THis is a story about my Old HS football coach, Hes not winning them the way he used to, but none the less an inspirational story.
high school sports
Friedli, 71, already ready for next year
Opinion by Greg Hansen
Tucson, Arizona | Published: 11.21.2007
advertisementThanksgiving, right? Happy news only. This year’s happy news: Vern Friedli is going to a golf tournament Saturday.
As recently as a week ago, this did not seem possible.
A week ago, Friedli was lying in a hospital bed, floored by surgery for a spinal cord problem that was far worse than an 0-10 football season. The seemingly indestructible 71-year-old Hall of Fame coach was in such pain that he was uncertain he would be able to finish his 31st season at Amphitheater High School.
"It crossed my mind a couple of times,’’ he said, a rare admission from the original Mr. Tough Guy. "My main concern was not to be ineffective. Just hanging around is no good.’’
His wife, Sharon, was not always sure he would be able to stand without assistance ï¿½?? on the sideline or anywhere else.
Somehow, Friedli endured a choppy 3-7 football season in which the Panthers closed with a flourish, winning two of three. He now has 303 career victories, but many of us stopped counting years ago. His value at enrollment-challenged Amphi is not so much in games won as it is in young-lives-positively-influenced.
In a strange way, the last 15 months were perhaps the best of Vern Friedli at Amphi, a period in which his teams went 3-17. Looks like a typo, doesn’t it? It seems the reverse of a typical two-year Friedli record.
But if Friedli has taught his young football players one thing over a 40-year head coaching career, it is that character counts more than winning a football game.
Part of his character-building process is that you do not quit. So he did not.
Over a difficult 15-month term, Friedli visited the Mayo Clinic six times. The pain and discomfort in his stomach and digestive tract was at times unbearable. Six times specialists told him they could not find a problem. Six times he went home worried and in pain. Could he be dying?
Still, Friedli would report to the Panthers’ weight room day to day, diligently teaching what was left of his once-proud football program, one reduced in numbers so greatly that he was not sure if he would have even 30 varsity ballplayers week to week.
The pain and the mystery persisted, as did the losses. Sharon ultimately convinced him, for the first time in 30 years, to get away in June and visit Europe. They had not been able to get away since forever. For the first time since 1976, the Panthers could do their conditioning work without him.
"I didn’t feel real great in Europe,’’ he says now. "I’d like to do that over again.’’
When the Friedli’s returned from Europe, a gastroenterologist correctly diagnosed the coach’s problem: It was taking him about three times longer than a normal person to digest his food.
He jumped back into coaching his numbers-challenged team, although he still did not (and still does not) feel the best. Then, to compound things, he developed a new medical crisis. His nerves in his lower spinal cord began to ache. He had difficulty being steady on his feet and moving quickly.
Nine days ago, Friedli required a laminectomy, a process that creates more space for spinal nerves affecting the lower vertebrae.
He was out of the hospital in two days. He was back at the Amphi weight room, back at school Monday. His doctor does not yet allow him to drive, but he can teach.
"A day after he got home, he wanted to walk up a hill,’’ Sharon says. "I threatened to lock his shoes in the trunk of my car.’’
Friedli has already rebuilt his endurance so much that he can walk 40 minutes a day. Those who sensed he was ready to retire were way off.
"There’s no way I’m doing that,’’ he says. "I’m more excited about next year than ever. I wish we could start tomorrow.’’
But perhaps now Vern Friedli will sniff some flowers, instead of just the sweat in his football team’s workout facility. For the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary next month, Vern and Sharon Friedli will fly to South Carolina to spend the holidays with their daughter, Heidi. He will be a tourist, something he has almost never been. He will even go to a basketball game at Duke.
This is a very different off-season for the legendary coach. Basketball. Golf. Vacation. Doctors not invited.
On Saturday, many of his former Amphi football players and associates will stage an alumni golf outing at Heritage Highlands (information: 888-5593). Riki Ellison, a former USC and Super Bowl linebacker who played on Friedli’s juggernaut teams of the 1970s, will be there. So will Jon Volpe, a former 1,000-yard rusher at Stanford who was such a key part of Friedli’s playoff teams of the early 1980s.
"I’ll get to hug a few people and see a lot of old friends,’’ Friedli says. "It’ll be a feel-good day.’’
One that is long overdue.