrite theirs.

Derrick and Brendon roll with their life with Mark, and they relish the times they can talk sports with him. He’s no long the absent father, the man they often only saw when he was behind bars or wearing jumpsuits, cuffs and leg chains. The drink is gone, the drugs are gone. All that’s left are adult sons who cherish their lives with two caring families.

“He’s always been my dad and I’ve always thought of him as that,” Derrick said. “I think sports are a big thing because it’s a shared thing between us. We get along great with him. He’s always there.”

“This is the true definition of coming together as a family,” Brendon said. “We’re all happy for him that he’s been able to turn his life around. He’s our best friend now. He’s kind of a crazy guy and there’s never a dull moment when he’s around. He’s still kind of crazy, just not the same kind of crazy.”

Tom Larson

Tom Larson is the sports editor of the West Central Tribune.

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