Rolling Under the Friday Night Lights

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Coach Kyle Walsh (far right) poses with his team after a game.

 

Coaching high school football in Texas is a grind. There’s no way around it. The season starts at the beginning of August with that annual right of passage known as two-a-days. Foundations and expectations for a long season are branded into players. If you make it through August, you might have what it takes to make it through the season. In College Station, the August highs average just a few degrees under triple digits, and any given day could easily spike to 105. There’s isn’t much shade on the football field, which is why you’ll find Kyle Walsh rolling between the hash marks in his power chair with a wet towel draped around his neck. Walsh doesn’t sweat, but he also doesn’t miss practice.

Walsh is the offensive line coach for the College Station High School Cougars. In Texas, the high school regular season runs 10 games, and if your team happens to be very good, as Walsh’s teams often are, there’s the potential for another six playoff games. That’s a full NFL regular season. This year, College Station’s season ran 15 games, right up through the state semifinal, where they lost a 31-30 heartbreaker to Calallen High School of Corpus Christi. That game was played on Dec. 9, 105 days after the Cougars opened their season with a 56-7 thrashing of CE King. Walsh worked six days a week for the entire season, as he’s done every season for the past 18 years.

Football, Full Circle

Of the events in Kyle Walsh’s life, it’d be understandable to assume that the day he rolled his truck, breaking his neck, leaving him a C6-7 quadriplegic, would’ve had the most impact. But when looking at the road Walsh’s life has traveled, paralysis appears more as a bump than a fork.

More impactful on this life’s course was a day when Walsh was barely into elementary school, and he began lobbying his parents to let him play tackle football. “We were living in Atlanta at the time,” Walsh recounts, “and they had a league with full pads for 6 year olds. I begged them to let me play.”

He must have had a good argument, or the idea of a 6 year old tromping around in pads was too cute to ignore, because his parents relented, and a lifelong passion was born. Walsh would play football throughout his childhood.

The family moved to Texas before his freshman year of high school, and he began playing for the A&M Consolidated Tigers, a team that “was just starting to get good,” when Walsh got there. The head coaching position had been taken over by Ross Rogers, son of the hall of fame high school coach, Gene Rogers. Rogers quickly built the program into a powerhouse. The Tigers had four consecutive 14-win seasons from 1989 to 1992. Walsh was around for the first three of those.

The teams of his sophomore and junior seasons were loaded with players who would be offered Division-I college scholarships. Much of the standout talent had graduated by the time that Walsh’s senior year rolled around, and the season got off to a bumpy start. Two early losses forced the team to refocus. “Definitely, having a loss allows you to examine yourself as a player. Good teams take the bad things that happen to them and make the changes necessary to improve and keep moving,” says Walsh.

Coach Walsh never misses a practice, no matter how high the Texas temperature is, and never misses a game.

Coach Walsh never misses a practice, no matter how high the Texas temperature is, and never misses a game.

That 1991 squad was a good team. According to Ross Rogers, Walsh was their best player. He was a 5-foot, 11-inch, 205-pound center, a leader on an offensive line “that wasn’t particularly big, but they just kept getting better and better,” as the coach puts it. The team, with more work ethic than inherent talent, made a run through the state playoffs and capped a magical season with one final win: a 35-16 shocker over Carthage in the state championship game. “We were underdogs, they were undefeated,” Walsh says. “I guess on paper we shouldn’t have beat them, but we beat a lot of teams we shouldn’t have beat that year.”

After high school, Walsh continued working his butt off, enrolling at the University of Texas, and playing football as a walk-on for the Longhorns. He wasn’t big enough to compete as a center in D-I college football, so he remolded himself into a long snapper. He was midway through his freshman season as the backup long snapper, a position that involved a lot of practicing and zero minutes of actual game time, when he rolled his truck on the way home from College Station.

A complete SCI at C6-7 led Walsh to a hospital, rehab, and a long summer relearning how to live in a body that no longer operated as it used to. “Those values I learned playing football [of being willing to set high expectations and work hard toward uncertain success] definitely allowed me to deal with my injury,” Walsh says.

He’s not diminishing the impact of his own paralysis or inflating the importance of a football game. To Walsh, adversity, whether life-changing or seemingly minor, can be handled in a similar manner: by learning what you can from it, adapting how you do things, and working to move past it.

By the following fall, he was ready to enroll back in school at UT. He studied history and special education and started thinking seriously about coaching football.

When he graduated from UT, he got a job back at his old high school as a special education teacher. Ross Rogers, the coach he’d played under years before, was still leading the program at A&M Consolidated. Rogers decided to see if Walsh, who he describes as “a student of the game,” would come onto the team as an offensive line coach. For Walsh it was a no-brainer, an opening to get back into a game that he’d been passionate about since he was 6 years old.

Enter Audra and Family

These days, some 18 years after he started coaching, football is not the only thing in Kyle Walsh’s life. He is a husband and a father. He met his wife, Audra, in the foreign language section of a Barnes and Noble in College Station. Walsh needed a Spanish book. Since his accident he had taken up scuba diving. It was beautiful and relaxing, just the kind of thing that an overworked coach can look forward to at the end of a long season. He was leaving in a few days on a diving trip with a local organization that provided adaptive scuba instruction. They were going to Belize, and he wanted to pick up a book to help him communicate while he was there. Problem was, all of the Spanish books were on the top of the shelf, out of his reach. He looked around the foreign language section, doing the usual analysis of who to ask for help, when he spied a pretty young lady with auburn hair sitting in a chair on the edge of the section. Kyle almost missed his chance. She got up and left while he was working up the courage to go talk to her. To his everlasting luck, she’d forgotten her bag. She almost ran into him when she came back to get it. He asked for help grabbing the book, and they struck up a conversation.

Walsh realizes that the fact that Belize is an English-speaking country does not lend credence to his story. “I swear I didn’t know it at the time,” he says. “I definitely needed some help, I just may have been selective about who I asked for help.”

He and Audra met up after he got back from Belize, and soon started dating. They were married less than two years later. Today, the Walshes live in a nice house only a few minutes from where Kyle teaches and coaches. They have two kids, 6-year-old Adalee, and 5-year-old Eli. During football season there are rarely enough hours in the day, so Walsh goes to bed late and wakes up early.

A man of perpetual motion, Walsh’s seemingly indefatigable nature serves him well in his life’s myriad roles. At times, the role of coach and father blend together. “He’s cute with the kids, he’ll go into the backyard and set up obstacle courses for them, and time them going down the slides and around the yard,” Audra says.

But most of the time, Walsh inhabits whatever world is most interesting to his children at the moment. He goes to his daughter’s dance classes, reads books with her, and plays interstellar protector with his son. Stars Wars is the craze of the moment. “He doesn’t necessarily see the wheelchair,” Walsh says of his son. “I think he thinks I could take down Darth Vader. He loves for him and me to go fight the bad guys.”

The family tries to go to the beach every summer, and they enjoy going to support other school sports throughout the year. In many ways it’s a normal life for a family deeply involved in their community. Still, the schedule of a high school coach can be hard on a family. During the season, Walsh is at the school more often than he is at home. He credits Audra for keeping their lives intact during the season. Audra admits that life can be difficult during those months, but she’s often reminded why her husband does what he does. “We live in a fairly small town. I often see people out who say, ‘oh you’re coach Walsh’s wife, he coached my son,’ or ‘he mentored my son,’” Audra says. “That definitely helps me keep a good attitude about everything.”

Commitment + Dedication = Success

The College Station Cougars practice after school from 4-6 pm. It is a high-tempo affair, and Walsh (who normally uses a manual chair) uses a power chair so he can get around the grass quickly enough to keep with the pace of practice.

After practice, the coaches retire to the video room. Walsh is in charge of the video, which the coaches dissect for an hour or so. On practice days, Walsh is usually home around 7:30 at night.

Coach Walsh is shown here with his wife Audra, and their children, Eli and Adalee.

Coach Walsh is shown here with his wife Audra, and their children, Eli and Adalee.

 

Thursdays Walsh attends the JV games and doesn’t get home until 11:30 or 2, depending on the location. Friday, the most important night of the week in many Texas towns, his return is always later. On Saturdays Walsh is back up at the school, as the players do a yoga session to recover and then watch the last night’s game film with the coaches. Sunday is for rest.

If you think that such a schedule would be tough for anyone before even factoring in the difficulties of living with quadriplegia, you would be right. Then there is the difficulty of surviving practice in the Texas heat without proper thermo-regulation. And the difficulty of staying active and healthy while dealing with shoulder problems. Also, getting 17-year-old, 200-plus pound football players to believe you can teach them proper blocking technique when you don’t have full use of your hands, let alone the rest of your body. There is the simple time suck of bowel, bladder, and personal care. Whether it’s using a wet towel and being careful about hydration; riding an e-stim exercise bike every other morning to work his cardiovascular system while resting his shoulders; using video, other players and coaches as demonstration aides, while demonstrating enough knowledge and patience to earn players’ respect; or simply being willing to accept help for some of the things that quadriplegia complicates; Walsh navigates his life’s difficulties as he does the game of football, one piece at a time.

The long grind of the season is fitting for a man who loves the process as much as Walsh does. Football isn’t just about the brightness of the lights on Friday night. It’s about everything you do during the week, during the season, and the offseason, to position your team to have success under those lights.

Walsh has had a lot of success in his football career: the state championship as a player, district championships as a coach, late runs into the state playoffs, high school linemen he’s coached who’ve been given scholarships to play D-I college football.

To find out what makes Walsh a good coach, you have to ask those around him. “Passion,” Ross Rogers answers. “He’s always been a people person, he’s going to give everything he’s got to help kids improve, which is exactly what coaches are supposed to do.”

Steve Huff, who has known Walsh for 17 years, coached with him under Rogers at A&M Consolidated, and recruited him to help start the football program at College Station when it opened in 2012, puts it this way: “I was always amazed by his mind, the guy’s unreal, incredibly smart. He can walk into a video room and pick things up immediately,” says Huff. “He is just one of those guys who has the ability to get things done in very few steps.”

When Walsh is asked about his success, his own strengths as a coach don’t even merit mention. He refers to the values that coaches at College Station try to teach to their players: character, commitment, sacrifice and effort. He cites his parents for instilling those values in him from a young age. He talks about his faith. He praises his wife and all of her sacrifices. He talks about all the great coaches he’s had the opportunity to play and coach under. He talks about the players, and how hard they’ve been willing to work.

This deflection doesn’t come off as a sort of false modesty that afflicts so many leaders of men, but rather a genuine belief that the community of people who’ve surrounded him throughout his life have had as much of an impact, if not more so, on his success than his own contributions. Maybe that’s why he decided to coach in the first place: to help pass a little wisdom on to the next generation, to show them that when adversity inevitably comes your way — whether in football or in life — a critical mind, a willingness to adapt how you do things, and a lot of hard work can keep you moving forward.

By | 2017-03-28T10:40:49+00:00 April 1st, 2017|