By the time Travis Martin was born, Ron Stolski had been a head football coach for 29 years. And now, 29 years later and more than half a century apart in age, they are equals; Martin is in his second season as the head coach at Windom and Stolski is in his 58th year overall and 45th at Brainerd.
While their histories vary, their season openers were similar. Brainerd lost at Elk River 57-0 on Thursday night in a Class 5A game and Windom lost to fellow Class 1A team Martin County West 43-0 on Friday night in Windom's first home game in two seasons; the Eagles played every game last year on the road due to disastrous flooding of their home field.
Stolski turned 80 a few weeks ago but you would never know it, and he's not sure he believes it.
"I don’t feel like I’m 80," he said, standing in a parking lot a couple hours before the first game of his 58th season. When I mentioned that I would be going to Windom a day later, Stolski recalled his third season as a coach. A graduate of Minneapolis Patrick Henry High School and Macalester College, he began his career as a 22-year-old in 1962, coaching eight-man football in Kensington, and after two years moved to Slayton, which is 36 miles west of Windom. He was in Slayton for one season, Princeton from 1965-70, Park Center from 1971-74 and went to Brainerd in 1975.
Stolski’s advice for young coaches is pretty simple, offering three main points. Number one: Care about the kids. Number two: Learn as much about the profession as you can. “Most of us coach the way we were coached. But there's so much out there now,” he said. “And thirdly, have patience. Don't be hard on yourself. It's a process. Coaching is a splendid way to spend a life.”
Stolski said that when he was a young coach, punching blackboards or lockers resulted in a broken hand more than once. “You have to have passion, and passion lasts a lifetime,” he said. “But you must be prepared before you decide to kick the doors down. That's what you learn. You can't always do it all on fire. You prepare your team as best you can.”
Martin, a North Dakota native, is learning about preparation as well as building a football program. He was a Windom assistant coach for two years before taking over last season. The Eagles won three games in 2015, two in 2016, three in 2017 and lost all nine road game last season. But positive signs are afoot: Windom’s roster has grown from 28 players in 2017 to 36 last year, and 53 players are on the current roster.
Brainerd has 83 players this fall, and the Warriors and Eagles both are young. Brainerd has 44 sophomores and Windom’s roster has 21 ninth-graders and 11 sophomores.
Before their first home game in two seasons, Martin told the boys, “We have waited an agonizingly long time to play here.”
Things went Martin County West’s way from the get-go, and the Mavericks led 29-0 at halftime. As “Welcome to the Jungle” played on the P.A. system, the Eagles gathered behind the home-side metal bleachers.
Before the coaches joined them, senior wide receiver Esteban Sandoval told his teammates, “Keep your heads up! Be proud to be an Eagle!” A couple minutes later, Martin’s message brimmed with optimism: “Guys, one play at a time, that’s how it happens. They scored 29, so can we.”
It wasn’t to be. Martin County West finished with 332 total yards (259 on the ground) to Windom’s 97 and the Eagles turned the ball over too many times. But the Mavericks’ accomplishment may provide somewhat of a road map for the Eagles; MCW won just one game last season, beating Windom in Week 3.
“It didn't go the way we wanted it to,” Martin said. “But you know, that's part of the game. I've told the boys that I've played and coached a lot of football games and I can't tell you the score of very many of them, because that's not what you remember. And that’s the big point.”
Stolski would certainly agree. Before the Warriors played at perennial 5A contender Elk River, he presented this message to the team:
“We’ve talked about some past teams, the 2017 team, the 2010 team that stopped Eden Prairie on the 3 in the playoffs.” And now, the coach’s voice began to rise. “Listen, it’s your story now. One day, God willing, somebody will be telling the story of you. A coach will stand up and say, ‘Let me tell you about the Warriors of 2019.’
“Play clean. Play sharp. Rattle the pads. It’s going to be a beautiful journey. I envy you. Tonight, we stand as one.”
Elk River’s vaunted misdirection T-formation offense was brilliant for Week 1. The Elks did not throw a pass but ran for 563 yards, including touchdown bursts of 40, 53, 75, 83 and 63 yards.
After Windom’s season-opening loss, Martin encouraged his team. “This is Week 1,” he said to the silent group. “We have a long way to go. We’ll get there together. We’ll get there. You’ve got to believe it.”
Brainerd’s postgame gatherings are for players only, who meet in an end zone and talk among themselves. While this was taking place in Elk River, Stolski – retired English teacher that he is -- was quoting Hemingway.
“We’re disappointed, not discouraged,” he said. “Hemingway wrote, ‘Now is not the time to think of what you do not have. Think of what you can do with what there is.’ ”
Those words are from “The Old Man and the Sea.” And they ring true with all people, no matter their age … but maybe especially among coaches.
--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.