When Tyler Veros, Kevin Chaparro, and Colby McCarley found out that someone had stepped up to be their football coach and save the season at Miami-Yoder High School, they were relieved - and quite surprised by who it was.
"He had a lot on his plate already. But he came on short notice. It's good he is doing this for us," McCarley said. "He's tough. A good tough. He pushes us better than past coaches."
"He's right for the job. He's making football exciting," chimed in Chaparro.
Veros, the quarterback added, "he's big on weak spots and only yells to make us good football players."
The coach in question is Rick Walter, who just happens to also be superintendent of the Miami-Yoder School District60-JT. The district has 315 students and a budget of about $2.9 million.
Walter, who has led this rural school district 40 miles east of Colorado Springs for eight years, has taken on the duties of varsity football coach and athletic director. After a full day of administrative work, the 54-year-old educator was at afternoon practice sweating along with the team members, showing them how to make some strategic blocks.
The plight of Miami-Yoder is one that many of Colorado's small rural schools face - trying to entice and keep staff when salaries are less than those paid by large urban districts. It doesn't help the employment picture that the schools are set down on wind blown prairies far from conveniences or housing.
Superintendents and staff who find rural schools attractive have to be able to do it all.
For the eight hours before football practice, Walter worked on the usual passel of administrative duties - complicated by new state mandates - signing purchase orders, reviewing the academic improvement plan and budget, trying to alleviate a laptop shortage crisis and addressing a student disciplinary problem.
He has at one time or another driven one of the school buses, repaired whatever broke, substituted in the classroom, and supervised 300 kids overnight when a blizzard white-out kept the buses off the two-lane roads at the end of one school day. In one rural district where he worked he was the lawn guy, too, on occasion mowing the ball field.
"We don't have assistant superintendents for this and that," he explained. "A rural superintendent has to take care of anything that walks through the door."
That includes taking over when someone walks out the door, too.
Walter recently enlisted Jodi Veros, business accounts manager, and Sharon Webb, principal, to help with the athletic department's amazing amount of detail: crowd control, having the right towels and footballs ready, deciding which restroom visiting game officials should use, checking the flag pole for mechanical problems, and even deciding which recorded version of the national anthem to play.
Taking it all on
School Board President Jim Day wasn't surprised that Walter could handle all this and more.
"If it wasn't for him going up to Denver a bunch of times we wouldn't have this new school," said Day, a cattle rancher who has been a board member for eight years.
He explained that Walter guided the district through complicated red tape to get an $18 million state BEST grant (Building Excellent Schools Today), which provides capital construction money to replace crumbling and unsafe schools. The $22 million school was paid for by the grant along with a $2 million bond and an old capital construction grant.
The 71,000-square-foot building that opened last fall houses kindergarten through 12th grade. It is a proud accomplishment for the historic school district founded in 1908 and which still has more horses and cattle than people or businesses. The small tax base precludes rural districts from being able to finance such major financial projects on their own.
"I'm glad he stepped up to be coach," Day said. "If he hadn't volunteered we would not have been able to have a sports program this year. I respect him for that."
Walter is matter of fact about it. "Who else was going to do it? Everyone here is working more than full speed. It's easier to do it than to train someone."
Joe Gorman, the high school English teacher, is serving as assistant coach.
Walter has coached sports, mostly baseball, at rural schools in New Mexico and Colorado. Last year at Miami-Yoder, he served as the football game announcer, and during baseball season, substituted as an official behind home plate.
He grew up in Randle, Wash., a rural valley that cuts through the wooded Cascades, where many in the area were, like his father, sawmill workers. Walter played football, basketball and baseball. "I wasn't very athletic but I could get by using my brain."
Even now, he teaches his Miami-Yoder players that "footballIQ" can conquer brute force.
He received a teaching degree in social studies at Central Washington University, served in the U.S. Army, Army Reserves and Washington National Guard.
Two of his high school mentors inspired him to become a teacher. His biology teacher presented science so it was exciting. "My social studies teacher was very professional in the classroom. And he drove a cool Corvette," Walter laughed.
Walter has been an educator for 25 years. He worked in Dexter, N.M., for 10 years, and then in Colorado, including Crowley County School District RE-1J in Ordway, and Arickaree R-2 in Anton.
He lives in Widefield with his wife Lorraine, a special education teacher in Widefield School District 3. They have three grown kids, one who is a school counselor in Denver.
He commutes 55 miles to Miami-Yoder, leaving the house after caring for his two huskies and 16-year-old poodle, and arriving at school around 7 a.m.
Football practice is over by 6:30 p.m. He gets home by 8 p.m, and unwinds by watching "whatever we have on Tivo." He likes NCIS, a TV police drama, and sports, especially when his favorite team, the Pittsburgh Steelers, is playing.
Plenty of needs
About 70 percent of the students in Miami-Yoder are from low-income families. The district covers 500 square miles and there is no room in the $2.8 million budget to transport kids who stay late for school activities. There can be other concerns. "Sometimes when a kid is dragging and I have to ask, "Did you eat today? And out comes the snacks."
Walter, who is chairman of Pikes Peak BOCES superintendent's group and on a board committee of the Colorado Association School Superintendents, would like to see more concern for rural schools. For example, the state assessment tests are now going to be taken on computer. "If the kids use iPads, then they are going to need external keyboards and headphones. That has to come from our budgets.
"There's a lot of legislation where we aren't considered in the mix."
What rural districts need is more of a voice, he says.
Out on the field, he teaches his kids to have a voice in their lives.
"It is more than a game. I work them hard and encourage them to bond. I tell them 'suck it up when life hits you in the face. You can't quit, you have to persevere.'"
But two days before the Buffaloes' first game, one player stopped by practice to tell Walter he is quitting because he doesn't like the game. Losing a player is a big deal, not only because Walter believes it builds character, but also because they have only 15 players to field for the 8-man squad.
Practice lasts 21/2 hours, and Walter is relentless:
"Come on, it looks like you are doing the two step."
"Get under him, don't let him have it."
"Quit being timid."
"It's not difficult, son."
"There you go. Good job."
On game day, 11 Buffaloes are suited up.
Their opponent for the first game of the season are the Gilpin County Eagles. They are both in the Black Forest League. Gilpin has 373 students, and 15 of them are ready to play and look physically bigger that the Buffaloes.
Some Miami-Yoder pep band members arrive late. Like the administration, they too, wear many hats.
"We got up at 6:30, went to Hugo (54 miles to the northeast) to play volleyball, and just got back here in time," explained Markayla Phillips,14.
She says everyone has been talking about the superintendent taking over the football team, which in the past has had long losing streaks. "We are glad he did. I see him all over the place and he knows every person's name."
The bleachers aren't anywhere near full, but those that are there are enthusiastic.
"It's hard to get people to come out," said Kim Clements, a school board member. "We're working on that."
Many residents spend hours in their cars commuting to jobs in the Springs and on weekends don't have the time, energy or at times even the gasoline to drive sometimes hundreds of miles round trip for a game.
Morgan Toumbs, mother of Alex Toumbs, the Buffaloes kicker, says: "The superintendent works them hard. They are playing with much more confidence than last year. We are excited to see what happens."
"Go, go Big Blue!" the cheerleaders chant as Alex Toumbs runs 67 yards on a catch to make it first and goal. It takes several attempts to get over the goal line.
The half ends with the Buffaloes trailing the Eagles by two points.
Back on the field, quarterback Tyler Veros is hit after he releases the ball and was knocked unconscious for more than a minute. He was taken to a hospital in Colorado Springs.
As he leaves on the stretcher, he gives a thumbs up.
His mother reports later that it was a concussion, but that he should be playing again in a couple of weeks.
But the accident seems to have taken the steam out of Miami-Yoder. They also are tiring because there are no substitutes to give players breathers.
Walter paces the field, yelling encouragement, and complaining to officials about a couple of calls. Miami-Yoder lost the game by 12 points.
The coach of the Eagles, Eric Goodlett, hurrying to get his players on the bus for the 55 mile trip home to Black Hawk, says, "It was a good game. They tackled hard."
Walter gathers his players for a private postgame session.
Later, he says, "We played pretty well. We made mistakes because our experience level is still low. And we ran out of players. Every kid played 98 percent of the plays. There was no time to rest. We're going to have to increase our conditioning."
He adds, "Its early. I'm getting used to them. They are getting used to me."
He gives a big grin. 'It's a kick to be out here."
And he adds, "If I wanted it easier I'd hang out in the central office of some big district somewhere," he says. "We might not have a town out here, but the school has an identity. It's the community center. And the community is my family."
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