Varsity Kansas

Bob Lutz: Wheeler finds refuge in football

As I was driving home from Oklahoma City last Friday night, a friend kept me posted on how the high school football games around here were going.

I followed Bishop Carroll's amazing shutout of Hutchinson. I have to admit, though, that I gave up on Heights when I found out the Falcons trailed Dodge City 35-14 at halftime.

Too bad, I thought to myself. Too bad for Rick Wheeler, Heights' coach.

I've been pulling for Rick and his family — and for the Falcons — all season. In March, 13-year-old Regan Wheeler, the younger of Rick and Konnie's two daughters, died after being injured when she lost control of a golf cart she was driving during a getaway at Fox Lake in Butler County.

I wrote a story about the aftermath of that tragedy three months later and decided that this season I would ignore journalistic protocol and root for Heights to go all the way.

Then 35-14 hit me.

It was a shocker because Heights went into its Class 6A playoff semifinal against Dodge with an 11-0 record. I didn't expect the Falcons to be looking up from a three-touchdown deficit at halftime. I'm pretty sure nobody else did either, most of all Rick Wheeler.

The updates kept coming. Heights scored on its first possession of the second half to make it 35-21. Then Heights scored again. And again. My iPhone was blowing up.

The comeback culminated in a 42-38 Heights victory and a shot at Olathe North in the Class 6A state championship game on Saturday in Topeka. No City League team has won a 6A title since East did so in 1983. Heights fell short last season, losing to Olathe North in the championship game.

Regan Wheeler, an eighth grader, was at that game, like she was at all of her dad's games. She was one of the first to console the players and her father after the disheartening loss.

She couldn't pull the Falcons through.

But if Heights senior Khary Jones is right — and in his heart he believes he is — Regan did manage to get Heights through its Dodge City game last week.

He told me he always wore a wristband made for Regan shortly after her death — with the words "Live, Laugh, Smile Every Day" — inside one of his socks during games. Before the Dodge City game, he forgot to stick it in there.

"I didn't realize it until we were down 28-0,'' Jones said. "At halftime, when we were in the locker room, I went and pulled it out. Instead of putting it in my sock this time, I put it in my glove.''

And Heights came back from three touchdowns down.

"I feel like she's been watching over us all season,'' Jones said. "Once that wristband was in my sock, it was like she was right there with us.''

A tsunami of emotions has swept over Rick Wheeler since his daughter's death. His feelings remain raw, but he has been able to use this football season as a distraction.

"It probably sounds selfish, but football allows me to focus and concentrate 110 percent in one place,'' he said. "You just don't give yourself much idol time or free time.''

Idol time gives Wheeler too much time to think. And when he thinks too much, those overwhelming feelings of despair return. So if pouring himself into football even more than he usually does can numb him, he's better off for it.

Evan Wessel, another Heights football player, said he hasn't seen a difference in the way his coach goes about his business this season compared to others.

But Wheeler makes sure the players only see so much. He's been careful to go about his football business as usual.

He met with his coaching staff just before a team camp in June and told his assistants that he wasn't sure he could pull off another season of coaching football.

"Plain and simple, I told them I didn't know how much this means to me anymore,'' Wheeler said.

But as the summer played out and practice started in August, Wheeler discovered his passion for coaching hadn't diminished. Being around the players and the other coaches was medicine for him. When he was on the field leading drills or working with players, the ground felt solid.

"Things have changed,'' he said. "The meaning of football has changed a great deal. It's truly been an enjoyable season and the enjoyable part hasn't necessarily been the successes we've had. It's been more about this extended football family for me. That's been a lot more purposeful.''

Wheeler hugs people. He never used to hug people — at least not people who weren't his wife or daughters — but he's discovered that hugging people makes him feel better.

"I've always had great relationships with people in football, but maybe I took them for granted a little,'' he said. "I've tried to appreciate people more. That's been a purpose, a driving force for me. All those kids I yell at, I also want them to understand that I love them.''

Wheeler is an institution at Heights. Before he arrived, the Falcons had a terrible football program. Through hard work and dedication, he's helped make it one of the best in the state.

But he probably thought the 2010 season was coming to a disappointing end the other night. He has a loaded team this season and he thought the experience of getting so close in 2009 might help the Falcons get over the top this time.

Then Dodge City hit the field running, scoring at will and slapping Heights upside the head.

The morning of the game, Wheeler had a telephone conversation with former Heights administrator Don Dome, who hired him to coach football for the Falcons years ago.

Dome and his wife also lost a child.

"We had a good talk,'' Wheeler said.

Talking about Regan is so difficult for him, still. He's fine when others talk about her; he enjoys hearing their stories. But when he tries to talk about Regan, his emotions take over and he often can't get the words out.

At halftime of the Dodge City game, Wheeler did what a coach in that situation does. He tried to devise ways to stop the Red Demons and to get his offense on track. There were no big motivational speeches, no angry berating of players. That's not Wheeler's style, really.

He didn't speak of Regan and the players didn't bring her up.

But it was during the halftime break, remember, that Jones was going through his locker to find the Regan wristband. It would surprise me if other Heights players weren't thinking about her, too. I know she was somewhere in Rick Wheeler's thoughts because she always is.

Then the comeback kicked into high gear. The Dodge City team must have been overwhelmed at its suddenness.

Wheeler, like everyone else at Heights that night, simply watched. He didn't really do much of anything, he just watched.

"I don't know whether I can explain that comeback in football terms,'' he said. "I've coached a lot of games — won some close ones and lost some close ones. That one was pretty special.''

Heights was down and out. Then, suddenly, Heights was a different team.

Was it the wristband? Was Regan there? Was she watching over her father and his football team?

"Whether it was a guardian angel, intervention of some kind, whatever it was is something I can't really address,'' Wheeler said. "But it was out of the norm. It seemed out of the norm to me, at least. I'll give credit where credit is due.''