Varsity Kansas

Best of 2010: Wheeler led Heights to ultimate prize

The Eagle's sports staff looks back at the Best of 2010. Each writer shares a memorable moment from his or her beat.

About 20 minutes after the Heights football team was awarded the Class 6A championship trophy, I stumbled onto an emotional moment.

The Olathe North crowd was gone, the TV crews had left to edit video and those still milling around the field were the closest family and friends.

That's when coach Rick Wheeler called his team together. The players all dropped to one knee, while friends and family members closed in tightly behind them.

I raised my point-and-shoot camera to videotape, all the while feeling the goosebumps rise.

"I'm going to tell you about the prize. Everybody believes this (trophy) is the prize. It ain't. The speech is the same, if we had won or lost. This is not the prize.

"You're going to remember this forever. The prize is reaching for something great, sacrificing for the people you love.

"Do you understand me?"

"Yes, sir."

"Pursuit of being a champion is the prize. The people that are willing to pursue against all obstacles, all the time. That's the prize. This (trophy) is a piece of wood. Do you understand me? Something bad could happen to this, I could drop it on the way in (to the locker room). I won't. Do you understand me?

"I was going to tell you the same thing at the end, irregardless of how this thing came out. The pursuit of being a champion, the pursuit of doing something special, that's the prize. I'm proud of you."

It was a moment I liken to end of "Hoosiers" — when the boy shoots baskets in the gym as lines from the movie echo throughout.

This Heights team had special players. Dreamius Smith bulled over defenders or raced around them. Matt Reed ran an option offense with precision, while Daniel Deshazer, all 5-foot-4 of him, squirted out of nowhere through the defense.

On defense, Zerrance Brickhouse wreaked havoc and Evan Wessel making big play after big play.

Wheeler, who dealt with his own adversity after the accidental death of his 13-year-old daughter in March, said recently that the speech was one he built up to throughout the season.

That started last February, heading into the Class 6A wrestling meet when he talked to Heights wrestling coach Mike Church.

"I said, 'It's not about winning this thing, it's about no regrets and putting everything into it,' " Wheeler said. "We have kids that hold back a little bit. It's easier to handle failures or disappointments when you hold back a little bit. I think it's human nature to save some pain."

He talked to his team about the goal, not the trophy. About working toward the goal with everything you've got.

"After the Dodge City game, I told them, 'This isn't the prize. I'm going to tell you about that next week,' " Wheeler recalled.

He did. And when he finished, my goosebumps stayed intact as his team yelled and raised their helmets one last time in celebration.

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