The glamorization of football and war lends to misguided metaphors.
Coaches are compared to generals and field marshals. Players are likened to hardened, battle-tested soldiers advancing through hostile territory.
Dale Martin’s untimely death revealed a softer truth. Sometimes football coaches are just modest men with big hearts that break, and players too easily lauded as young men are merely boys, teenagers asked to make sense of a world that increasingly does not.
Martin died April 10, nine days after he suffered a brain injury playing in a football game at Deer Park. Martin, who was an 18-year-old senior at Colville High School when his injury occurred, will be honored with the retirement of his No. 35 jersey on Friday when the Indians host Rogers in a season-opening game in Colville. Kickoff is slated for 7 p.m.
The game marks the Indians’ first since Colville canceled the remainder of its spring season after Martin died.
“It’s a little bit of a return to normalcy, which the kids have been craving for the past year with everything we’ve dealt with,” said Colville coach Greg Mace, noting the team had 46 players turn out this season, an increase over recent years. “This team is a super-fun team to be around. They’re really energetic, and there’s a lot of camaraderie. We’re just super excited to get on the football field and be competitive this season.”
Mace said the Indians are a senior-laden group, particularly on the offensive and defensive lines. A pair of seniors, left tackle Kris Nussbaum and left guard Justin Finley, anchor the team’s strong leadership core.
Mace said Martin’s presence at defensive end and running back will be missed as an example to the team’s younger players of how to practice and prepare.
“That’s one of the biggest compliments you can get,” Mace said. “Dale was the kind of kid who would always hold the door for you. He always had these slogans he would say – not like a team thing, it was like a Dale thing. He’d say, ‘I’m built different.’ And I remember a few years ago when Randy (Cornwell) was still coaching, and we were getting on (Martin) while watching film on the kickoff team, and he’s dancing in the kickoff line before the ball is snapped. He was just a fun-loving kid.”
Mace said the team now awards a “Built Different” T-shirt to the player who earns it at practice each week.
Previously an assistant for nine seasons, Mace took over for Cornwell, a fixture at Colville for 23 years, as head coach in February 2020. The coronavirus pandemic was spreading across the country by March. The fall football season was pushed back to the spring in 2021, so Mace didn’t coach his first game for 13 months following his ascension to the post.
Once on the field, the Indians didn’t make him wait long for his first victory. Colville routed Medical Lake 48-0 in his debut on March 6.
“Sam Anderson was our quarterback last year, and he was a senior and just had a monster game,” Mace said. “He set a school record for total yards in a game. If I recall, he rushed for 280 and threw for 327 and for five touchdowns. He had a big game.
“We were opening up a brand-new offense, and it was the first time everybody had seen it. It was a really fun game for us. It’s something I’ll always remember.”
Colville beat Freeman 36-35 on March 12, and the Indians came up just short in a 26-22 loss to Lakeside (Nine Mile Falls) on March 26. The game at Deer Park was standard-issue until it wasn’t. The home team won 22-6, a score that does not reveal anything out of the ordinary.
Lined up at defensive end in the third quarter, Martin pursued a power running play to the opposite side of the field and made a fundamentally sound “gator” tackle of the ball carrier’s legs, Mace said.
“He rolled over and popped right up,” Mace noted. “But that was when you could see him start to stumble and go down.”
Mace said Colville coaches pored over the tape “thousands of times” trying to find an incident or play during the game that stood out as particularly injurious.
“There was nothing that would signal alarm,” he said.
Serious injuries resulting in paralysis or death are relatively rare in football. The National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research at the University of North Carolina catalogued 218 deaths among middle school and high school football players between 2000 and 2018, an average of 11 per year among tens of thousands of players nationwide. Sixty-eight of those were considered related to a direct blow or collision on the field.
Mace said the night became a blur after Martin fell to the ground and the gravity of the situation became apparent on both sidelines and to those in attendance.
“The most pressing concern at the moment was Dale, and I was on the field with him,” Mace said. “Our team leaders were on the sideline, and they did a great job getting the kids together. A lot of kids on the team have a lot of faith. They were praying, and they kind of took care of themselves in that moment.
“It wasn’t until Dale got into the ambulance and left that I had a chance to regather myself and go over to the team. At that point I asked the team what they wanted to do. I left it up to them. ‘What do you guys want to do in this situation?’ The kids said they wanted to continue, so they rallied around Dale and continued to play football.”
Mace added: “A tragedy like that, it strikes everyone differently. Some kids just rose to the occasion in that moment.”
Because of COVID-related restrictions at Mount Carmel Hospital in Colville, Mace said he was unable to visit his fallen player. He relied on Martin’s adoptive mother for updates and any trickle of information made available through friends and acquaintances.
Mace acknowledged he feels a burden as the head coach trying to provide an example for others to follow as the team, school and community recover from Martin’s loss.
“One of the things I tell kids every day, especially after the tragedy and what we’ve dealt with, you’ve just got to gain a little ground every day. I always try to look at things positively. That’s how we coach. Through all of this I’ve just tried to be as positive as possible, and hopefully it rubs off on the kids.
“I always want the kids and ourselves to be the best role models for kids we can be. It has been hard sometimes when I feel like I’m the leader of this ship. There are a lot of people struggling around me. It’s important to take a step back and realize you need to take care of yourself.”
Mace praised his wife, Terrin, and their 8-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter for providing support at home.
Solace and encouragement have come from many directions.
“My administration here at school, it has been absolutely fantastic dealing with the tragedy,” Mace said. “Not only are my coaches taken care of and the kids but also myself. Something major to me, too, is that I feel like I have the best assistant coaches in the state. I love those guys. They’ve been a great support group for me.”
As a community, Colville has donated thousands of dollars to a scholarship foundation created in Martin’s honor, Mace said, and proceeds from T-shirt sales were provided to Martin’s family.
“The community always has been really involved in what we do as a football program, and it’s something we are super proud of,” Mace said.
“It makes me feel so great to live in a community willing to step up in a time of need. … It showed what a tight-knit community we are to come together for a cause like that.”