by Todd Habiger
Three years ago I was on the sidelines of a St. Thomas Aquinas High School football game doing some work for The Leaven. After the game, while putting away some equipment, this voice behind me asked, “Do you know who I am?”
I knew that voice. It was a voice that commanded respect and attention. I immediately turned around and snapped to attention to find myself face to face with my high school football coach, Lee Pat Lonergan.
Coach Lonergan had become an assistant for the St. Thomas Aquinas football team, helping develop young offensive linemen. My fear, as we stood face to face, was that seeing me in not-so-great shape, he was going to make me run some wind sprints and get me back into condition right then and there.
Thankfully, he just wanted to chat. We caught up on life and talked some football.
Coach Lonergan has always had a deep love for football. He graduated from Immaculate High School in Leavenworth in 1961. He was hired as the head coach of my hometown Iola Mustangs in 1978 after serving as an assistant coach at Immaculata for five years and old St. Joseph High School in Shawnee for five years.
Coach Lonergan coached some of the most successful teams in Iola Mustang history. His 1982 team made a spirited run to the Kansas Class 4A substate game. His 1983 team was ranked No. 1 in Class 4A for much of the season, before losing in the playoffs to eventual state champion, Fredonia.
Coach gave up being head coach of the Mustangs sometime in the 1990s, but continued as an assistant coach until 2011, where he and the school parted ways because of his age.
But age is just a number and Coach Lonergan felt he still had a lot to offer. He hooked up with Shawnee Mission South in 2012, where his son Ryan was the head coach. After Ryan moved on, Coach caught on with Randy Dreiling and St. Thomas Aquinas in 2014.
Last fall, I caught up with Coach Lonergan again, at an Aquinas game. He told me that that some of the first kids he coached were now retirement age. I could only think of all the lives he had influenced during that time; all the kids he helped mold into young men.
For me, football was the first sport I ever played. What I learned was teamwork is the key to success. In football, one person failing to do his job can lead to a bad play. But when 11 people do what they are supposed to do, then the results can be glorious.
I apply that teamwork mentality to my work life every day. Here at The Leaven, if a reporter writes a good story, the photographer takes a good photo, the editors makes good suggestions and eliminate mistakes, and I package it all into a good design, those results, too, can be glorious.
Coach Lonergan pounded that message of teamwork into me every day at practice. I saw the big picture. It wasn’t about me. It was about the team.
Coach Lonergan, despite his age, still possesses a sharp football mind. Those young offensive linemen he helped coach paved the way for one of the best rushing offenses in the state in 2017. That running game helped Aquinas make the Class 5A state championship game.
After that state championship game, which Aquinas lost, Coach talked to me about the loss and the disappointment he felt. I could feel his pain. He cared so much for his players.
But the last thing he said to me is what stuck with me the most.
“I can’t wait until next season.”
Yes, Coach Lonergan has a lot of coaching left in him — no matter what his age.