Through The Lens: The Team Of Iron Men
Last Friday evening, I met with Coach Zach Heasley in the Paden City field house. Under normal circumstances the locker room would have been filled with players preparing for that evening’s scheduled opponent, Bridgeport. You may remember, last year the two schools played each other, Paden City was the victor. That was Coach Heasley’s first high school win as head coach. But this evening there was to be no game to try and repeat that victory.
Later he showed me that game ball on his desk. I could tell he was proud of the ball, but he was more proud of the team that made it possible. I wanted to know more about Coach Heasley, so I asked how he became head coach at his high school. He explained that in his senior year at West Liberty, he learned the coaching position at Paden City was open. Heasley talked with his family and friends before making the decision to toss his hat into the ring. He soon was awarded the job.
Even though he still had not finished his senior year, he began shuttling back and forth from West Liberty to Paden City. He wanted to waste no time building a football program. He told me he had learned many things about the game and how to prepare a team since leaving Paden City after his graduation. He was eager to return and put some of those ideas in place building a team for the 2019 season.
Coach Heasley, upon graduating West Liberty, secured a teaching position at Tyler Consolidated. That allowed him to teach during the day and coach after school. For him, he had come home to the school and the community he grew up in and loved. He also went on to explain as a first year head coach building a team would not have been possible without the help of his coaching staff. Coach Rob Price is the team’s defensive and offensive coordinator. Price understands what it takes to develop strategy to play both sides of the line. But also as important, he knows how to teach it to the players. And when you have a small team to work with, it takes some doing to instill duel offense and defensive mind set into players. In addition to his coaching position, Price is the school’s athletic director. In fact, Heasley went on to explain, “About everything you can name at Paden City, he is working on.”
Next, he told me about Coach Ron Casto. Heasley explained that next year will be Casto’s 30th year coaching Paden City teams. Then he chuckled a bit as he explained, Coach Casto had been working with teams and players even before he was born. He also made it very clear that Casto’s three decades of knowledge is an irreplaceable asset to the team.
Coach Josh Fulks is the running back coach. Heasley explained it is a difficult task to build a running back from scratch. He talked about lost time over the summer months when coaches try and give players ideas on the fundamentals for different positions. Running back is one of those key positions where fundamentals are important. Those skills are hard to teach especially when covid protocols are in place. Coach Fulks has worked with several different players developing running skills. His efforts were evident in this years’ two games.
As Coach Heasley finished talking about his staff, he emphasized one more thing, being mentors to the young men. Teaching them some of life’s lessons along the way. Then I asked Coach Heasley if he had learned anything from his team and staff this season. He responded with a resounding, “Absolutely”. He explained last week when they told the team that Friday night’s game would be the seasons last, he wondered how they would take the news? Would it affect their attitude? Heasley went on to say, that evenings practice had to be one of the best sessions this season. He again stressed that the boys in both practice and in their two games have put everything they had into being a full team of eleven. A true Paden City Football team wanting to hold up a long tradition for the school, their community and each other. He may have stated it best when he said, “We’re family”. Coach Heasley shows me a maturity not achieved by some coaches for several seasons.
We talked for nearly an hour of many things. Throughout our conversation he spoke often of the community’s support. Those references led me to ask how the community received the announcement that the season was coming to an end. He told me there were decorations put up around town for last Friday night’s game. People on social media has dubbed them, “The Iron Men.” Others have taken to calling them, “The Team of Eleven.” Last Friday night’s game was senior night. The final chance this season to honor those final year players. I believe in fifty years when the Class of 2021 get together, they will still be referred to as, “The Team of Eleven Iron Men.” Coach Heasley did point out there is a twelve member of team, but that individual has been unable to play since preseason.
Finally, I asked him a question that gave him pause. “Will there be a 2021 Wildcat football team?” After a time he explained it was not up to him. He told me they have eight guys that plan on coming back next year. He also explained that he and his staff are going to work hard to recruit players, which includes bringing parents and students in for a visit to understand their complete program. He went on to explain that team decision will be made after the Thanksgiving break. By then, next year’s schedule will need to be finalized. If more players have not stepped up, it would be unfair for other teams to have Paden City on their schedule. Once schedules are set, it is difficult to find another game to replace a team that cannot play.
Coach Heasley paused his conversation for a moment. Then he went on to explain that he understands a young person has a lot of decisions to make in their life. But, he also believes football is more than just about the game, it is about being part of a team, keeping your grades up, so you can be part of that team. It gives you something to carry with you into life. That since of pride Coach Heasley still carries with him every day.
When we finished our talk we were both leaving the locker room. I then asked Coach Heasley if I could remain for a few minutes. I stood looking at two long rows of empty lockers. There must be near fifty in all. I also knew at one time each locker held the equipment of a Paden City player. On this evening only lockers are marked with the names of this season’s team members. Along the top of those lockers sitting in a neat row are players shoulder pads. They now will gather dust until next year. And hanging in each of those lockers, a helmet. Polished and waiting to once again be used next season by a Wildcat player.
I do not know if beyond the city limits of Paden City, if history will remember this group of players and coaches. But, in the long tradition of Paden City football, the community and players will remember this team with pride. For me, I will always remember this team showed up and did not give up. No matter how difficult the circumstances. That is all anyone can ask of a team. Since 1950, Paden City has proudly supported their teams. And those teams have never let the community down. The 2020 Wildcat football team has stood tall and not broken that long tradition, as I see it Through the Lens.