Sports Illustrated will announce its choice for Sportsman of the Year on Nov. 29. Here's one of the nominations for that honor by an SI writer.
Want to gauge the quality of a high school football coach? Don't look at the win-loss column. Ask a parent.
Fred Wintrich's son, Josh McWherter, played linebacker for Coach Shawn Berner at Fort Campbell (Ky.) High. While at Fort Campbell to write a story about the school's incredible football program, Wintrich and I sat in the school's cafeteria. He explained how much Berner meant to his family. "Shawn Berner and my wife raised my kid for two of his four years of high school," Wintrich said. "Shawn helped guide my son through a critical phase of his young adulthood." Lt. Col. Wintrich, now Fort Campbell's executive officer, spent those two years stationed at Camp Victory in Iraq. When his son recovered a fumble that helped seal the Falcons' Class 2A state title in 2007, Wintrich cheered from Baghdad.
This past season, when Chance "Mudbug" Von Dette played linebacker for the Falcons, his father, Sgt. Robert Von Dette, listened to games at 4 a.m. local time via an Internet broadcast, while sitting in a two-man container in Camp Cole in central Afghanistan. "The coaching staff is more than a coaching staff," Von Dette wrote in an e-mail. "They are my extended family. At times, their job is harder than mine."
Berner's job certainly is tougher than that of the average high school coach. Almost every one of his players has a parent either stationed in a war zone or preparing to deploy to one. Berner and his assistants -- three of whom attended Fort Campbell when their fathers served in the Army -- must fill a void while a player's father or mother faces danger on the other side of the world. Inevitably, the war hits home. In 2008, the Falcons had to rally behind linebacker Josh Carter, who lost his father, Chief Warrant Officer James Carter, when the helicopter he was flying crashed in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Berner also must deal with on-field issues other coaches don't face. Because Fort Campbell High is only open to children of soldiers who live on the 106,700-acre installation along the Kentucky-Tennessee border, Berner's roster is subject to the whims of the Department of Defense. After that 2007 state title, Berner thought he'd have most of his team back. Seven starters' parents were reassigned in the offseason. The Falcons won the 2008 state title anyway. They won it again in 2009. Berner has heard the whispers from jealous peers that generals handpick soldiers whose sons can play just to stock his team. "They're worried about what's going on in Afghanistan and Iraq," he said. "They don't care about football." This past season is a prime example. After three consecutive state titles, Berner faced his toughest rebuilding job. The inexperienced Falcons went 5-7 and finished their season Friday with a 49-15 loss to Murray High in the second round of the Class 2A playoffs. It was Berner's first losing season in nine years as Fort Campbell's coach. Despite the struggles, it warmed Berner's heart when star receiver Tre Powell told his teammates he considered each of them brothers.
Given his job's degree of difficulty and his outsize success, Berner has had chances to move on from Fort Campbell. He could have coached a powerhouse large public school, or he could have joined a college staff and chased another dream. He has stayed at Fort Campbell because he believes he is doing something important -- building an extended family for the sons of soldiers who defend our country. That, not the three state titles, is why Berner is my nominee for Sportsman of the Year.
Assuming their parents don't get reassigned in the offseason, Berner will bring back 15 starters from this year's young team. The Falcons will move up to Class 3A next season. "Another new challenge," he said. Still, Berner has no doubt Fort Campbell will resume its winning ways in 2011. "These kids have so much fight in them," he said.
They get it honestly.
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