Just before the new year began, a special group gathered in Lake Highlands to reminisce about the good ole days of Wildcat athletics. Over a relaxed dinner hosted by Kim and Lynn Jensen, former LHHS coaches from the 70s, 80s, 90s and early 2000s (and their wives) came from near and far to reconnect.
Attending were Dr. Bob Iden, LHHS grad, assistant coach of the 1981 state championship team, principal from 1996-2008, now at Bishop Lynch; Lynn Jensen, LHHS grad now DISD Evening Academy principal and head golf coach at Sunset High; Paul Maturi, LHHS grad now assistant athletic director and assistant head coach at Jesuit; Jim Ledford, now head coach and athletic coordinator at Berkner High; Ed Barry, now coaching at Shelton, Don Woods, now defensive coordinator for 2016 state champion Highland Park High; Josh Eason, now principal at RISD’s North Junior High; John MacPherson, now retired; David Hardt, now a realtor with Ebby Halliday; Gary Taylor, now coaching at Sunnyvale High; Chris Patton, now regional sales manager for Field Turf; Jason Wilson, now head baseball coach at Lovejoy High; Todd Holmes, Pete Grieder, member of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame, now at Bishop Lynch; and the legendary Joe Boring, member of the Texas Football Hall of Fame and one of the Junction Boys under A&M’s Bear Bryant. The guys also FaceTime-called Leonard Carey, another assistant coach of the 1981 team, now retired.
I wasn’t one of the lucky attendees, but I spoke to some coaches who were there and willing to share their memories.
“What made Lake Highlands so special,” said Maturi, when asked which players he especially recalled, “was that there were too many great kids to mention. That’s not a cop out. I had a good run of 14 years [at LHHS], and we hope we did a great job as coaches, but those kids made it easy. They wanted us to succeed.”
“I think about the players that I got to coach at LHJH all the way through their senior year at LHHS,” said Eason. “That was very special to be able to see the growth and maturity over a six year period as student athletes become young men.”
Even after years away, the names came tripping off Ledford’s tongue.
“Kent Petty, who went to play at A&M, J.J. Leonard, who went to play at the Naval Academy, Owen Hill at Columbia, Doug Ames at Cornell, Detron Smith at A&M, Marcus Stiggers at Colorado, Ryan Smith, who I named my son after, Sea and Brian Lonergan, who had just great work ethic, Phil Dawson who still plays for the 49ers and I stay in contact with even now, Dave Handal and Brett Sawyer, Kent Ackmann at Northern Iowa, Marcus Coleman, who played for the Jets, Sam Needum, Janaupha Gispon, Dextor Ford at Baylor, Jeremy Griffen at the Air Force Academy, Steve Holly, who played at the Naval Academy and became a Navy Seal – and I haven’t even’t touched the surface.”
“There were so many players who deserve to be mentioned for so many reasons beyond athletics that the list would be almost never ending,” prefaced Jensen. “Marcus Stiggers was a rare combination of elite speed, agility and love for the game. He was almost unstoppable. Frank Okam was a true gentle giant who symbolized what being a student athlete was all about – ranked high in his class academically and a force on the field. It was a true honor to be his position coach.”
“When I think about the 1981 State Championship Wildcat football team,” recalled Iden, “I remember so many great players like Steve Hurst (QB), Alvin Rettig (RB), Wendell Yancy (DB), Aaron Grant (DB), Rodney Beachum (DT), Todd Tschantz (DE/PK), Thomas Jefferson (WR) to name but a few, and the list goes on and on. To me, this was one of those once in a lifetime ‘dream teams’ with the best combination of talent and chemistry – among coaches and players – that LHHS has ever experienced. We had a perfect 15-0 season, at a time when only one team – the district champions – could advance to the playoffs. We played twice in Texas Stadium, flew Braniff to Lubbock to play in Jones Stadium at Texas Tech and played at Floyd Casey Stadium – Baylor’s home field at the time. Then we flew Braniff again to play Houston Yates in the Astrodome for the state championship in what was the first televised Texas high school football state championship game (via a regional cable TV network when CATV was in its infancy). That coaching staff – head coach Joe Bob Johnson and assistant coaches Leonard Carey, Garry Monty, Bill Persinger, John Hacker and Jerry Gayden, all of whom went on to be head coaches (including future Wildcat head coach Jerry Gayden) – is the greatest group of men that I have ever known, and we still stay in touch as much as we can.”
“The best thing about being able to coach in this community,” said Maturi, who still lives in Lake Highlands, “is that everyone supports one another and supports the school. During that time we had tremendous community support. What was special was that a lot of coaches lived in the community. We were a part it. That was pretty unique and special, and it was why people stayed so long. I still see former students frequently, and all those kids want to talk about is those days and how much fun we had. It’s like that Bruce Springsteen song, “Glory Days.” The backing of community was incredible. Jana used to hate to go to the grocery store with me – everyone wanted to talk football with me. It was a special time.”
“There was something very special about these years and the true ‘family’ atmosphere at LH,” agreed Hardt, who was coaching during the attacks of 9-11. “I can still remember being on the practice field and just finishing morning workouts when Paul [Maturi] told me about the World Trade Center attacks. In true LH fashion, many of the boys that we coached went into military service after graduation. That historic day had a bigger impact than you can imagine in the minds and hearts of young LH men. I am so proud of them to this day. Success breeds success, and LH was not only successful on the football field but off of it, as well.”
“What I remember most was the strong sense of family that was present among the high school faculty, the coaching staff, the players and the parents,” agreed Iden. “I remember just how much we enjoyed what we were doing, and although we worked hard for long hours, we also had an extraordinary amount of fun. We undoubtedly had a unique esprit de corps that was truly a ‘one for all, all for one’ mindset that the players bought into completely. Most of the guys in the picture at the Jensens’ house were coaches when I was principal, but as a former coach they let me hang out with them on the sidelines during games, and it was an honor to be in their midst.”
Though all have moved on to other schools or other endeavors, all said mentors at LHHS taught them about coaching and about life.
“I was lucky enough to coach with some of the greatest coaches you will find in high school football and learn much from them,” said Jensen. “Joe Boring has forgotten more football than most coaches will ever learn. In my early days he took me under his wing and spent countless hours answering every question I asked, and he carried on his instruction on the field during practices and in game situations.”
“Mike Zoffuto taught me how to embrace and be a part of a community that wanted to win in life,” said Ledford.
“Leonard Carey taught me how to evaluate athletes,” added Eason. “He showed me the core principles of leading the offense and calling plays, and he taught me about hard work and balancing family with work. Most of what I learned from him was unspoken – I just watched, paid attention and was eager to learn.”
“I know that I speak for many who have been part of a Wildcat football team as a player or coach in saying that one of the greatest mentors that we all had was Bill Georges,” said Iden. “He was the first LHHS head football coach and the man who we all consider to be the Grand Patriarch of the football program. Coach Georges helped me secure my first teaching/coaching position in RISD, and after about two months on the job, he told me that I needed to start working on my master’s degree in educational administration, which of course, I did. Coach Georges was wisely advising me to do what every good football coach does – prepare a game plan, and be prepared to make adjustments to it. We all did whatever he told us to do – he was literally one of those men who if he told you to run through a wall, you would be willing to attempt it. It is also amazing how many of his assistant coaches – men like Jackie Russell, Sam Austin, Gene Coppedge and Jay Higgins – also exerted a far-reaching, positive influence not only in our lives, but in the lives of generations to come. It is really quite amazing to think about the multiplier effect that coaches have on the career paths and family dynamics of their players.”
I asked about their proudest achievements.
“Beating Plano on the road in 2005 was a big moment,” admitted Eason. “So was getting to be a part of the state playoff run in the late ‘90s when I was just starting my career as a coach at LHJH. And I loved traveling to scout games on the weekend, watching the intensity and fun of practice and learning from more experienced coaches.”
“I’m proud of all of the All-District players I coached,” said Jensen, “and the 7 young men I was able to help get Ivy League endowments to play football. Being able to play a part in shaping, molding or guiding those student athletes to become the positive role models they are today, young men who can see the big picture of the role that athletics played in their development and put it to good use is something I’m proud of.”
“I met my wife while teaching and coaching at Lake Highlands,” shared Ledford, “and we got married on November 24th, 1989 during what we as coaches thought could be a pretty good year but ended up being a great year was we were in the 3rd round of the playoffs. We set our wedding for the Thanksgiving break because we did not think we could get that far, but the group of athletes we had exceeded expectations. We got married at 3 p.m. and were playing in Texas Stadium at 7 that night. I won both times that day.”
Future reunions aren’t inked, but the coaches say they’re likely since a few participants – folks like Jerry Gayden (retired), Jay Higgins (retired) Kevin Hamlin (now coaching at Little Elm High), Al Troyer (Tonganoxie High), John Bandy (retired), Kevin Hall (Manvel High), and others -were unable to attend the holiday gathering. I just hope someone will let me sneak in a side door and listen in on the next one. If they do, I promise to share.