Michelle Spires didn’t purposely set out to raise four collegiate athletes, three of whom would attend the Air Force Academy while the other would quarterback Alabama to a national football title.
Spires simply created a home environment that treated “idle” like a four-letter word. The rest took care of itself.
“It’s all about books and balls,” Spires said. “That’s all they’ve ever known. Anything they could do to develop their mind and muscles and make them want to compete and excel, we did.”
The kids each graduated from diapers to gymnastics. They learned to read well before heading off to school. And they were taught to ride bikes, skate, swim and, most emphatically, compete.
“She was always like, you’re going to find what you’re good at,” said Shelley Spires, whose jump of 6 feet, 1.75 inches Saturday improved her Air Force record and stands as the fifth-best in the nation this year. “If you’re not good at it, let’s find something else. Let’s find the sport that you like, and if it’s not sports then it will be something else. She’s never pushed us toward something specific, it was just whatever we would excel at.”
There were also chores on the family’s 1,700-acre ranch that includes a 900-acre enclosure that houses a herd of deer bred by the Spires family who then sells guided hunts on the property. The kids were expected to do everything from bottle feed young sicklings, monitor food intake for the herd and hunt to help manage the herd’s numbers.
“They work. Everybody pitches in,” Michelle Spires said. “There are no free rides around here. You come through the door and you’re liable to get any one of a few jobs.”
The energy of Michelle and Dr. Jim Spires’ home reflects the family’s matriarch – a former NICU nurse who later returned to school to earn a master’s degree in fitness and sports medicine.
“She is a very high-energy, positive, enthusiastic lady,” said Air Force assistant basketball coach Andy Moore, who led the recruiting effort on Spires’ youngest son, 6-foot-8 Peyton, who will report for basic training this summer. “She’s always got a smile on her face.”
“She’s driven,” added Falcons track coach Ralph Lindeman. “She’s driven.”
And as a result, many college coaches have driven to their family home in Mobile, Ala.
From an early age, Patrick Brown chose planes and helicopters as his preferred toys.
That never changed.
So when Fisher DeBerry came through, he found the Air Force Academy to be an easy sell for Brown, Spires’ oldest son from her first marriage. Brown always wanted to be a fighter pilot, so it was a happy coincidence that DeBerry also wanted him as a free safety.
Brown played just one year at the academy, opting to drop football and limit the obstacles – particularly in the form of injuries – that could keep him from a pilot training spot. He graduated in 2010 and continues to fly A-10s in a career that has included two deployments to the Middle East.
The next son was Jake Coker, from Spires’ second marriage. Spires jokes that Jake is “the black sheep of the family because he didn’t go to the Air Force Academy.”
But, she adds, he did OK for himself.
Coker attended Florida State on a football scholarship, graduating in three years. He then transferred to Alabama and threw for more than 3,000 yards as a senior, leading the team to a national championship in the 2015 season.
He earned a master’s degree at Alabama in the process.
“It was more stressful than I ever thought it would be,” Spires said of watching her son take over as the Crimson Tide quarterback. “It really was. You’ve got to know, this is football country here. This is Alabama. We are covered up with Alabama and Auburn. It’s a tremendous amount of pressure on a youngster.
“I’m glad it’s over. I’m glad he won that national championship, and I’m glad it’s over. My heart got a workout. I thought sometimes my heart was going to beat out of my chest, and I thought my lungs were going to explode from screaming.”
Shelley Spires came to Air Force after a team recruiting effort by Lindeman and then-volleyball coach Matt McShane. She played both sports for two years before narrowing that to just track this year as a junior. She has since added more than three inches to her top jump and could challenge for a national title either this or next season.
“That would be spectacular,” her mother said. “She’s definitely capable. Absolutely. I would never sell her short. I would love to have a national championship high jumper. All her brothers think she’s going to do it. We all do.”
Peyton Spires committed to Air Force early in his senior year. Michelle and Jim have already purchased a house in Colorado Springs that Peyton and Shelley will be able to frequent.
“We’ve kept a little apartment, but Peyton’s too big to fit in there,” Michelle said. “And I love Colorado Springs. We’re down here in 100 degrees and 100 percent humidity all the time. I do love it there, especially in the summer.”
Shelley Spires said the family dynamic in the household wasn’t particularly complicated for the four kids.
“My dad’s super close to my two brothers who have different dads as well,” Spires said. “We’ve always lived together.”
In the nature vs. nurture discussion, it is clear Spires has consciously cultivated the environment to influence her overachieving children. But genetics certainly played a role, too.
Shelley’s father, 86-year-old Jules Mugnier, was courted by the New York Yankees and Boston Celtics before serving in the Korean War. He later played semipro basketball and excelled in tennis (earning a No. 9 national ranking in doubles), golf and fast-pitch softball.
Mugnier’s 17 grandchildren between them have 18 state championships, by his count.
Michelle Spires was a track standout and played tennis in college. She said she remains active in the tennis community and is a regular in triathlons and other activities. Her education speaks to her motivation as a student, and her husband is an ear, nose and throat surgeon who specializes in cancer and cancer reconstruction.
So, the four kids were dealt from a stacked deck of genetics and resources.
Michelle Spires has made it her mission to make sure those cards were played correctly, and has tried to align her children with others who would do the same.
“She said, ‘Just let me tell you this. I’ve had my kid recruited by Nick Saban, Jimbo Fisher,’ she rattled off a bunch of head coaches,” said Moore, recalling a visit to the Spires home as Air Force recruited Peyton. “She said, ‘All I ask is that you tell me the truth.’”
“My mom’s awesome,” Shelley Spires said. “She’s definitely my role model.”
After 30 years of raising children, Spires knows this is her last Mothers’ Day with a kid at home.
“It’s kind of weird, and it’s going to be different,” she said. “It’s going to be hard, but I’m ready. I’m ready to come out to Colorado and watch basketball, watch track. Watch them continue to grow and get smarter.”
As long as they are “doing,” it sounds like this mom will be quite satisfied.