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Coach Gary Urwiler prowled the sideline with a ferocious stride during 2007 high school football season, jaw clenched, eyes blazing as he tried to guide his team, the Mooseheart Red Ramblers, to its first playoff victory in more than 22 years.
Every snap of the ball felt crucial. Every tackle or broken-field run weighed heavy with fate. But when Urwiler reflects on that season now, the action is just a blur.
“I don’t remember a whole lot of plays,” he said. “I do remember just spending time with the guys, and them making me laugh. That’s the good stuff.”
Ten years ago, the Tribune followed the Red Ramblers from the preseason to the final snap, introducing readers to a cast of remarkable young men who had overcome steep challenges before setting foot on the field.
Mooseheart, founded by the Loyal Order of Moose fraternal organization in 1913, is a home and school near Aurora for children who are orphaned or come from difficult backgrounds. More than 200 kids, from infants to high school seniors, live there today.
Football has been an important part of campus life almost from the start, and catching up with members of the 2007 team, it’s clear that it left a lasting stamp on them too. Even as the sport falls under increasing public scrutiny, the former Ramblers say they’re still drawing upon the lessons their coach instilled.
“When you’re out there playing football and things get tough, it’s easy to shut down and walk away,” said Urwiler, now Mooseheart’s executive director and an assistant football coach at Marmion Academy, where his eldest son is a team captain and running back.
“I always talk to the players, to this day, about how they’ll have to stand up and pursue whatever life’s challenges are for you, your family and your children. You can’t walk away. You’re going to have to stand up and fight each and every day in the game of life.”
Colton Bullock, a freshman taken aback by the near-military rigor of football practice, had to be coaxed onto the field early in the 2007 season. By the end, he was one of the team’s most enthusiastic players and went on to play every year until he graduated in 2011.
After that, he returned to his home state of Florida where he attended community college and worked for a city public works department, building fences and laying pipe. It was a living, but he was hungry for a bigger challenge and a fatter paycheck.
That’s when he stumbled upon a Craigslist ad seeking laborers to come to the oil fields of North Dakota. The promised pay was so immense — $70,000 to start — that it seemed like a scam. But after doing some research, he decided to take a chance.
The money was no lie, but the demands of the job were equally massive. Bullock said he worked as many as 84 hours a week, and sometimes went a month straight without a break. The work was hard, dirty and occasionally dangerous, and the thought of quitting was tempting on those long days he spent covered in oil.
That’s when Bullock said he drew upon his football experience to endure. He eventually earned enough to buy a house back in Florida.
“There’s a lot of times, especially in the oil fields, that are just like football,” said Bullock, 24, who has since gotten into long-distance trucking. “It reminds me of how I wanted to quit (football) and the hard work it took to become the person I wanted to be. It’s kind of the same thing here in the real world. You have to put in the hard work.”
Gabe Kendor was an undersized running back at Mooseheart, but he was strong and dauntless enough to power through would-be tacklers. When he tried walking onto the team at Valdosta State University in Georgia, though, he learned that a stout heart wasn’t enough in college ball.
“The coach told me I had to gain 15 pounds,” he said. “After that season, I just focused on my studies.”
Kendor, who graduated from Mooseheart in 2009, eventually transferred to the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn., to be near his family. He studied neuroscience and is now trying to break into a career in information technology or banking.
He said one thing he got from football was a sense of integrity. It’s a sport, after all, in which each player’s physical well-being depends upon his teammates’ efforts.
“Even to this day, there’ll be a decision and I’ll think, ‘If my coaches or teammates found out, how would they take it?’” he said. “Those bonds that are formed during that time, they’re still pushing me forward.”
Donald Niersbach, a quiet but well-respected senior on the 2007 team, also compares his former teammates to a brotherhood. He worked as a package handler after graduating from Mooseheart, then learned how to weld during jobs at a steel mill and a scrapyard.
He now welds for a railroad company in Chicago, a job he enjoys for “the art of making and fixing stuff.”
He said while football helped to prepare him for the physical demands of his job, it also trained him in soft skills that smooth things at home and on the job.
“It definitely taught me teamwork, knowing when and how to do things my way and how to work around other people’s way,” said Niersbach, 27, now a husband and father.
“The married life, we have to get both of our opinions on the decisions we make. As far as work, sometimes I get stumped on things, sometimes others do, so I always have to listen to what other people have to say.”
Chris Morones was the quarterback of the 2007 Mooseheart team, and he looks back on the season with a tinge of regret. He grew up on the campus and dreamed of a deep postseason run, and when his senior season ended with a first-round playoff defeat, it was hard to take.
But new challenges soon arose. He went to Purdue University Northwest after graduation, but like a lot of young people, he flailed, unable to meet the demands of college. He tried to recapture the old camaraderie of football by transferring to Aurora University and going out for the team, only to fall back into disarray when the season ended.
He tried the working life next, selling Internet service door-to-door, but that, too, was an unsteady venture. Finally, desperate to restore order and meaning to his life, he walked into a recruiter’s office and joined the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
Though he initially wanted to be an infantryman, the service noted his aptitude scores and taught him to set up and repair computer networks, satellite dishes and other high-tech gear. That allowed him to travel around the world, and ultimately led to a new career in cybersecurity.
Morones ended up moving to Oakland, Calif., and commuting to Silicon Valley. Last year, he married a Mooseheart classmate, Adrianna Tezanos-Pinto. Urwiler officiated at the wedding.
Though his life is going well now, he still appreciates what football taught him: Be a team player, find a way to conquer “micromoments” of adversity and always move forward.
“One thing that will probably stay with me the rest of my life is to finish what you start,” he said. “It was drilled into us at practice: If you’re supposed to run 50 yards and you cut it short, you’re just cheating yourself. I’ve taken that and tried to apply it everywhere else in my life.
“Even when it was just struggle after struggle after struggle, I would just remind myself: ‘You started this; you’ve got to finish it.’ It’s something that has helped me through a lot of things.”
*Story/photos courtesy of The Chicago Tribune. To read the article online in its original format, visit their website.