Behind the Lines

We first met in August 1974. He was the newly hired assistant football coach and I was entering my senior year at Wind River High School.

My friend and fellow senior Pat Wilson knew he would be our line coach so we decided to introduce ourselves.

“Hi coach, we’re your senior linemen,” we said.

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“Get back in line you suck ups, wait your turn,” Bert Oakley said.  It was the beginning of a long friendship, one that lasted almost a half-century. He passed away earlier this week.

Coach Oakley arrived after serving in the United States Navy, as his tattooed forearms testified. He was gruff, sarcastic and a great guy for teenagers to be around.

He’d played football at Chadron State College as an offensive lineman with my friend Gary Glenn, and another guy I worked with later at Riverton, Gary Peters. I can only imagine the fun these guys had playing for the Eagles. They were a lot of fun later on when I was coaching and teaching.

Coach Oakley was always on us with little and not-so-little insults, challenging our toughness, making constant comments, and giving way more stick than carrot to the kids he coached.

He came up with some inventive drills to toughen us up. One afternoon after team practice we broke into individual groups, there on the ground was a length of nylon strap with a couple of shoulder harnesses tied to each end.

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“Tucker, Wilson, hook up that strap and get over here,” Coach Oakley said.

We dutifully lined up and waited to see what he had in mind. He put a football on the ground between us as we stretched the strap tight.

“Get low, and drag the other guy,” he said. “The loser gets pulled across the ball.”

We waited for the whistle, then started crabbing on all fours away from each other. The less than titanic battle lasted just a couple of seconds when Pat’s harness broke. It sent us both flying in opposite directions, and Coach Oakley flew into a rage. The drill ended quickly with a set of five hills.

The hill behind the old Wind River High School at Morton was a training facility and a place of punishment. It was both that afternoon as we sprinted up the steep slopes to the sound of his whistle.

A few nights later, he came out with some 30-inch dowels cut from a broom handle. “Stick fighting” was the order of the day. “Anything goes,” coach said.

I lined up the first time with a fellow senior. The goal was to take the stick away from the other guy or get him in a submission hold. Fair enough.

The whistle sounded and I feigned a kick to the other guy’s groin. He leaned forward and flinched, just enough for me to get the stick around behind him and under his helmet in a choke move. My reward for winning the bout was to line up with our best football player, our running back Wally Westling.

It was a no-win scenario for me since Wally was built like a hydraulic jack with 4.5 40-yard dash speed.

The whistle sounded and I went limp, holding onto the stick as hard as I could but not fighting back. Wally threw me one way, then the other, but I didn’t let go. After about a minute, Coach Oakley was disgusted and ended the drill. He had another idea in mind for me.

“You think you’re smart don’t you Tucker,” he growled. “Line up.”

I went into my stance as he turned his cap around backward and slid his whistle inside his t-shirt. I knew what was coming, he was about to drive me into the ground with a pancake block.

Instead of getting hammered as usual, I drove off the snap hard and hit him with the top of my helmet. It split his lip, and blood poured out. Fearing the worst I was amazed as were the rest of the linemen when he head slapped me and said, “Great block, now you’re getting it.”

We were friends after that moment.

Life comes in cycles. A few years later, as I worked the Riverton 7th grade football team through drills south of the Wilford Mower Track a familiar voice came across the parking lot.

“That’s contraband, it belongs to Wind River High School, I’m going to report you.”

It was Coach Oakley watching practice, his son Dan was on the team, and I was wearing my old #72 Wind River jersey, a jersey that along with most of the seniors from 1975 had somehow fallen out of the trunk and into our possession.

I walked over to him after practice and he said, “I knew you little jerks all stole your jerseys, I would have been disappointed if you didn’t.”

A few years later my mom reported that Coach Oakley had been given early retirement after a few parents complained that he was too tough on their little boys.

“What did he do?” I asked.

“He called them names, and made them work too hard at practice according to their parents,” mom said.

“Names? That would have been awesome if that’s all he did to us,” I said.

“It didn’t bother you guys because you weren’t wimps and just laughed it off,” mom said. “These kids were and it hurt their feelings.”

I know I’m not alone in appreciating Bert Oakley’s efforts as a teacher and coach, he made a difference in the lives of many of those isolated farm and ranch kids that Wind River is so great at reaching.

Not all life lessons come easy. Despite the touchy-feely rhetoric, toughness remains important in the world, and that’s one of the great lessons that Bert Oakley delivered to his students and athletes.

Thanks for the effort coach.

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