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Rogers High football: from boys to men

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!”

Team: “Love!”

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.

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