Coach and Me is a series of stories that reflect on the relationships between coaches and their children and the lessons learned through sports. It will also be a reflection of memories for Tony Chapman and his dad, who passed away July 6, 2021.
NIGHT BEFORE THE QUARTERFINALS – If I am being honest, this one is a year late because I didn’t know if I could write it. And, I still don’t know if I can.
But we are going to try. That’s what Dick Stein and Coach would have wanted. For someone else to know the story of a father and his son.
There are still seven texts on my phone from the morning of August 9, 2021. Coach had passed just 34 days earlier. I knew Dick Stein’s “symptoms’ were sounding too familiar. At 9:44 in the morning, Northwest football coach Kevin Stein sent the word: “He just passed.”
If you knew former Chadron High football coaching legend Dick Stein like I knew him – man, we walked a lot of sidelines together from 2010 to 2020 – well, you knew he had to go home before football season got started. He wouldn’t want to be a distraction. And, so that’s just what he did.
Later that night, I sent this: “Let me know your plans for the week. Frank and Dick would still want us to have breakfast if we can make it work.” Kevin replied a bit later, “Wednesday, 6:30 AM.”
We both needed it, to be fair. It has turned into a little tradition for us. Sometimes I wrote about it, other times we just talked about being a coach’s kid.
I’d hear about the Yuma High Criminals or his favorite story, “Man, I loved to build a fort out of tackling dummies and dad would always yell at me to leave at 5:00 to get home.
“Mom wanted me home at 5:00. Then, 5:15. Then, 5:30. And when practice was over I just had to get home before dad.”
Marcia Stein always knew where her youngest son would be.
Football has been pretty good to Kevin Stein. Played quarterback for his dad. Went to Chadron State, played football there. Got his start in coaching at Leigh, then got to Gordon in 1997.
A little closer to dad. Kevin had his shot in 2001. Gordon and Chadron. Early in the season in Chadron. Both teams were unbeaten.
“Down 28-21, we had the ball going in to score and we fumble the snap at the 2-yard line,” he said. “After the game, he comes to shake my hand and give me a hug. And he goes, ‘You’ll never get another chance. I am done after this.’”
And, at the end of the season with a career record of 226-111-2 and a ride that had taken Dick and Marcia Stein to Colorado and Yuma, Arizona and then “home” to Chadron, he called it quits and started chasing his sons, with whom he gave the gift of coaching.
Kevin led Gordon to nine playoff appearances in his time there, half of them after the transition to Gordon-Rushville in 2004.
When he came to Northwest in 2010 they had been to the playoffs three times since 1988 with no wins to show for it. In his tenure on North Road, they have been to the playoffs nine times and the past eight seasons in a row – a school record.
He’d learned much about program building from his father.
“Football is merely a highlight in living life as a good man,” long time Chadron sports writer Con Marshall wrote of Dick Stein when he passed away.
It’s about teaching, too. And building good men, the best you can.
“Even when dad was grilling burgers, he was a football coach,” Kevin says of his favorite coach. “But, he never let it consume him.”
Football is so easily passed down. Kevin Stein knows. He’s in the middle of it now. His son, Joe, is a junior and he looks every part of a football player – 6-6 going on 6-8 or 6-9 it seems; a mountain of a man. He coached older son Payton, too. Daughter Emily was a standout pitcher for the Vikings in softball.
“Hard as hell,” he says of coaching his boys.
“I love coaching my kids because it’s time the normal person doesn’t get. I get to do life with them. I dread the day I don’t get to do it. But, people always say they played because they were my kid. That’s hard. I love it and I hate it because any coach wants to win.”
This year, dad has made use of Joe’s frame as a blocking, H-Back type of player. He’s caught 11 passes for 221 yards and three touchdowns. He’s played a little bit of defense. He and dad have a pact.
“After the first two weeks of practice (my sophomore year), I wanted him to treat me like any other player,” Joe says. “But, on the field I want to be coached. And when the practice is over and the game is over, I want to hug him and tell him I love him.”
He and his buddies are why we get to share this story this year.
Last Friday, the Vikings upset 4th-ranked Elkhorn 24-21 on Peyton Atwood’s last second field goal. It was a frantic final three minutes. The Antlers had tied the game at 21 with just under a minute left. Northwest had lost four games this season by seven points or less.
But they’d finally had enough.
“I went out into the huddle on the last drive and I looked into (teammate) Nathan Carkoski’s eyes and said, ‘I am going to practice on Monday.’ We just had the mindset that we were going to practice this week.”
Kevin would be lying to you if he said coaching has been easy since August 9, 2021.
The Vikings were 5-5 last year and after losing to Waverly by a touchdown in the regular season they got steamrolled in the opening round, 59-13. There is a text on my phone on that one, too.
“It was Friday the 13th and Groundhog Day all rolled into one. The chain crew kept shaking their heads. Couldn’t believe it.”
But doggone if it didn’t seem to get any better this year. The Vikings started 0-3. They were waiting for field turf and a home game. On September 16th, Coach Stein went to get his game shoes and saw an old pair of his dad’s Brooks in the closet.
“I could use a little help here,” he thought.
Northwest 24, unbeaten Elkhorn North 20. There have been two close losses since, but his Vikings seemed to have found themselves over the past 45 days.
“I always try to tell our guys football is life,” the coach says. “There will be times you live paycheck to paycheck. There are times when marriage is going to suck. You are going to have kids and it is going to be hard.
“It will happen. This is setting you up for life. How you handle going 0-3 is how you will handle losing a job, or losing someone close to you. And, then you hope that builds perseverance.”
Perseverance means they get to load the bus one more time today. One more trip to Waverly, the place where Dick Stein coached his first Nebraska playoff game.
Still, Kevin Stein misses his dad. I know because I do, too.
“I’d always have a text message from him before I got back to my phone or my office after a game,” he says. “I still kind of miss that.”
Joe keeps one from grandpa, too. From right before his freshman year.
“It was really long, which isn’t like him. Before the first game of my freshman year,” he says. “But, the main part of it was to have fun. Fall in love with the game and then in the next few years learn how to be a leader and have a varsity presence.”
On the night before the quarterfinals, I get up to leave the coaches office off the Northwest locker room. It has that perfect football smell. Sweat. Grass. Rolled up athletic tape.
Coach Stein is kicking me out because I am late to the first Westridge Middle School basketball game. But, I have a confession, too. I wear my dad’s shoes – nasty gray adidias – to show choir events, cross country meets, basketball games. It just helps I guess.
He nods and gives a smile.
Over the past few days a video has been popping up on my social media feed from the movie Frank vs. God (ironic I suppose). I’ve never seen the movie, but in the clip Frank’s lawyer – he’s suing God – is questioning a Catholic priest. Why does God allow bad things to happen, the lawyer asks.
Father answers bravely. “I asked for strength and God gave me difficulties to make me strong. I asked for wisdom and God gave me problems to solve. I asked for courage and God gave me dangers to overcome. I asked for love and God gave me troubled people to help. My prayers were answered.”
Maybe that came because I was supposed to share it here. With the lessons of football and sons – and the comfort of an old pair of shoes – filled with memories of Coach and Me.
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