The low point came two years ago. Friends coach Monty Lewis can even tell you the exact day, if you press him hard enough.
Sept. 17, 2011.
That’s the day his team was taken away from him. A one-game suspension, handed down from the school, after it was discovered the Falcons used an ineligible player in a win over Saint Mary the school was forced to forfeit.
It was also the day that, if things are to turn around for the Falcons this season, Lewis can point to as when he began to turn back around the fortunes of his once-powerful program.
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“I’ve suffered a blow or two, maybe a few ones that felt like they were below the belt,” said Lewis, entering his 11th season at Friends. “But you don’t feel sorry for yourself. You keep moving forward. I absolutely love what I do and it’s the kids that bring you back.”
Friends has experienced a steady drop from the KCAC and nation’s elite since going 10-1 in 2008 and winning a third straight KCAC title.
“I don’t like the cycles in athletics, but at every level you see them and you deal with them,” Lewis said. “We’ve lost our hard edge and that’s on me. I hold myself accountable. No one puts me on the hot seat, because I put myself there.”
The Falcons went 8-2 in 2009, followed by 6-4 in 2010, 5-5 in 2011 and 6-5 last season.
But it was the suspension that cracked the shell of the normally-upbeat Lewis. The day of the game, he went to see his daughter, Shelby, play volleyball in the morning, dreading the moment where he’d have to go meet his team at the school and watch them get on a bus to go play Southern Nazarene without him.
“We’re simple people ... we love football, we love our family and we love these kids that come to play for Monty,” said Lewis’ wife, Nancy, who works in the IT department at Friends. “And he was just torn up, the most gut-wrenching thing for him was that he tells these players’ parents that when they come play for him, they’re his responsibility ... and he wasn’t going to be there to protect them.”
Then, something happened.
Nancy drove to Maize South High to pick up their son, Josh, then a sophomore on the football team. Like the rest of the family and the team, he’d been struggling with how to be there for his father.
“He got in the car and he said it right off, ‘Mom, I want to go in place of Dad,’” Nancy said. “He said one of us needed to be there, someone from our family needed to be with that team. He said it just wouldn’t be right. There’s not really a word for what we were all feeling that day ... it was this thing where one person hurts and they all hurt.”
The last two people to get on the bus for Friends road trips are always Monty and longtime assistant Matt Welch. That morning, it was Welch and Josh.
And they rode away, not a dry eye among them, without their coach and his 15-year-old son in his place. They lost that day, 35-10. But it sparked something inside of Lewis.
“We don’t do this because it’s our job, but because it’s our heart and soul,” Monty said. “I live it. My family lives it. I learned something about myself that day and what it means to be a family. A true family.”
And in the process of rebooting the program at Friends, Lewis may have put together a team capable of making a run at the KCAC title again. The centerpiece of the team is senior linebacker Marcus Carter, a 6-foot-2, 245-pound Las Vegas native who led the KCAC with 149 tackles last season. The Dallas Cowboys have already been in twice to see about Carter, one of nine preseason All-KCAC selections for the Falcons.
“(Lewis) has never been down around us, and that’s what I admire about him ... he’s always intense, always coaching, always trying to get us to do our best,” Carter said. “Every team’s main goal is to win it all. If I could be on that team and contribute to that in any way, that’s what I want.”
The Falcons are picked third in the KCAC, behind Tabor and Ottawa. They open the season with two home games, hosting Doane and then a high-profile game against No. 22 Benedictine in the KCAC-HAAC Showdown.
“As much as you hate it, we’ve lived the other side of it for three years,” Monty said. “We want to win. Enough with the losing. We want to slide another ring on our fingers.”