Team meetingRogers High School football players including from left, Brandon Rose, Storm Fissette, (front), Jordan Roth and Cody Risinger, listen to coach Matt Miethe address the team during the first gathering of the season, Aug. 16, 2013.
(Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
Rogers High's football team faces tougher issues than lackluster past
By Jonathan Brunt, The Spokesman-Review
To make his team think about a fresh beginning, coach Matt Miethe asked his players to contemplate their end.
In the first week of Rogers High School football practice, Miethe assigned players the task of writing their obituaries, imagining the end of their high school careers and their deaths at age 99.
The next day all but three of the 45 players turned in the assignment, mostly handwritten on lined notepaper. A couple were in cursive. One was typed.
He had many bumps along the way. His grades held him back freshman year, but he changed his attitude with teachers and got his grades right for his last three years … His dad passed away when he was little, but he grew up to be a great man and has a wife and two kids. –Marcus Phillips, sophomore running back
It was an atypical homework assignment for a high school football team. But Rogers isn’t a typical Greater Spokane League high school football team.
Even as they wear “Hillyard Tough” T-shirts, coaches here preach love over toughness. They are as likely to be stressing empathy in a team meeting as they are to be on the field performing running drills. They are desperate to overcome their long history of losing and last-place finishes, but coaches know that, as they’re surrounded by poverty, there are bigger, longer-term battles that can be conquered, even if the team never wins a game.
At the end of Wednesday’s practice, after the team’s new captains were named, players surrounded quarterback Dominic Sanders for a quick ceremonial end to the session.
Sanders: “Love, on three! 1, 2, 3!”
Sanders chose to end on “love,” not the coaches.
Ryan loved seeing his family. He never moved out of Hillyard. Hillyard is his home, it is where he was raised and where he raised his kids. –Ryan Williams, junior offensive lineman
The centerpiece of Rogers’ football practice each day over the past two weeks has been a talk from an assistant coach on life skills: rejecting passivity, being empathetic, making good choices, being “real men.”
Assistant coach Nic Bowcut told the kids they form their own destinies.
“You don’t have to live in the world everyone says you have to live in,” he told players gathered on folding chairs in the wrestling room.
Miethe sums up the session: Yes, many of the players in the room are growing up in poverty, just like he did.
“What does that mean, that we can’t walk? That we go onto the field in wheelchairs? Our parents are poor, so we’re idiots? After hearing it enough, many of you start believing it,” Miethe said. “It gets used too often as a crutch.”
But the highlight for Jordan was when the Pirates made it to the playoffs his senior year. That year they didn’t have a team, they had a family. All his brothers and him changed the way people look at Rogers football.
–Jordan Holzer, senior lineman
About 76 percent of Rogers students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. That’s more than 20 percentage points higher than at any other high school in Spokane County. There is more drama to deal with at Rogers than at most other schools in and around Spokane, Miethe said. But there’s no place he’d rather coach. He had his own drama to overcome when he played at Rogers in the mid-1990s, for the only varsity Rogers football team in the past 39 years to post a winning record. He credits the school and the football program for pulling him through.
“Nobody got into coaching at Rogers because it’s easy,” Miethe told his assistants gathered for their first meeting, a week before practice started.
Despite its backdrop of poverty, Rogers has experienced a comeback in recent years in the classroom, if not on the football field. Long the black sheep among Spokane high schools, its graduation rate has soared. A freshman at Rogers is now as likely to graduate four years later as a freshman at Lewis and Clark, Ferris or Shadle Park, and more likely than a freshman at North Central. Rogers’ principal raves about her school’s Advanced Placement calculus scores.
Although he wasn’t able to receive a college scholarship for football, he did manage to earn an academics scholarship. In college, he studied architecture and went off to become a very successful urban and regional planner. He married at the age of 26 and had three wonderful children.
–Trenton Williams, sophomore wide receiver
Miethe started fall practice with an hourlong session at the first minute league rules allowed: midnight on Aug. 21. He told about 60 kids gathered in the middle of the football field, lit only by a full moon, that even if Rogers does not have the talent of other schools, it will compete by working harder than any other team and will be the first to take the field.
MidnightRogers Highs School football coach Matt Miethe gathers his players at the stroke of midnight Aug. 21, 20123, to begin a short Midnight Madness practice under the stars on the school's football field. (Dan Pelle/Spokesman-Review)
He said he’s seen more commitment from upperclassmen over the summer at football camp and weight training than he has since he became coach seven years ago.
He sent them off to run around the track, singing the school’s victory song.
We are the Pirates. The mighty, mighty Pirates …
Last year’s team only sang it once.
Although he was extremely lazy until a couple life-changing events that would forever change him as a person, after these events he had realized time is too short and anything can happen and that is when Dalton came into the man and football player that he needed to be.
–Dalton Waggy, senior lineman, team captain
The Rogers football team has a history of losing. But it represents a community that loves it anyway.
In 1984, a Spokesman-Review writer referred to the team as “the traditional tackling dummies of the Greater Spokane League,” a line the sports editor lived to regret after a barrage of angry calls from northeast Spokane.
And it’s not just “drama” that creates obstacles. Like other 3A schools, Rogers struggles in a league with the bigger 4A teams that draw from larger student populations.
There are hints of change, however.
Rogers finally has a feeder football program starting in the third grade, giving Rogers what other GSL teams have had for years. Its freshman team posted a winning record last year.
The players don’t deny their history. (Sanders, the quarterback, told a TV reporter after the midnight practice that the team’s reputation is as “the armpit of the GSL.”) But the players believe their team can change perceptions. The coaches admit the team doesn’t look good on paper, but they believe this team could be the start of a better tradition.
I wasn’t everyone’s favorite but no one hated me because I bonded with them as a family and was trusted by everyone like a brother through blood.
–Reed Johnson, sophomore center
In an athletics office sandwiched between the boys’ and girls’ locker rooms at Rogers, a long table is lined with purple folding chairs labeled “Pirates.” Over the course of two hours on Tuesday, eight players knocked on the door, one by one. Each took a seat across from three coaches and Sanders, the only returning team captain from last year.
Miethe always holds job interviews to fill captain spots, usually at the start of summer. This year, he waited until just before the first game. Summer training, participation in a football camp at Whitworth University and weightlifting sessions also were used to judge the best leaders.
At the end of the interviews, the coaches noted that none of the captain candidates reached out to shake their hands. Most spoke quietly, staring at the table, rarely meeting the interviewers’ eyes. When asked if they had anything else they wanted to say at the end of their interviews, only one took the opportunity. Later, Miethe would speak to the team about the importance of confidence in job interviews.
“If you get a chance to sell yourself again, take it,” Miethe said.
Miethe was struck by what the candidates said when he asked how they have been leaders off the football field.
They didn’t mention being leaders in youth groups, at after-school jobs or among friends. Most talked about being leaders in their families, taking the place of absent fathers for siblings and nieces and nephews, protecting a mom from an abusive partner.
It wasn’t news to the coaches that some of their players fill roles that they shouldn’t yet have to fill, but it was a reminder.
“I’m not praying enough for our players,” Miethe said.
Grew up around nothing but drugs every year of his life. He was homeless for an extended period all the way through his senior year. … He promised God, himself and his coaches he will never give up no matter what was put in his way.
–Elijah Rodriguez, senior nose guard
Of the eight captain candidates, the last to interview was senior lineman Jacob Meusy. He’s a big, smiley kid, among the most vocal on the team.
But Meusy also has a reputation for stopping short of his potential, of walking when he should be running.
Meusy sat at the table, leaned forward, elbows on the table with his hands clasped, and looked directly at Miethe. When he spoke, he also talked with his hands.
He told Miethe that writing his obituary made him realize that he has not always “put it all on the line because I’m scared of the end result.” He wants to be remembered as the Pirate who gave his all. With his older siblings out of the house, being a captain on the team will help him be a better leader at home.
When he left, the panel immediately selected three of the four new captains. The fourth was between Meusy and another senior. Defensive coordinator Ben Cochran argued both sides: There’s little doubt the team will follow Meusy, but would he lead them in the right way?
This year, Miethe is stressing four core values. The panel agreed that Meusy especially exhibits one: empathy. They’ve seen him help players who struggle on the field.
Miethe added that Meusy has proven his dedication to Rogers and Rogers football. And he had the best interview, which should count for something.
Panel members surprised themselves as they agree without objection that Meusy will be a captain.
“When he walked out, I thought, ‘I love that kid,’ ” Cochran said.
There was one thing Jacob promised and preached the most!!! That he would never do what his father did, which was abandon his kids, never talk to them or try to talk to them. It was hard for Jacob not having a father figure in his life. Jacob was a caring person and loved to tell jokes. He loved making people smile.
–Jacob Meusy, senior lineman, team captain
On Friday night, the Rogers football team will take the field at Joe Albi Stadium against Shadle Park, a game it is not supposed to win to start a season in which many would not be surprised if it didn’t win at all. The Pirates were 1-9 last year and lost their star player to graduation.
But Rogers coaches believe this team has bonded in a way that recent teams haven’t and can overcome the obstacles.
And like every fall, the record from last year is a memory. They start undefeated.
I want to be remembered as a husband that never quit, never stopped on anything that I loved and fix it if it is broken. … I want to be remembered as James Welty, who achieved his dreams in life, making it just not a normal life, but a spectacular one.
–James Welty, senior running back, team captain
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Carrying the flagRogers High School football player Dalton Waggy carrying the Pirate flag, leads Dom Sanders, Cody Risinger, James Welty and the team onto the Joe Albi Stadium turf for the season opener, Sept. 6, 2013, against Shadle Park.
Jacob Meusy held it together as the seconds ticked off the clock of a homecoming game that appeared won, but somehow slipped to defeat in the final minutes.
He held it together as he reprimanded a teammate who had thrown his helmet as tears ran down his face – angry, the player said, at his lack of playing time. Meusy told the teammate to shape up and grabbed him to line up and shake the hands of the celebrating players from North Central who had just beaten them.
But outside Joe Albi Stadium, Meusy, one of the Rogers High School football team’s five senior captains, nearly collapsed on the front of the school bus. A few other players were working to hide tears, but Meusy couldn’t hold back any longer. He let them fall.
What if you tried as hard as you could and still lost, he wondered aloud, as teammates sought to comfort him with understanding pats on the back.
But a win has not yet come this year for the Rogers football team. It’s familiar territory for a team that has had one winning season in the last 39 years and hasn’t had more than two wins in a season in a dozen years.
And the losing streak has continued past that close homecoming loss. On Thursday, against Ferris, Rogers players “got their asses kicked,” as coach Matt Miethe described it in the locker room afterward in speech that was intended to be as frank as it was comforting.
Rogers is again 0-4 nearing the season’s midpoint, tied for last place in the Greater Spokane League.
Both Shadle Park and Central Valley defeated the team by multiple touchdowns. Then for homecoming, the game labeled by Miethe as “our Super Bowl,” Rogers competed. By the end of the game, linemen were cramping, limping off the field but demanding to stay in the game. The players, even the ones who didn’t play a down, were losing their voices.
Still, when the game clock expired, Rogers had lost again – this time by just a single touchdown, but another loss nonetheless.
Back in the locker room, after a silent bus ride back to Rogers, Miethe told his players he was proud, that he loved them, that they’d “left it all out on the field,” that he wouldn’t want to be in any other locker room.
Discipline with love
There is a constant struggle, a long-running discussion among the coaches about how to deal with this team.
The players gel. They like one another. They listen. At 0-4, a time when past Rogers teams have experienced player exodus, only two of the 45 players who started the season have left.
But the coaches are dealing with teenagers who can be late to practice, roll their eyes at a coach’s critique, perform poorly in the classroom, be cocky or lackadaisical. They can be infuriating.
One player, who coaches believe has a potential college career ahead of him, took to Twitter to question referees for calling him out of bounds on one of his kick returns against Central Valley. Game film proved him wrong, and to his credit, the sophomore took his lumps and tweeted a picture of his foot out of bounds.
Defensive coordinator Ben Cochran told players that a team that loses by 42 points has bigger problems than officiating.
Miethe knows there are players on his team struggling at home. Sometimes there’s no father figure there, or they’re beset with other issues often associated with poverty. The coaches say too many players hear cursing and yelling at home – they don’t need it at school, too.
On the other hand, a tough home life can’t be an excuse to ignore laziness or bad behavior. Players with drama at home need to learn coping skills that may help them get to college one day, or keep a job, or stay calm in a disagreement. And so, as the season has progressed, Rogers coaches have been more likely to call out individual players, usually with: “You’re better than that!”
But they temper those statements with frequent reminders that the players are loved, that they’re still family.
At halftime of the Ferris game last week, already down 35-0, Rogers coaches huddled outside the locker room waiting for Miethe to give direction on what to tell the outmatched players.
“I think the effort isn’t bad,” assistant coach Tony Moser said, echoing the consensus of the assistants. And so Miethe said the message had to be positive. They couldn’t win this game, but if they could win a quarter, maybe they could build enough confidence to win later this season.
He told the players to “be different,” not to pout, to play as hard as they can, try to have fun and to prepare to win another week.
After the game, Miethe told players in the locker room that when they keep coming to practice and showing up, “you become one of my kids. I hurt for you like I would my own kids.”
Assistant coach Andrew Durant understands the importance of never giving up and serves as a real-life example for the players.
Durant was Rogers’ starting quarterback for three years in a row until graduating in 2008 and never won a game. But, he says, even knowing what he knows now, he’d do it again even at the risk of playing all 28 of those games without a win.
“For me, it was more of a humbling experience, more of a spiritual journey,” he said. “You definitely learn how to face adversity.”
Durant got an academic scholarship at Whitworth University, where he experienced his first football win as a starting quarterback.
It’s hard to lose by six touchdowns, but as these players learned at homecoming, it’s harder to lose by one.
As the players quietly, slowly, one at a time, left the locker room, walking past Miethe in his office after the loss to North Central, the coach and Cochran, the defensive coordinator, considered the couldas and shouldas of the game.
Miethe had a throbbing headache and knew that he, like his players, was heading into a weekend of regret.
“It will definitely hurt through the chest through the weekend,” he said.
Music was thumping into the hall from the homecoming dance in the gym next door. Like most players, Meusy skipped it. He grabbed a bite to eat with his mom and went to bed. He usually spends his autumn weekends watching football on TV, but he found it too painful.
“Every time I saw a football game, I would think of what we did wrong,” he said the next week.
The seniors on the team have experienced losses in many football games, but this was easily the hardest of their careers because they believed until the end that they would win. And North Central has become Rogers’ biggest rival in the past few years.
“I went home and didn’t want to talk to anyone the rest of the night,” said Dalton Waggy, another senior captain.
But on Monday, Meusy, Waggy and the other seniors were back in Rogers’ health room to watch game film. There was new urgency to the season having lost to North Central, the team picked to finish second-to-last in the Greater Spokane League. Miethe still believed that his team “left it all out on the field,” but armed with digital video uploaded to Hudl, the website the team uses to share footage of its games, he and other coaches found too many mistakes. They led a brutal film session pointing out the errors. If they want to win, Miethe told his players, they have to improve and work even harder.
Every week before the team’s bus trip to Joe Albi Stadium, Miethe gathers the team in the wrestling room for his final thoughts. His theme the first game was that underdogs can win. The next week, his focus was having fun. He played a clip from the Spartan battle film “300” before the loss to Ferris. Before the North Central game, Miethe urged his players to do their best to create a special moment for homecoming.
“When you go out there, guys, and you put it all on the line – every single bit of your energy – and you’re willing to throw it up in the air and say, ‘I’m in, I’m all the way in,’ it does take a toll. And the reason that sometimes guys don’t do that, the reason they’re hesitant, is because it hurts too much if it doesn’t work,” Miethe said. “You see guys all the time walking off the field all emotional after a win or a loss. Typically, you can tell by the demeanor, just by the look on their face, how much they put into that week. How much they put into that night.
“Guys, tonight, just give it everything you got.”
A week later, on the bus ride back to Rogers after the team’s fourth loss, the gloom from the blowout was already lifting. There was chatter. There was laughter. Miethe joked with assistant coach Scott Word in the seat across from him about 1980s sitcoms.
Lying across the seat behind Miethe, Meusy was smiling, laughing at his coach and strategizing with teammates about Rogers’ next opponent – University High School, the team with which it shares last place.
I want to play footballDanish exchange and student soccer player Mads Tranberg drills one of 19 field goals in a row during his second day of practice with the Rogers High School football team, Sept 11, 2013. He missed the first attempt of the day. It was only his second day ever kicking a football. Senior Hank Schmook serves as the place holder for Tranberg. (Dan Pelle/Spokesman-Review)
Soccer player from Denmark gives Rogers High football a boost as kicker
By Jonathan Brunt, The Spokesman-Review
A ball sailed through the uprights during practice at the Rogers High School football field one day, drawing the kind of cheers from players that normally would be reserved for a game-winning field goal.
The kicker, a tall, blond Danish exchange student, lined up in a different spot on the field and did it again. Then again. And again.
The winless Rogers football players looked on with newfound hope.
Their newest teammate, Mads Tranberg, is a 16-year-old avid soccer player who until last month had never touched an American football. But the kid sure can kick, a specialty skill that the Rogers football team had lacked for so long that head coach Matt Miethe had largely stopped attempting field goals and point-after kicks.
After six games, Rogers remains winless on the season, which is painfully familiar territory for a school where many students struggle daily with poverty and other family crises.
But Tranberg (whose first name is pronounced in a way that sounds kind of like “mess”) has given the team something it hasn’t had in three years – a consistent kicker. He’s made four of five point-after attempts and has considerably improved the team’s kickoffs.
Kickers are often unheralded in the sport. So to understand the excitement generated by Tranberg’s first kicks on the Rogers practice field, flash back to Sept. 4, two days before Rogers’ first game: Miethe still didn’t know who would attempt extra points or if he’d always opt for two-point conversions as he did last season for lack of a kicker. But he accepted volunteers for a final tryout.
The first time the defense ran at the kicker candidates, the display was sorry. One kick was short. Another short and wide left. Then short, short and wide left, another hit the upright and finally, so low the ball slammed into a lineman. Twice.
Senior Jordan Holzer eventually got two in a row – enough to earn him the role of point-after kicker. And in the second game of the season Holzer kicked the school’s first point-after since 2011, but he was happy to step aside when Tranberg joined the team at a school counselor’s suggestion.
Tranberg, who is from Horsholm, a town north of Copenhagen, arrived in Spokane in August and enrolled at Rogers. When a school counselor asked if he was interested in joining school activities, he said he wanted to try football, since soccer is a spring sport. Tranberg showed up at coach Miethe’s office and returned the next day with the necessary paperwork.
After a team meeting to start practice, Miethe described the variety of kicks in American football to Tranberg – the punts that signal a change of possession and the field goals and point-after kicks to score points.
He told Tranberg that he’s got the leg.
“But you have to do it with guys running at you,” he told the exchange student.
On the sidelines, players asked Tranberg, whose father is a pilot for Scandinavian Airlines, about his homeland. Yes, Denmark has Wal-Mart and McDonald’s and similar popular music, he told his teammates, most of whom have lived in Spokane their whole lives.
Miethe told Tranberg that with some work he could be a great kicker in the league.
“Every time you kick a PAT (point after touchdown), you get your name in the paper. If you kick five, it goes in five times,” he explained.
It’s the same incentive defensive coordinator Ben Cochrane used when the team was searching for a kicker earlier. “The more you get your name in the paper, the cuter your girlfriend gets,” he said.
The more Tranberg practiced, the more Miethe began to feel that he may just be the imaginary player he has joked about with other coaches for years when they dreamed of recruiting a foreign exchange student to enroll at Rogers and solve the school’s longtime kicking woes.
Miethe chatted toward the end of Tranberg’s first practice with Dave Casteal, the special teams coach and Cooper Elementary School teacher who started working with Tranberg the next day.
“He might be the one.”
He might be the oneRogers High School football special teams coach David Casteal watches Danish exchange student Mads Tranberg kick on of his 19 in a row field goals during practice, Sept. 11, 2013. (Dan Pelle/Spokesman-Review)
When practice ended, Miethe gathered the team at the 50-yard line for the tradition of selecting “Real Pirates,” or players who stood out at practice.
“I had a guy come up to me and say, ‘I want to play football,’ ” the coach said in a mock Danish accent, drawing a laugh.
He praised Tranberg not so much for his kicking, but for taking a risk to play a sport he’d never played before. He also praised him for being responsible enough to turn in his paperwork quickly, in time to make him eligible for the third game of the season.
The team chanted: “Real Pirate.”
They clapped twice and finished: “Real man.”
Two more claps.
Tranberg isn’t a dominant kicker in the Greater Spokane League; nervousness caused him to miss his first two field goal attempts and the third was blocked. He’s buoyed his team nonetheless.
He’s continued to impress coaches and players with his kicks in practice, as shown by several attempts to coin a nickname.
Miethe tried Captain America. Casteal once called him Sweet Danish.
During practice a few weeks ago Casteal worked with Tranberg on kickoffs as Miethe painted lines on the Rogers field. He looked up to watch a kickoff sail into the end zone.
“If you do that during a game, I will hug you,” Miethe told him.
Then he called Tranberg The Great Dane.
In the wake of their first winless season in seven years, Rogers High players apply football lessons to their lives
By Jonathan Brunt, The Spokesman-Review
This is it.
The last time these players and these coaches will be a team.
The last time to play under the lights of Joe Albi Stadium.
The last chance to win.
The Rogers High School football team and their coaches stand shoulder to shoulder, arms around one another in a circle in the school’s wrestling room.
They are about to board a bus to their last game of the season.
“The friendships that you make, the bonds that you build, will last a lifetime. It’s never going to be like this again, even for those that have more games ahead of you, this circle will never be the same,” coach Matt Miethe says. “Here’s one last shot for this circle to go out and get the job done tonight.”
Though they head into the game 0-9 for the season, they’re as pumped and as loud as they were the first time they took the field.
“I love every minute playing football in a Rogers uniform,” says Brandon Rose, a senior known by the coaches as the guy who personifies hustle: He always runs on and off the field. “I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.”
Before this final pregame pep talk from Miethe, 18 seniors share with teammates their favorite moments playing for the Pirates.
With the team’s winless record, it is no surprise that none of them picks a moment from a game this varsity season.
For most, their best experience was the summer football camp at Whitworth University, where their bond, already close, became closer, where most of them pledged not to drink or party during their season. It was when expectations were high.
In front of the team, Miethe asks them what they learned.
Perseverance, most say, in one form or another.
“There’s going to be obstacles in everyday life and you can’t get down on yourself. You have to keep pushing. No matter what, you just got to keep going,” Nick Challinor says. “You can’t give up on yourself.”
Every team is unique. For this one it’s the closeness of the players. They’ve come to call it a brotherhood.
“No matter what, even if no one else is around, you’ve got your football family,” senior Hank Schmoock says. “That’s the thing it’s taught me. Life does get hard, but there are always people out there who still care, who will still be there for you.”
Rogers High School is the poorest in the county. Yet pride and confidence among students and teachers is on the rise, perhaps because of its improving graduation rate and a push from school leaders to persuade students to take harder classes. It is not unusual for a Rogers student to be able to recite the school’s graduation rate. (It’s 84 percent, now on par with the rest of the Spokane Public Schools).
Ask a Pirate football player what he thinks about the school and he will tell you he’s annoyed by the labels from outsiders, whose perceptions of the school resemble some kind of low-security prison. As Dom Sanders, the team quarterback, once put it: No, he does not fear that he will be stabbed in the hallways.
Offensive lineman Jacob Meusy recalls that when a violent crime happened closer to Gonzaga Prep, news reports pegged the crime as taking place “near Rogers.”
And ask assistant coach Tony Moser, who joined the Rogers staff this year as a behavior intervention teacher, what he says to those who express sympathy when he says he teaches there: “Actually, this was my first choice.”
Halfway through the season, assistant coach David Casteal ended a practice by reading a letter he wrote a few years ago after Rogers beat Shadle Park. It was during a season when Shadle finished last. Soon after that victory, Rogers’ coaches received a note from a principal at a local high school that has a consistently dominant football program. This principal wrote in flowery terms of his admiration for Rogers, how happy he was for the Rogers community that the team won a game. The principal wondered if he could help, perhaps by providing a pizza party.
To the Rogers coaches, it was condescending.
Casteal waited until that principal’s school crushed an inferior squad and then crafted the letter to the principal about how proud he was of that school. Quoting Gandhi, he praised the team for its strong moral character. He ended by saying he had a friend at Grocery Outlet who could hook them up with some Popsicles.
He mailed it and never heard back.
Casteal’s message: “You want to make your own way through. There’s a fine line between empathy and sympathy.”
Sure, they have their problems. While many players have stable one- or two-parent homes, some have moms or dads – or both – who are absent. A couple have fathers who are incarcerated. Some are from families that have been evicted. Others have been homeless.
Coaches have a message for this team: You can move beyond these troubles at home. You are not alone. No one gets bonus points on a job application for growing up poor.
For the final game, assistant coaches Moser and Nick Fross are the first to arrive into the locker room. They write messages on the two chalkboards. Moser’s says: “Expect to win.”
There is a fear among the coaches that piled-up losses will shake confidence, especially among underclassmen. That instead of expecting to win, they only hope they can. Miethe believes they can because he’s experienced it. He was the member of the 1994 Rogers team, the last to have a winning season. Miethe’s team broke a 20-year drought that year.
Impressive freshman-team wins the past two years and the creation of Pirate Pipeline, a youth football program, offers hope. Casteal says plainly that he has no doubt that the Pirates will make it to the playoffs in the next two years.
In past years, coaches have offered optional prayer time, but religion has played a stronger role on this team.
Earlier in the season, Fross, wearing an Oakland Raiders shirt, was baptized at Life Center Foursquare Church, surrounded by several Rogers coaches.
On game days, the team was offered optional “chapel time” in the school’s health room led by assistant coach Andrew Durant, a former Rogers quarterback.
Just before the final game, as the team waits for an earlier game to end, Meusy leaves the locker room to find Durant. Chapel ended without a prayer. He asks Durant to lead one before the game. Players pour out of the locker room, surround Durant and bow their heads. Before the team’s game with Lewis and Clark, 10 players made commitments to Christ. Miethe saw it for some as “a stepping point in a commitment to something different.”
He offered players three opportunities to gather for church and encouraged them to attend. The first week was at his church, Colbert Chapel. The next Sunday was at Life Center, and finally, last Sunday, at Hillyard Baptist. There was talk of trying a Catholic Church, too, but it was too late in the season. About a dozen players met at Rogers on the first Sunday for a ride to Colbert. They filled two pews behind Miethe and his family. After church, they went to his house, ate pizza and watched football.
Coach and counselor
Miethe is more than a football coach. He is a life coach. He counsels players fighting with parents. He counsels parents unsure how to handle their kids. He draws up plays. He worries about the players who don’t have a steady roof over their head.
He has been open about his family life growing up, “all the drugs, alcohol, crazy stuff,” as he described it in one team speech. For some on the team, his willingness to share his past is an assurance that they aren’t alone.
“I feel like at any time I can walk into his office,” senior J.J. Barnett, whose father is in prison, said in an interview after the season ended. “I can relate to some of the things that happened in his life. It made us stronger as a team.”
Miethe wants to give kids on the verge of dropping out a reason to stay in school, but there is a line he will not cross. As he said after one game when he kicked a player off the team: For the sake of the other players, he has to run a football team, not a charity.
The player had been on the verge all season. He quarreled with teammates. He didn’t take instruction well.
When Miethe told the player not to be lazy as he strolled off the field, the player responded: “I’m not lazy, I’m disengaged.”
Miethe told him he was done.
‘Win at life’
Back in the Rogers locker room after the bus ride home from Joe Albi Stadium, Miethe asks his players to gather around.
It isn’t the final speech Miethe had hoped to give. They lost the game 20-7 against North Central. It ended the team’s first winless season in seven years.
He will see these players again in the halls at school for the next several months, but except for a team banquet next month, this group will never gather again.
The coaches have seen growth in these seniors, a maturity in some that they never expected to see when he met them four years ago.
With the team surrounding him, Miethe recounts the messages from the seniors before the game and expands on them.
“You’re just starting, gentlemen. Win at life. Go out and make the play. Be a person someone can depend on. Be reliable. Love the people around you and life is going to be a lot better for you, I promise,” Miethe says. “Life sucks sometimes, guys. You can react in a way that too many people around us do, which is you mask it with drugs and alcohol or you bail on your family altogether, or you go into a spiral downhill because you can’t handle the pressure.”
The team had gone into halftime with their first halftime lead all season, but they collapsed in the third quarter. Down 20-7 with six minutes left, Miethe could see that the increasing likelihood of a winless season was affecting the team’s composure. He called a timeout and gathered the defense. He later described some of his players in the huddle, especially seniors Brandon Rose and Charles Smith, as puppy dogs, with big eyes and tongues hanging out, ready to do whatever had to be done. On the next play Smith intercepted a pass in the end zone.
“I would hope that those guys that have made it through this kind of a season, when things in life are dealt to you that aren’t fair, you can hold your chin up and say, ‘Coach, what do you want? I don’t care. Throw the ball in the end zone, I’ll pick it off.’ ”
When he’s finishes, he directs them to chant the team’s creed one last time.
They huddle in close as they can and stretch their hands toward the center.
We are from Rogers!
We all play hard!
We all play together!
We are winners!
We are the Pirates!
The final shouting of the Pirate creed from this 2013 team, led by senior captain Cody Risinger, intense and piercing, ends and the room falls silent. The players head back to their lockers, dress and walk out one by one. Jessie Hegar, who was often counseled by Meusy when he was down, offers a distraught Meusy a long hug.
When he’s dressed, with the room mostly empty, Rose stands in front
of several laundry bags overflowing with uniforms, where he is about to drop his No. 4 jersey for the last time.
But he can’t let go.
He embraces the uniform that he will never wear again, regains composure, releases it and slowly walks out of the Rogers locker room. Never again a Rogers football player, but forever a Pirate.
New ImageRogers High School special teams coach and Cooper Elementary School sixth-grade teacher David Casteal and his "learners" participate in catching footballs kicked by Rogers High School kicker Mads Tranberg on Oct. 16 on the Cooper playground. Casteal invited the Danish exchange student to visit the sixth-graders and teach them about Denmark.
By Jonathan Brunt, The Spokesman-Review
David Casteal addresses his sixth-grade class as “learners,” as in: “Learners, here’s what going to happen.”
On this October morning, Casteal’s learners at Cooper Elementary School are visited by Mads Tranberg, Rogers High School’s Danish foreign exchange student who recently made the football team’s first field goal in three years.
Today, Tranberg will make the morning announcements over the loudspeaker in Danish. He will talk to Casteal’s class about Denmark and answer students’ questions.
They will line up for his autograph in their journals. They will go outside and take a class picture with the kicker. They will try to catch Tranberg’s kickoffs. They will break off into teams for a quick soccer match with Casteal and Tranberg on opposing teams. They will come back inside where each student who has earned it (all but two on this day) will grab a bag of ramen noodles and pour hot water in it for a quick “Ramen Wednesday” snack. Those who can’t participate still are allowed to eat from a basket of fruit.
They will end the morning by answering Tranberg’s questions about their lives.
When the fun is over and they break for lunch, Casteal offers a warning:
“When we come back, we’re doubling up. We’ve got all the math to cover. You’ve got to be 212 strong to be in here.”
That’s Casteal’s classroom number at Cooper in northeast Spokane. Many students here will go to Rogers High School, where Casteal is an assistant football coach. He is the coach who has worked most closely with Tranberg.
Casteal believes that whatever disadvantages kids bring to school from growing up poor or without a dad, “when they come to school they can be even.”
He makes his sixth-graders do pushups or other exercises to start the day, drawing on research finding that physical activity stimulates the brain. He arranges the desks in his classroom in a large square to create an open space “so we meet in the middle and discuss important things.”
From the ceiling hang dozens of hats used for birthdays and theater.
Each year, his class writes and performs plays explaining the school dress code, honoring veterans and celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day. His class also writes and produces a video at the end of the year. He learned to play African drums after purchasing some in Ghana when he was on a teaching fellowship in 1998. He started an African drum group, KuUmba, for Cooper students that tours the city and sometimes beyond. When a couple of talented guitarists were in his class a few years ago and wanted to start a rock group, he agreed to be their drummer. The group’s appearances included a Rogers High School pep rally.
“He takes kids and he finds out what their passions are and he builds on them,” said Cooper Principal Rona Williams. “He gets some of the highest test scores in the city.”
Casteal came to Spokane in the early 1990s to study education at Whitworth College.
His dad was in the Air Force and he grew up mostly in Alabama and Florida, but he spent a few of his grade school years at Fairchild Air Force Base.
Casteal was a running back at the University of Alabama and led the team in rushing touchdowns in 1988. Unlike most of his teammates, he graduated.
He had been obsessed with football in high school. He says it drove every decision he made. But by the time he left the University of Alabama, he was disenchanted with the culture of college football, the disregard for learning and academics.
He enrolled at Whitworth to earn an education degree. The heaviest coat he had when he arrived in Spokane was his letterman jacket.
“I just came on a whim. I wanted to get out of the South and get away from football and being known as a football player,” he said.
In his first two years back in Spokane, Casteal was pulled over 14 times by police and deputies. Casteal believed he was being profiled and filed a complaint with a city’s police oversight board.
“I will not pay fines for being a black man,” he told the board, which voted 7-1 to forward his complaint to a City Council committee that soon rejected it, according to an article in The Spokesman-Review.
After he raised questions about his treatment, however, the fines that totaled in the thousands of dollars were reduced to just a couple hundred, he said. He has rarely been pulled over in the 20 years since.
After graduating from Whitworth, Casteal was offered a job in Tampa, but he got another offer to teach at Cooper. He was tired of moving and stayed in Spokane.
Though the city has a small population of African Americans, he believes the community makes an effort to be welcoming.
“Spokane tries really hard,” he said.
He is active in local theater. He wrote the score for a play about an African American member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and played the lead role in an off-Broadway production of the show, “York.”
He’s been on the Rogers staff longer than any other coach.
On the Rogers practice field, Casteal is reserved. On the sideline at games, he’s loud and passionate. He often is the only person inside Joe Albi Stadium wearing a tie.
As the special teams coach, Casteal worked closely with Tranberg to apply his soccer skills to kicking a football. He plans to visit him in Denmark next summer.
The 2013 Rogers team was a lot more fun to coach than many recent teams, he said.
“I thought they really bought in. For the first time in a long time, they believed,” Casteal said. “They really cared about each other.”
Coach Matt MietheRogers High School coach Matt Miethe attends practice Sept. 24. (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)
By Jonathan Brunt, The Spokesman-Review
The setting sun hits the orange Art Deco bricks, and the glow makes Rogers High School look like it’s on fire. In the adjacent field, the school’s football coach takes over a lackluster practice from his assistants, displaying energy he hasn’t had for days.
Head coach Matt Miethe missed practice two days earlier, hooked up to an IV full of antibiotics at his home, hoping to avoid his 20th hospitalization in nearly as many years from the effects of an ailment that goes dormant but never fully leaves his system. It originates from his senior year at Rogers, when he was gouged in the leg in a game and a piece of Joe Albi Stadium’s artificial turf lodged under his skin, only to be revealed two years later in surgery.
Now, with his leg pink and still swollen after the infection’s reappearance, he demands more intensity from his team.
“We’ve got to make it hurt! Normal is comfortable,” he yells at the team on the practice field. “We don’t want normal! I’m tired of normal!”
It is August. The Rogers team has yet to play its first game of the 2013 season, Miethe’s seventh as head coach.
In an August meeting he tells his team that he loves his summers – when he finally can spend quality time with his kids and wife – but he’s invigorated by the start of football season.
He believes his most important mission is to make his players better prepared for the world. His program is built around love, and coaches frequently tell players they love them.
But Miethe is not content with losing.
And that is why he doesn’t want normal. The team hasn’t had a winning season since he was on it, as a senior in 1994. It hasn’t had more than two wins in a season in more than a decade.
Every year on Oct. 17, the anniversary of “the game” – when Rogers beat Gonzaga Prep in 1994 – he gets messages from his Pirate teammates. These days they are via text, sometimes only “14-7,” the final score. It is the kind of memory he wants players on this team to have, too.
Whatever disadvantages Rogers has, Miethe believes they can be overcome with hard work and getting kids into football earlier.
Miethe attended Whitworth University on an academic scholarship and continued playing football. He is the color commentator for Whitworth football’s Saturday radio broadcasts. It is a welcome diversion after his team has suffered a tough loss the night before.
Miethe married his high school sweetheart, Debbie. She makes winter hats resembling footballs that are awarded to the players of the week, the Tuesday after each game. They have three sons, the oldest in junior high. They roam the sidelines during Rogers games, mingle with players and may one day play for the Pirates.
In the last off-season, Miethe shuffled the staff and brought in two younger assistants: Nick Fross, who owns a day care center with his wife in north Spokane, and Tony Moser, a first-year behavior-intervention teacher at Rogers. He promoted another Rogers teacher, Ben Cochran, to the defensive coordinator position.
The changes brought new energy to the team. Cochran often chided players in Monday film sessions for not being loud enough on the sidelines while he’s practically “giving birth,” he said, trying to spread excitement to the team.
Miethe, who teaches physical education at Rogers, also determined that coaches had to cut down on swearing. This season, if a cuss word was uttered by a coach, it usually was directed at the other team, as in “let’s go kick their ass.”
Sometimes, when Miethe is angered when his team botches a play – giving up a touchdown, tossing an interception, the offensive line stepping right when it was supposed to step left – he will yell, “Gosh darn it!” and occasionally, “You’re better than that!”
But the spirit from coaches on the sideline is usually upbeat. And unless there’s a lesson to be learned, the response to a mistake is more likely to be to move on, imploring his team to make the next play.
He will tell them to make an interception.
“Why not, boys!”
His voice is booming and sometimes echoes within Joe Albi Stadium.
Just before the season began, Miethe gave his players a homework assignment: Imagine your deaths at age 99 and write your obituary. What do you want to accomplish in your life?
Then he talked about what would appear in his. It would mention that he is ESPN Sports Center fanatic. It would stress his devotion to Rogers, his love for his wife and kids and, above all else, his commitment to Christ.
In past years, he’s offered the team chapel or prayer time, usually before or after a practice. This year, chapel time was moved to before games. It was led by assistant coach Andrew Durant, and Miethe did not attend, in part, he said, because he didn’t want players to feel compelled to go.
Miethe grew up poor in Hillyard, the part affectionately known by some as Dogtown. He shares his story readily with players and students. The openness helps some of the players realize they, too, can make it to college. It also leads to interesting anecdotes.
Growing up, his family sometimes got its food from food banks, including nonhydrogenated peanut butter considered “natural” today.
No food disgusts him more.
“I hated having to stir my peanut butter,” Miethe tells the team in a meeting in the wrestling room at one early practice. “I don’t want more than a peanut butter sandwich, but I want good peanut butter.”
When the season began, Miethe thought the strong connection among the seniors could lead to some surprise wins. In the locker room, after the season ended winless, in a message aimed at those who will back next year, he told the players that “all the heart in the world” wasn’t enough. They must get stronger. They must work harder.
Before a team meeting in the wrestling room at Rogers High School, the players gathered for the official team picture. Coach Matt Miethe prefers to have the team photo shot at the end of the season so that the Pirates who are memorialized in the yearbook are the players who made it to the end. The 2013 final team photo of the Rogers Pirates had 42 players. Here are some of them:
Marcus PhillipsMarcus Phillips.
Marcus Phillips, the most recognizable kid on the team, with drooping, black, curly hair and braces, is one of several sophomore varsity starters who give the Pirates hope for the future.
As a member of last year’s freshman team, which had a winning record, he struggled in school and missed games because of failing grades. But with the help of his mom his grades improved. His dream is to play for the University of Southern California in Pasadena, where he visits his paternal grandparents twice a year.
Before each game, Phillips closed his eyes and thought of his father, Trevor Phillips, who died of a heart attack when he was in the fourth grade. The ritual was not so much a prayer, he said, as a simple tribute to the man who encouraged him to play football and who attended every practice and game.
Sometimes, in this moment, he took himself back to his first football season in grade school. As he was running for his first touchdown, Phillips turned his head and saw his father running with him along the sideline.
Mads TranbergRogers senior place kicker Mads Tranberg tries to offer head coach Matt Miethy his rose upon being introduced on Senior NIght. Tranberg is an exchange student from Denmark and did not have a family member to greet him on the field. DAN PELLE firstname.lastname@example.org
Mads Tranberg, the Danish foreign exchange student who made the team’s first field goal in three years. He missed his first three attempts, made his last three attempts and tied with three others for most field goals in the Greater Spokane League despite touching an American football for the first time just two weeks before his first game.
Jesse HagarRogers defensive end Jesse Hagar is all smiles before the last game of the year against North Central, Nov. 7, 2013. The players gathered for a team picture in the school's gym. DAN PELLE email@example.com
Jessie Hegar, one of the few juniors on the team.
After a winless freshman season, nearly all the players in his class abandoned the team. Hegar stuck it out.
“I love Rogers,” he said. “I love this team. I love the coaches. I like the teachers. I wouldn’t change it for anything, winning record or not.”
This school year, however, has been a struggle. School had always been easy for him, but his grades fell. In one practice, coaches ordered him to “go flush it” four times, a ritual where players who need a change of attitude slam shut a toilet seat hung from a goal post.
But Hegar struggled to flush it away. A game after making an interception that earned him team-player-of-the-game honors, he was pulled from the lineup because he couldn’t focus.
Not long after, Miethe discovered that Hegar was doing his homework by flashlight. The power had been shut off at his home. Miethe offered to let Hegar stay with his family, so he lived with the coach for two weeks until power was restored at his father’s home.
Rogers Principal Lori Wyborney said Hegar’s determination, even attempting to do his Advanced Placement physics, English and history homework by flashlight, shows a tenacity she sees in many students.
“When I see kids taking these kinds of classes and doing homework by flashlight, there’s a resiliency there,” she said. “I know this kid will be successful.”
Cody Risinger, Dalton WaggyRogers center Cody Risinger, left, and OL Dalton Waggy listen to coaches and teammates during halftime gatherings in the locker room against Gonzaga Prep, Oct. 17, 2013, at Joe Albi Stadium. DAN PELLE firstname.lastname@example.org
Cody Risinger, the senior captain who wants to be a game warden.
Risinger spends most of his fall and summer weekends hunting, deer, elk, pheasant or duck with his dad. His mother has attended every game since he started playing football in grade school, until this year; surgery kept her from a game.
Assistant Coach David Casteal said what’s impressive about Risinger is he plays the whole game in two of the most exhausting positions, center on offense and middle linebacker on defense.
He didn’t play center until this season. Coaches came to him in the off-season and said they needed him. There was no one else.
Dalton Waggy, who worked his way back from near-death his sophomore year.
It started when he was kneed in the groin during a JV game. It seemed like no big deal. He kept playing. But in the days after, he began vomiting. In a daze, one night at home he tripped and broke his foot. A doctor sent him to Valley Hospital, which sent him to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.
He went into cardiac arrest five times, was in intensive care for 11 days. Doctors determined that a deadly infection already in his body entered his bloodstream, probably when he was kneed. He missed three months of school.
He worked his way back. He caught up on his classes and this season was a captain and with Risinger was one of the team’s first two “black shirts” – awarded to the most aggressive defensive players.
“I never get an excuse out of him,” said Assistant Coach Roger Craver. “His motor’s always going.”
Jacob MeusyRogers senior Jacob Meusy, center, has hugs and smiles for his sister Tianna and mother Tracie, on Senior NIght before playing Mt. Spokane, Oct. 31, 2013, at Joe Albi Stadium. DAN PELLE email@example.com
Jacob Meusy, the captain no one thought would be a captain.
Meusy earned a reputation in previous years for not giving his best effort and poor grades. But coaches saw him changing and liked the way he treated his teammates, so he was named a captain.
Early it became clear that he was the vocal, emotional leader of the team. He had been a Pirate longer than any other, starting as a ball boy when his older brother was on the team. Meusy was the player most likely to come to the aid of a struggling teammate.
He came home from a game this season and discovered that he and his mother were being evicted because their landlord was losing the property. They moved in with his sister. The Monday after, he was back on the sidelines, counseling players at the JV game.
Bonnie FissetteRogers player Bonnie Fissette joins the team's linemen in blocking sled drills during the August heat. She was the first-ever girl to play for the Pirates. DAN PELLE firstname.lastname@example.org
Bonnie Fissette, the team’s first-ever girl. She didn’t play in any varsity games or get much playing time on the JV squad, and her teammates didn’t at first like the idea of having a girl on the team. But they came to respect her effort. After she tackled Khalil Winfrey, a starting varsity wide receiver, in practice, he made sure she was praised in front of the whole team when practice ended. Whenever Meusy heard a classmate make light of her for being on the team, his response was simple: “While you’re talking crap, a girl’s playing and you’re not.”
Dom Sanders, the two-year starting quarterback who excels in school.
Sanders’ dad, Ronald Sanders, played football at the University of Minnesota. But he dropped out after struggles in the classroom.
Three decades later, his son Dom said his father has made it clear: Get good grades, go to college, make a better living. Earn enough to take vacations.
“He’s seen how hard I’ve had to work to support the family,” said Ronald Sanders, who works in the construction industry. “It makes him motivated to study.”
Academically, Dom Sanders is ranked 22nd out of 312 students. He says his football career is likely over, but he hopes to study engineering at Washington State University.
James Welty, the quiet, dependable running back, linebacker and punter, who rarely shows emotion, though he occasionally smiles enough to reveal his braces.
He started at Rogers with test scores well below those of his classmates. He will finish Rogers in the top 20 percent of his class.
After his parents’ chaotic and violent divorce when he was in elementary school, Welty lived with his father in California. After a brief period of homelessness, living in his dad’s truck, he opted to move back with his mother. She calls him her moral center, her rock, her protector.
The youngest of five kids, he will be the first in the family to graduate from high school on time. On the wall of his home is a quilt made by his girlfriend in honor of their two-year anniversary together.
He starts school each day at 6 a.m. with the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He wants to be a K-9 police officer.
Standing in front of the team before the last game, Welty said football coaches and players brought him closer to God.
“They put Jesus Christ into my soul, and I accepted it,” he said.
Elijah RodriquezRogers player Elijah Rodriquez, right, and his dog, Bobi, lives with teammate J.J. Barnett, left, and Barnett's mother, Jen Reed, in their north Spokane home. Rodriquez was once homeless, has been with the family for the past eight months. The boys plan to join the U.S. Marines after high school graduation. DAN PELLE email@example.com
Elijah Rodriguez was homeless, living at churches with his mom during his freshman year.
He doesn’t know his father. When his mother lost custody last year, he came to the conclusion that all he had left was his German shepherd, Bobi.
“He was the one I cried to, basically,” Rodriguez said.
One day this fall, he almost lost Bobi, too.
Rodriguez has lived with teammate J.J. Barnett and Barnett’s mom, Jen Reed, since the start of summer.
The day before the game when seniors were honored on the field, Barnett’s dog tunneled under a fence and both dogs bolted. After they got a call from Reed, Rodriguez and Barnett rushed home, skipping practice. The dogs were found late that night in a Home Depot store.
Coaches were unmoved. Because the two had missed practice, they couldn’t play on senior night, though they would be recognized with their teammates.
The two players accepted the decision.
Typically on senior night, parents greet players as they take the field, but there was no one to greet Rodriguez when his name was called. Other parents rushed over. He paused for an uncomfortable portrait.
Rodriguez didn’t join the team until this season. He couldn’t afford to go to the team’s football camp at Whitworth University, but he became a starter on the defense.
“There are some kids I do question where these guys are going to be in five years, but with Elijah, I have no doubt,” said Craver, the assistant coach. “He’s going to make something of himself.”
A lot has changed since the turmoil of his junior year. He calls Barnett his brother. He is a part of a team.
When Rodriguez, who plans to join the Marines before going to college, stood in front of the team before his last game, he thanked his teammates for all they had done for him.
“I learned what family was,” he told them. “I love each and every one of you guys.”