The setting sun hits the orange Art Deco bricks, and the glow makes Rogers High School look like it’s on fire. In the adjacent field, the school’s football coach takes over a lackluster practice from his assistants, displaying energy he hasn’t had for days.
Head coach Matt Miethe missed practice two days earlier, hooked up to an IV full of antibiotics at his home, hoping to avoid his 20th hospitalization in nearly as many years from the effects of an ailment that goes dormant but never fully leaves his system. It originates from his senior year at Rogers, when he was gouged in the leg in a game and a piece of Joe Albi Stadium’s artificial turf lodged under his skin, only to be revealed two years later in surgery.
Now, with his leg pink and still swollen after the infection’s reappearance, he demands more intensity from his team.
“We’ve got to make it hurt! Normal is comfortable,” he yells at the team on the practice field. “We don’t want normal! I’m tired of normal!”
It is August. The Rogers team has yet to play its first game of the 2013 season, Miethe’s seventh as head coach.
In an August meeting he tells his team that he loves his summers – when he finally can spend quality time with his kids and wife – but he’s invigorated by the start of football season.
He believes his most important mission is to make his players better prepared for the world. His program is built around love, and coaches frequently tell players they love them.
But Miethe is not content with losing.
And that is why he doesn’t want normal. The team hasn’t had a winning season since he was on it, as a senior in 1994. It hasn’t had more than two wins in a season in more than a decade.
Every year on Oct. 17, the anniversary of “the game” – when Rogers beat Gonzaga Prep in 1994 – he gets messages from his Pirate teammates. These days they are via text, sometimes only “14-7,” the final score. It is the kind of memory he wants players on this team to have, too.
Whatever disadvantages Rogers has, Miethe believes they can be overcome with hard work and getting kids into football earlier.
Miethe attended Whitworth University on an academic scholarship and continued playing football. He is the color commentator for Whitworth football’s Saturday radio broadcasts. It is a welcome diversion after his team has suffered a tough loss the night before.
Miethe married his high school sweetheart, Debbie. She makes winter hats resembling footballs that are awarded to the players of the week, the Tuesday after each game. They have three sons, the oldest in junior high. They roam the sidelines during Rogers games, mingle with players and may one day play for the Pirates.
In the last off-season, Miethe shuffled the staff and brought in two younger assistants: Nick Fross, who owns a day care center with his wife in north Spokane, and Tony Moser, a first-year behavior-intervention teacher at Rogers. He promoted another Rogers teacher, Ben Cochran, to the defensive coordinator position.
The changes brought new energy to the team. Cochran often chided players in Monday film sessions for not being loud enough on the sidelines while he’s practically “giving birth,” he said, trying to spread excitement to the team.
Miethe, who teaches physical education at Rogers, also determined that coaches had to cut down on swearing. This season, if a cuss word was uttered by a coach, it usually was directed at the other team, as in “let’s go kick their ass.”
Sometimes, when Miethe is angered when his team botches a play – giving up a touchdown, tossing an interception, the offensive line stepping right when it was supposed to step left – he will yell, “Gosh darn it!” and occasionally, “You’re better than that!”
But the spirit from coaches on the sideline is usually upbeat. And unless there’s a lesson to be learned, the response to a mistake is more likely to be to move on, imploring his team to make the next play.
He will tell them to make an interception.
“Why not, boys!”
His voice is booming and sometimes echoes within Joe Albi Stadium.
Just before the season began, Miethe gave his players a homework assignment: Imagine your deaths at age 99 and write your obituary. What do you want to accomplish in your life?
Then he talked about what would appear in his. It would mention that he is ESPN Sports Center fanatic. It would stress his devotion to Rogers, his love for his wife and kids and, above all else, his commitment to Christ.
In past years, he’s offered the team chapel or prayer time, usually before or after a practice. This year, chapel time was moved to before games. It was led by assistant coach Andrew Durant, and Miethe did not attend, in part, he said, because he didn’t want players to feel compelled to go.
Miethe grew up poor in Hillyard, the part affectionately known by some as Dogtown. He shares his story readily with players and students. The openness helps some of the players realize they, too, can make it to college. It also leads to interesting anecdotes.
Growing up, his family sometimes got its food from food banks, including nonhydrogenated peanut butter considered “natural” today.
No food disgusts him more.
“I hated having to stir my peanut butter,” Miethe tells the team in a meeting in the wrestling room at one early practice. “I don’t want more than a peanut butter sandwich, but I want good peanut butter.”
When the season began, Miethe thought the strong connection among the seniors could lead to some surprise wins. In the locker room, after the season ended winless, in a message aimed at those who will back next year, he told the players that “all the heart in the world” wasn’t enough. They must get stronger. They must work harder.