It is a challenge to accurately capture a tribute fitting for someone who meant so much to so many people. A legend in high school football, Coach Vern Friedli held the title of the winningest coach in Arizona high school football until last season. But Coach Friedli’s impact extends far beyond the 331 wins, including 288 in 36 years of coaching at Amphitheater High School.
Yesterday, a flood of memories came back as I attended his “Celebration of Life” at the Amphi basketball arena in Tucson, Arizona. Just a glimpse of his impact was present in the crowd of more than 500 former players, friends, family members, and administrators. I remembered the first time I met Coach Friedli in the summer of 1997. Walking into the football weight room under the stadium, I took a left and saw Coach sitting at his desk. I walked up to him and introduced myself as he stood to shake hands. He was all of 5’8” 165-ish lbs, fit, confident, with kind eyes. He was smaller than I expected but you wouldn’t know it when you talked to him. His fiery personality and impact would soon extend further and higher than his physical stature ever could.
During that first meeting, we sat down and discussed why I transferred to Amphi and wanted to play for the Panthers. Having attended Palo Verde Christian (PVC) for two years, I felt led to take the leap to public school to reach the lost. I wanted my life and my words to lead people to Christ. I also wanted to play football for the best. Coach Friedli and his Panthers were the best in Tucson and everyone knew it. Surprised yet un-phased by my words, Coach welcomed me to the team and gave me a blank 3×5 card. He told me to take it home and write down my personal and team goals for the upcoming year and bring it back to him. Coach Friedli ensured goals were a foundation of the culture of his program and his players.
I would go on to play and start for Coach Friedli for two seasons. As huge underdogs my first year, we’d fall just short of the 1997 5A Arizona State Championship to Mesa Mountain View 28-24. Their team was led by future NFL hall of fame tight end, Todd Heap. Our scrappy, hard-nosed, wishbone-running team had the game locked up until an erroneous game-changing fumble by Mountain View, inaccurately ruled down after the whistle, and a later failed 4th and 1. We gave relentless effort and fought to the end-as his teams always did.
He’s the coach that got through to me-as only a coach could. One day I wanted to be rebellious and dye my hair with hydrogen peroxide, without my parent’s approval. I’ll never forget showing up for football practice that day with an orange-ish/yellow hair color and hearing Coach yell before I even set foot on the field to stretch, “Wingate, it looks like a horse pissed on your head.” He was right. He never hesitated to be direct, yet honest in his approach to get through to his players.
Towards the end of my senior year, after my parents, coach was the first to encourage and support my goal of attending Texas Christian University (TCU) as a walk-on for the Horned Frogs. As a contributor to my high school team, hardly a star, this seemed like a lofty goal. Yet, Coach Friedli did not hesitate to extend his support. I watched the Frogs upset the Carson Palmer-led Trojans in the Sun Bowl, and felt like the Frogs had grit, ran the ball and fought just like a Friedli team. Vern would coach me in the off-season prior to my departure to Fort Worth in preparation for my redshirt freshman season at TCU. When I left and told him thank you, he simply said, “Make your mother proud.”
That day in the weight room he told me about a coach he ran into from PVC at the airport shortly after I’d transferred to Amphi. That coach told him, “You know, Wingate will never play for you. He’s not that good.” Coach laughed with pride and a tone of confidence as only Coach could as he said, “Well, you showed him!” Again, Coach saw something in me I didn’t even see in myself. He believed in all of us, each one of his players.
He believed in hard work. He valued discipline. He modeled integrity. He demanded relentless effort. He cared for his players and wanted them to “make their mother proud.” He fought for those who couldn’t fight for themselves. He valued the team more than the individual yet somehow let each individual know he cared. He gave his all to develop young men of character. He called out the best in each of us.
Coach taught me to never be satisfied with the status quo. He taught me to fight until I hit a brick wall then go around it, over it or through it. Coach taught me to scrap and fight for what’s right, that’s what his teams did. Ask Todd Heap and the 1997 Mesa Mountain View Toros. I’m sure they remember.
Leaving Coach Friedli’s Celebration of Life yesterday reminded me of the value of leaving a legacy. It reminded me of the fragility of life and making the most of our time here on earth and the greatest impact possible. Coach’s legacy extended far beyond the win column; his legacy was in that basketball arena on the Amphi campus. His legacy is leaders in business, the military, teaching, family, and life. Just as we held up four fingers signifying the last quarter of the game and the importance of finishing strong, his legacy is leaders that do not know how to quit.
At the end of the ceremony, his youngest son, Ted, called all the former players to the arena floor. Hundreds took a knee to say one final prayer with a video recording of Coach praying in the background as he did with us before every football game. That day he planted a seed in the hearts of all the men and women present one more time:
Let’s pray. Pray in your own way. Pray not to win, God willing we shall. We pray that you give a great effort tonight. Thank God He allowed you to play football for Amphi High School. And we thank God that he allowed us to coach you. Good luck, God bless, and we love you. Amen.
That prayer had much more depth than I ever realized as a high school kid. That prayer spoke to the importance of unity of purpose and discipline. It spoke to his vision. It spoke to the value of diversity. It spoke to sportsmanship. It spoke to discipline. It spoke to relentless effort.
It spoke to gratitude for opportunities and the value of seasons. It spoke to Coach’s humble heart and his stewardship of the awesome responsibility of shaping young men in unity, purpose, discipline, vision, diversity, sportsmanship, effort, and respect to the Creator.
Coach called out the leader in me. I take his lessons with me today as a professional Soldier. Coach is greatly responsible for my drive and relentless effort as an Army Officer. After my third deployment, this time to Afghanistan, I visited Coach and his wife, Sharon, to present them with a certificate of appreciation and a flag we flew on a mission during Operation Enduring Freedom as a thank you for his tremendous impact on my life.
A flag cannot adequately thank a man whose impact goes on long after he is gone. Words cannot adequately express gratitude to a man who put just as much, if not more, effort into building men than he did earning the 331 Wins in his coaching career. You don’t reach that mark without reaching hearts.
Yesterday’s celebration reminded me of how grateful I was to know and play for a legend. It reminded me how honored I was to see the values instilled by my parents magnified and reinforced as only Coach could. Yesterday, I was reminded of the value of a season and the impact of one man and his teammate, Sharon. Spouses in the coaching profession and military do not necessarily get enough credit for their sacrifice in the shadows.
In Sharon’s case, she was out front standing beside him, supporting and investing in those young student-athletes just the same. However, the sacrifice she made to support and lift him up throughout his stellar career behind the scenes can hardly be quantified by anyone other than his family. The pictures playing on the screen at yesterday’s celebration of life showed Coach valued and invested in his family just as much if not more than his players. The love, respect, and admiration by his children in their speeches about their father were clearly evident.
Thank you, Coach. Thank you for your relentless effort and commitment to the players. Thank you for building men. Thank you for instilling the importance of fight no matter what your size. You may have been one of the shortest men in the room, but you were a giant. Although you are no longer here with us, your investment will continue yielding returns for years to come.
If you missed his Celebration of Life, check it out here: https://www.facebook.com/kvoa4/videos/1642400062459331/?hc_ref=ARSwWDssZcW_BEwvrquFy6BzMkBk3JdKoubcdVdJQg9yB25qm5EkuLBEsimKZ6VWhuY&pnref=story
To anyone reading this, what memories do you have of Coach that others might not know or might not remember? Leave a comment below as we honor his legacy.
The views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of DoD or its components.
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