January: Paul Westphal (basketball)
February: Tara Gallagher (basketball/softball)
March: Robert Joseph Ahola (rugby)
April: Rickey Perkins (swimming)
May: Bob Smith & Mike Craig (baseball)
June: Michael Minthorne (strength & conditioning)
This story might take a little while to get to its main character, but bear with me. Valdez was, for many years, something of an athletic powerhouse at the 3A (of four) level in the state of Alaska. The volleyball team was typically good and sometimes great (seven state titles, with four in a row from 2001-04), the wrestling program was strong (twenty individual state champions), and the cross-country (four titles) and ski teams could hold their own. But basketball (three boys' titles, five girls', with an additional eight combined runner-up finishes) was unquestionably the biggest sport in Valdez, as it is throughout most of Alaska. When my parents first moved to Valdez in late 2000, you could count on five to ten percent of the town showing up in the gym for basketball games, more if the opponent was Cordova (plus their visitors). Heck, I coached a JV tournament that drew over one hundred people per game in the winter of 2001-02.*
*Within fifteen months of moving to Valdez, my dad was firmly ensconced as the public address announcer for basketball games. He would occasionally use the nicknames of players he knew well when they scored, referred to the gym as the "Pauley Pavilion of Prince William Sound," and would welcome the large contingent of Cordova Wolverines fans to town, an address that he would finish by saying "And remember, friends don't let friends eat farmed salmon!" Needless to say, they loved him.
Despite a long record of success and even dominance across the small school conferences, and despite the presence of an actual football field next to the junior high/high school building complex, Valdez had never had a football team at the point when we moved there. Plenty of reasons existed for this state of affairs, although there were always rumblings about getting a program off the ground. Cost, of course, is always the biggest hurdle, all the more so in Alaska. Only two of Valdez' basketball opponents (Eielson and Delta Junction, neither within two hundred and fifty miles of Valdez) carried football, which meant that in addition to the expenses of uniforms and equipment, there would be the issue of having to bus a team all over creation in order to play any games. Then, too, there is the problem of living in the snowiest city in North America, where blizzards can strike in early October and dump a couple of feet (yes, that's right, feet) overnight. Snow is a problem anywhere in Alaska, of course (for this reason, the state championship game is played in the middle of October), but it is a more acute one in Valdez.
The Valdez football program would not have gotten off the ground without the efforts of history teacher Lea (pronounced "Lee") Cockerham, a Marine reserve officer who grew up in Alabama and could have played a role in that fantastic ESPN commercial. Coach Cockerham took on the challenge to start a program from scratch, serving as the head coach and offensive coordinator. For the first year (fall 2002) he accepted playing a JV schedule and developing some skills before joining the Greatland Conference with Eielson, Delta, Houston, Monroe Catholic, Seward, much-disliked Anchorage Christian, and perennial powerhouse Nikiski. For his defensive coordinator, Lea looked outside the school to probably the only other person in town with comparable football experience; the director of the teen center, Steve Radotich.
Time for another tangent (it's related, I swear), because before I explain how Steve influenced my career, I should first explain how I, who never played high school football or even any organized football, became an assistant coach in the first place. I cared next to nothing about football before I went to boarding school in Virginia in tenth grade, although I had played plenty of schoolyard football growing up in Anchorage.* As attendance at home games was more or less mandatory for new boys, I started watching, and then supplemented that with college football viewing in the commons rooms. I quickly discovered that I preferred an open, pass-happy style of play, which was decidedly NOT the Woodberry offense (we ran the double wing, and passed maybe five or six times a game). By the time I graduated high school, I had a decent grasp of various football concepts and had become an avid college fan, which was cemented during my freshman year at Pepperdine when I spent at least two whole Saturdays watching twelve hours or more of games with my neighbor Calvin.
*Especially in the winter, when snow on the ground made it even more fun. My elementary school had a giant playground, with enough space for three soccer/football fields (kid-sized), and we were able to play tackle on the field behind the ice rink because the amount of real estate severely minimized the odds of one of the playground ladies spotting our roughhousing.
The summer after my freshman year (2003), I was looking for a job in Valdez that would leave my afternoons and early evenings free to coach Little League and work with the high school baseball team. So I became a night stocker at Eagle, the Safeway grocery store in town. The manager's oldest son, Gage, a rising high school senior, was also a night stocker that summer and he quickly became one of my closest friends (I was already acquainted with two of his three brothers, having frequently played basketball with the next oldest and having coached the youngest - with their dad - in Little League the previous summer). Since Gage and I were the only stockers who didn't smoke, we spent our breaks inside talking to each other, and at some point in July the conversation turned to football. He was a running back and outside linebacker, and mentioned that the team needed more volunteer help because so few of them had any football experience. So I went to a pre-season voluntary drill session the next week and volunteered my services to Coach Cockerham as someone who could throw and catch balls for people and hold a pad. When practices started just a week or two later, I was the receivers coach. Surprise!
Back to the main figure in our story. One of the perks of receiving so much oil money over the years since the completion of the pipeline is that the town has in the past spent money on some pretty nice things for a town of 4000 people, in particular the convention and civic center, with its 420-seat theater and three ballrooms overlooking the port and the terminal. Another one of those things is the teen center, which provided a place for kids to hang out and not get into the types of trouble that are so readily available around town. Located more or less across the street from the football field,* the center had a game room with arcade games and pool, and a utility room that was frequently used for junior high and high school dances, but more importantly, it had Steve, who ran the place and was most frequently the adult present and in charge.
*Did my dad also become the football team's PA announcer, and did he refer to the stadium as "The Big House on Hanagita"? Of course he did.
I spent a fair amount of time over a couple of summers at the Teen Center because a couple of my friends were a sort of administrative help (and also DJs for the dances). Steve's particular gift in running the center was his ability to relate to kids, to listen to them and be able to talk to them. And the man can talk. More than once I found myself in conversation with him for well over an hour, all while he was still keeping an eye on the kids trickling in and out of the building, and what they were doing while there. Apart from the teen center, Steve found time to be a father and husband, train sled dogs in the winter, paddleboard in the summer, and oh yeah, help get the high school football program off the ground.
When it came to coaching football, Steve handled the running backs and linebackers, while also taking charge of the defense as a whole. As stated earlier, due to the near-complete lack of experienced players, he (and the other coaches) had to explain basic concepts so that players could pick them up quickly. They also had to be creative with the players they were given, because there wasn't a preponderance of size or speed, and they might wind up with, for example, a center and left guard who were noticeably smaller than the primary running back, or with a 6'6", 220-pound free safety who was bigger than any of the linebackers or defensive ends. That is not to say that the talent level was necessarily low; we had some serious athletes, but we just had to deploy them in occasionally interesting ways.
Steve's biggest feat as a coach (in my opinion) was keeping the program not only stable but growing when Lea was called to duty with the Marines and deployed overseas (I think sometime in 2004-05). It could have been pretty easy for Steve to get swamped with the extra responsibilities of running a brand-new outfit, but the team continued to improve despite the loss of a large and talented senior class in 2004. By 2006, when Lea had returned, the team was good enough to blow out Delta Junction at home in its last game of the season* by several touchdowns, a result which prompted Steve to express to me the belief that the win was worth ten to twelve extra kids at tryouts the next fall, and that the foundation was in place for a 2007 playoff run. That might have seemed overly optimistic from the coach of a three-win team in its fourth competitive season ever, but it proved to be entirely correct, as the Bucs did indeed make the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 (although they got thrashed by Soldotna, a much bigger school, both times).
*Coincidentally, this was my last day as a Valdez resident, and by this time I was the PA announcer and statistician, since my parents had moved away the year before.
Steve's football expertise and passion for working with teenagers, as well as his ability to relate to them and inspire them, provided an ideal base for a coaching career that has been, all things considered, quite successful. The challenges of maintaining a solid program are ongoing for Steve, Lea, and the other coaches, particularly because the town's population as a whole has dwindled, although the decline in high school enrollment has at least seemed more drastic (graduating classes have dropped from the 65-80 range a decade ago to the 40-50 range now). But Steve and Lea have done an excellent job, and they hopefully will continue to provide an opportunity for the young people of Valdez.
*I do hope that the town bounces back, although given the current city leadership, I wouldn't bet much on it. But that's a story for another time.
Thanks to Lea, I was able to coach a relatively unfamiliar sport (again, I never played at the high school level) and adapt and grow in a very different technical environment (which turned out to be very useful when I started coaching volleyball in 2007). Thanks to Steve, I learned the importance of being able to talk to and relate to the kids that I have coached, and I think that those lessons are still serving me well today.