Brad Hemphill is one of my very best friends in coaching. (And before you roll your eyes and say, "Oh no, another article about high-school sports," perhaps if you could find something that makes you as happy as coaching makes me, you wouldn't be so damn negative. Just a thought. Besides, this isn't about me.)
Brad is an eclectic soul, one who thinks nothing of jumping in his car and making the three-hour drive from Safford to Tucson to catch a concert at The Rialto ... on a school night. For years, his girls' teams at Pima High School were the terrors of small-school basketball in the State. (In my first five years at Green Fields, his team and mine squared off in the State Tournament four times, including once in the Final Four. It's one of my crowning achievements that we're actually 2-2 against each other.)
For two totally different sets of circumstances, neither of us coached basketball this year. Brad spent the season watching his senior-year son, William, make All-State in football as a middle linebacker and then move on to his winter sport of wrestling.
You have to understand that Pima, like most small Mormon towns (and all Indian reservations), is Basketball Country. Every Mormon stake center has a basketball court and it's a family activity that is shared from toddlers on up through their grandparents. Pima is the kind of place where the entire town closes down on Friday night to go to the high-school basketball game.
Accordingly, wrestling is something of an interloper. It's great in that it allows the 110-lb. kid to compete at the varsity level, but in Basketball Country, it's an oddity, almost an afterthought.
William didn't even start wrestling until mid-season of his junior year. With his dad being a basketball coach and all, William had always followed what most consider to be the natural progression of things from football to basketball to baseball and then to summer workouts for football. But he got the itch to try wrestling, joined the team mid-season, and did okay.
William's coach is a legend in the Gila Valley, a colorful guy by the name of Digger O'Dell. He's been coaching coming up on 40 years and was recently nominated to the National Wrestling Coaches Hall of Fame. He's had a lot of success over the years. In 1996, Pima won the state championship only four years after he started the program. They've been solid contenders at the state level ever since, but 1998 was the last year that any of his wrestlers had won a state title.
Despite the fact that nearby Safford and Thatcher High Schools are much larger, Pima would usually host the prestigious Gila Valley Wrestling Invitational in December. Digger would have to coach his team, so his wife, Jean, and their daughter, Rane Jones, would run the entire tournament, which is a monumental undertaking. (After this past season's tournament, the local paper, the Eastern Arizona Courier, did a nice article on the women of Gila Valley wrestling.)
Shortly after this year's Gila Valley meet, Jean began to feel ill. She went to the doctor and, on Christmas Eve, she learned that she had late-stage cancer and had one month to live. Digger, her husband of 47 years (they were high-school sweethearts at Show Low High and got married a year after they graduated), was by her side throughout. He stopped showing up for practices, but made it to a couple meets.
Jean O'Dell passed away at her home and her funeral was held the day before the Sectional Tournament. Four of O'Dell's wrestlers made it to State, including (in something of a surprise) William Hemphill.
His father Brad told me that William wanted to do something special for his coach. Said Brad, "William discussed it, planned it, convinced himself. The (tough) part (parentally) is knowing how common and easy it is for those perfectly intentioned and honorable plans to end in disappointment."
In the first match at State, William faced a strong opponent from the State runner-up team, Morenci. Cody Rivera had beaten Hemphill during the regular season, but William toughed out an 11-8 victory to advance. (Rivera would win three straight matches in the Consolation bracket and fall just short of winning the Consolation title.)
In the second round, William beat a Navajo kid from Red Mesa with the all-time great name of Ric Bushyhead. He won that match easily, 9-1 and won his semifinal match by a score of 5-0. Suddenly, he's in the finals, but he's facing the odds-on favorite to win the state title, Benson's Perrin Maakestad. The kid from Benson had pretty much owned William during the season, but late in the first round, William got a takedown for a 2-0 lead. Early in the second round, he got two more points from a cradle and then held on for a 7-4 victory and a State championship. Digger O'Dell went absolutely crazy with joy.
It was a moment that was too corny to be in a movie, but just right for real life. Hemphill will try to play football at Eastern Arizona College next year. I assume Digger O'Dell will continue coaching. Nothing will ever fill that void in his life, but for a coach, there are those William Hemphill-type moments—unexpected, inexplicable and absolutely magnificent.