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Sunday, February 17, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Last men standing

Before a team meeting in the wrestling room at Rogers High School, the players gathered for the official team picture. Coach Matt Miethe prefers to have the team photo shot at the end of the season so that the Pirates who are memorialized in the yearbook are the players who made it to the end.   The 2013 final team photo of the Rogers Pirates had 43 players. Here are some of them:

Marcus Phillips, the most recognizable kid on the team, with drooping, black, curly hair and braces, is one of several sophomore varsity starters who give the Pirates hope for the future.

As a member of last year’s freshman team, which had a winning record, he struggled in school and missed games because of failing grades. But with the help of his mom his grades improved. His dream is to play for the University of Southern California, near where he visits his paternal grandparents twice a year.

Before each game, Phillips closed his eyes and thought of his father, Trevor Phillips, who died of a heart attack when Marcus was in the fourth grade. The ritual was not so much a prayer, he said, as a simple tribute to the man who encouraged him to play football and who attended every practice and game.

Sometimes, in this moment, he took himself back to his first football season in grade school. As he was running for his first touchdown, Phillips turned his head and saw his father running with him along the sideline.

Mads Tranberg, the Danish foreign exchange student who made the team’s first field goal in three years. He missed his first three attempts, made his last three attempts and tied with three others for most field goals in the Greater Spokane League despite touching an American football for the first time just two weeks before his first game.

Jessie Hegar, one of the few juniors on the team.

After a winless freshman season, nearly all the players in his class abandoned the team. Hegar stuck it out.

“I love Rogers,” he said. “I love this team. I love the coaches. I like the teachers. I wouldn’t change it for anything, winning record or not.”

This school year, however, has been a struggle. School had always been easy for him, but his grades fell. In one practice, coaches ordered him to “go flush it” four times, a ritual where players who need a change of attitude slam shut a toilet seat hung from a goal post.

But Hegar struggled to flush it away. A game after making an interception that earned him team-player-of-the-game honors, he was pulled from the lineup because he couldn’t focus. 

Not long after, Miethe discovered that Hegar was doing his homework by flashlight. The power had been shut off at his home. Miethe offered to let Hegar stay with his family, so he lived with the coach for two weeks until power was restored at his father’s home.

Rogers Principal Lori Wyborney said Hegar’s determination, even attempting to do his Advanced Placement physics, English and history homework by flashlight, shows a tenacity she sees in many students.

“When I see kids taking these kinds of classes and doing homework by flashlight, there’s a resiliency there,” she said. “I know this kid will be successful.”

Cody Risinger, the senior captain who wants to be a game warden.

Risinger spends most of his fall and winter weekends hunting deer, elk, pheasant or duck with his dad. His mother has attended every game since he started playing football in grade school, until this year; surgery kept her from a game.

Assistant coach David Casteal said what’s impressive about Risinger is he plays the whole game in two of the most exhausting positions, center on offense and middle linebacker on defense.

He didn’t play center until this season. Coaches came to him in the off-season and said they needed him. There was no one else.

Dalton Waggy, who worked his way back from near-death his sophomore year.

It started when he was kneed in the groin during a junior varsity game. It seemed like no big deal. He kept playing. But in the days after, he began vomiting. In a daze, one night at home he tripped and broke his foot. A doctor sent him to Valley Hospital, which sent him to Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.  

He went into cardiac arrest five times and was in intensive care for 11 days. Doctors determined that a deadly infection already in his body entered his bloodstream, probably when he was kneed. He missed three months of school.

He worked his way back. He caught up on his classes and this season was a captain and with Risinger was one of the team’s first two “black shirts” – awarded to the most aggressive defensive players.

“I never get an excuse out of him,” assistant coach Roger Craver said. “His motor’s always going.”

Jacob Meusy, the captain no one thought would be a captain.

Meusy earned a reputation in previous years for not giving his best effort and for poor grades. But coaches saw him changing and liked the way he treated his teammates, so he was named a captain.

Early on it became clear that he was the vocal, emotional leader of the team. He had been a Pirate longer than any other, starting as a ball boy when his older brother was on the team. Meusy was the player most likely to come to the aid of a struggling teammate.

He came home from a game this season and discovered that he and his mother were being evicted because their landlord was losing the property. They moved in with his sister. The Monday after, he was back on the sidelines, counseling players at the JV game.

Bonnie Fissette, the team’s first girl. She didn’t play in any varsity games or get much playing time on the JV squad, and her teammates didn’t at first like the idea of having a girl on the team. But they came to respect her effort. After she tackled Khalil Winfrey, a starting varsity wide receiver, in practice, he made sure she was praised in front of the whole team when practice ended. Whenever Meusy heard a classmate make light of her for being on the team, his response was simple: “While you’re talking crap, a girl’s playing and you’re not.”

Dom Sanders, the two-year starting quarterback who excels in school.

Sanders’ dad, Ronald Sanders, played football at the University of Minnesota. But he dropped out after struggles in the classroom.

Three decades later, his son Dom said his father has made it clear: Get good grades, go to college, make a better living. Earn enough to take vacations.

“He’s seen how hard I’ve had to work to support the family,” said Ronald Sanders, who works in the construction industry. “It makes him motivated to study.”

Academically, Dom Sanders is ranked 22nd out of 312 students. He says his football career is likely over, but he hopes to study engineering at Washington State University.

James Welty, the quiet, dependable running back, linebacker and punter, who rarely shows emotion, though he occasionally smiles enough to reveal his braces.

He started at Rogers with test scores well below those of his classmates. He will finish Rogers in the top 20 percent of his class.

After his parents’ chaotic and violent divorce when he was in elementary school, Welty lived with his father in California. After a brief period of homelessness, living in his dad’s truck, he opted to move back with his mother. She calls him her moral center, her rock, her protector.

The youngest of five kids, he will be the first in the family to graduate from high school on time. On the wall of his home is a quilt made by his girlfriend in honor of their two-year anniversary together.

He starts school each day at 6 a.m. with the school’s Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps program. He wants to be a K-9 police officer.

Standing in front of the team before the last game, Welty said football coaches and players brought him closer to God.

“They put Jesus Christ into my soul, and I accepted it,” he said.

Elijah Rodriguez was homeless, living at churches with his mom during his freshman year.

He doesn’t know his father. When his mother lost custody last year, he came to the conclusion that all he had left was his German shepherd, Bobi. 

“He was the one I cried to, basically,” Rodriguez said.

One day this fall, he almost lost Bobi, too.

Rodriguez has lived with teammate J.J. Barnett and Barnett’s mom, Jen Reed, since the start of summer.

The day before the game when seniors were honored on the field, Barnett’s dog tunneled under a fence and both dogs bolted. After they got a call from Reed, Rodriguez and Barnett rushed home, skipping practice. The dogs were found late that night in a Home Depot store.

Coaches were unmoved. Because the two had missed practice, they couldn’t play on senior night, though they would be recognized with their teammates.

The two players accepted the decision.

Typically on senior night, parents greet players as they take the field, but there was no one to greet Rodriguez when his name was called. Other parents rushed over. He paused for an uncomfortable portrait.

Rodriguez didn’t join the team until this season. He couldn’t afford to go to the team’s football camp at Whitworth University, but he became a starter on defense.

“There are some kids I do question where these guys are going to be in five years, but with Elijah, I have no doubt,” said Craver, the assistant coach. “He’s going to make something of himself.”

A lot has changed since the turmoil of his junior year. He calls Barnett his brother. He is a part of a team.

When Rodriguez, who plans to join the Marines before going to college, stood in front of the team before his last game, he thanked his teammates for all they had done for him.

“I learned what family was,” he told them. “I love each and every one of you guys.”

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