January 18, 2006 - Tony Esparza waited at the 40-yard line with one knee up, the other firmly planted on the grass.

Ready to spring into action at any moment, he loosely gripped a six-pack of Gatorade water bottles, while a crisp white towel hung from the back pocket of his blue jeans.

With the Mountain Lions up 14-0 early in the first quarter, it promised to be another good night. In fact, Esparza, 60, enjoyed many good nights during his 17 seasons with Mountain View High School's football team, witnessing more than 100 wins in that time.

He's not a coach, but he might as well be one.

"Tony is part of the culture of Mountain View, especially in the athletics realm," said former Principal Richard Faidley, who worked alongside Esparza for many years. "He's a part of the institution, specifically in the football and softball programs. Whenever you think of Mountain View, you think of Tony Esparza on the sidelines."

Mountain View's beloved maintenance worker, with his trademark mustachio, has bled black and silver since he came to the school almost 19 years ago - one year after it opened. He hung up his hat and turned in his keys last week, leaving behind two decades of memories at Mountain View, where running water to players during timeouts was just one of many small ways Esparza made a big difference.

He once built the flagpoles that tower above the softball field out of scrap fence railing, and more than a dozen podiums scattered throughout the classrooms on campus are the result of his woodwork. But it was the relationships he built with people that made him stand out.

The now-retired maintenance worker was widely popular among students, teachers and administrators alike, many of whom know him as "The Father of Mountain View."

"He's our first line of defense," said Jill Atlas, who became Mountain View's principal this past year. "He opens up the gates first thing in the morning, so he's the first person you see at 6 o'clock when you get here. He always has a smile on his face and he always gives you the scoop with what's going on."

Esparza was never just a maintenance worker. When the school district hired him in 1986, he worked as a hall monitor at Marana High School and volunteered with the softball program there. He continued that role when he came to Mountain View in 1987, and soon found himself volunteering at Mountain Lion football games.

For almost 19 years, he arrived at 4 a.m. to unlock the campus gates and doors in preparation for a new day. And on game nights, he was often the last to leave.

Teachers and administrators grew to count on Esparza's warm welcome and freshly brewed coffee when they arrived each morning. The name tag on his maintenance uniform read "Antonio," but everyone knew him simply as Tony.

"He greets us every day with a kiss, a hug and a smile. What more could you ask for?" said Associate Principal Susan Sloan, who coached the girls softball team alongside Esparza at both Marana High and Mountain View. "He would do anything for anybody."

More than 100 of Esparza's colleagues threw a surprise retirement party for him in the school library last week. Many spoke of how much they'll miss his presence - even the approaching jingle of his trademark key chain.

Jeannie Pettet, the school's library assistant, helped plan the event, which featured performances by faculty members who sang comical songs about Esparza. His colleagues pitched in to get him a two-night stay at a cabin in the White Mountains.

"He's just one of the greatest people I've ever met," said Pettet, who worked with Esparza all 19 years he was at Mountain View. "He always has a smile. He's just dear to our hearts."

Pettet lured the honored retiree into the library after his shift by radioing that she needed help fixing some lights. Esparza quickly arrived on the scene, where his colleagues jumped out from behind the book shelves to surprise him.

Tears streamed down the faces of several in attendance as Esparza gave an impromptu speech about his days at Mountain View.

"I was glad to be here," said an emotional Esparza, adding that he was most proud of the students he was able to help, some of whom have returned to teach at Mountain View. Esparza went out of his way to help students in need, sharing his philosophy that, "Nobody's better than anybody else."

"I brag about that because I know I had a part in helping them out," he said.

It was part of his humble nature not to talk too much about his accomplishments, though, not even to a newspaper reporter with an open ear. Still, when Esparza spoke - such as the occasional half-time speech he gave inside the Mountain Lion locker room - he chose his words carefully and those around him listened.

"We love you," Atlas said during her own speech thanking Esparza for his dedication to the school. "We could never, ever have done this without you."

Esparza touched the lives of many students in the 16 classes he saw graduate. His son Louie was part of the first class that went through in 1990, and his daughter Monica graduated in 1994. His son Joe graduated from Marana High before Mountain View opened.

Justin Wixon, who graduated in 1991, said Esparza was like a father to him when he was in high school. He now teaches science at Mountain View and said his relationship with Esparza hasn't changed.

"It's exactly the same as it was back then," he said. "He was like a father to me then, and he's a father to me now."

On more than one occasion, Esparza has been asked by students to MC a school production, whether it was a talent competition or a pep assembly. Last month, he hosted the school's Mr. Mountain View competition, where he cracked jokes between acts. In the end, he was named honorable Mr. Mountain View.

"He goes to great lengths to make all the students feel connected and special at the school," Atlas said. "He actually calls all the kids his kids, so every class that graduates, he really truly feels like he's played a part in the their growth. And the kids feel it from him."

Student trainers Jordan Raikes and Shaina Berman said they enjoyed the road trips they made with Esparza for football games. Esparza was instrumental in the development of the athletic training room in which they work, where he installed a dishwasher, set up a trampoline and put in drains for the therapeutic whirlpools, they said.

"The training room probably wouldn't be what it is without him," said Berman, a freshman at Mountain View.

"Tony's awesome," said Raikes, a junior. "We're thinking of kidnapping him for football games next year."

Athletic trainer Leah Oliver, who has stood alongside Esparza for 17 seasons, recalled the early days when they would pile into an old station wagon for road games. They had to tie their bags and stretcher to the luggage rack, she said, specifically recalling the car lacked shocks.

While the ride may have been bumpy, Esparza always kept things interesting, she said.

"I'll be lost when he retires," Oliver said from the sidelines of a football game this past year. "He'll have to come back and volunteer."

Head Coach Wayne Jones worked alongside Esparza since the start of Mountain View's football program. Esparza, who was once a lineman for his high school team, took an interest in Mountain View football when his son Louie played center for the school.

He's hardly missed a game since.

"He's always been on the sideline for us," Jones said. "His mustachio with the curls on the end has been kind of a trademark for 19 years at Mountain View. You just knew he was going to be there."

The football team honored Esparza with a plaque at its annual banquet last month, thanking him for "20-plus" years on the sidelines - a hint that they hope he'll come back to volunteer.

"The door's always open for Tony and I'm going to be very disappointed if he's not back with us again next year," Jones said. "He's got an open invitation."

The Marana Foundation for Educational Excellence recently honored Esparza as one of its 50 Marana Unified School District Heroes of 2005. Esparza was selected among a pool of more than 100 nominees, said Debbie Schmich, the foundation's vice president.

"He's been a fixture up at Mountain View for a long time and it's always a pleasure to see him," she said.

Campus monitors Cecil Reyes and Diane Faber said Esparza was their go-to guy any time there was an emergency on campus.

"He's done it all, seen it all. If you need to know something, you go to Tony," Faber said.

"Tony is the one that tells us all of our jokes on the radio. The problem is, we don't understand a thing he says," joked Reyes.

Over the years, Esparza became an expert on Mountain View's campus. He oversaw the school's growth from its infancy stage - before the addition of the large gym, cafeteria, library or auditorium.

The controls for most of the school's complex system of utilities are found in the office Esparza worked from under the bleachers of the football stadium. For many years, that was his home away from home. In a nearby drawer, he kept the design he drew and used to paint the football field each year.

Esparza talks with great fondness of his memories of students who passed through the football program. His favorite memory remains the 1993 football season, when the team went undefeated and took the state title.

Keepsakes of his memories at Mountain View decorated his desk, along with pictures of his three grandchildren and his wife, who died from cancer a few years ago.

Esparza and his wife chaperoned several school dances and proms and were even known to "cut a rug" and upstage the students once in a while, Atlas said. Esparza said his wife's passing slowed him down, but he kept going because, "She knew I liked doing all this, so she told me to keep doing it."

The Vietnam veteran plans to spend his new-found free time playing in a Marine Corps softball league. Born and raised in New Mexico, Esparza joined the Marines at 20, serving as a maintenance worker before returning home and eventually following the mines out to Arizona in 1969.

On the day of Mountain View's last home football game in November, Esparza went to work like any other day. Later that evening, with the Friday night lights shining down from above and the roar of the crowd behind him, Esparza watched proudly as the Mountain Lions routed Flowing Wells for another victory.

Still, amid chaotic yells from the coaches and constant chatter from players on the sidelines, Esparza kept his eyes intently focused on the field, ready to run water out to his players at the next timeout. He'd put off retiring at least once already, but the feeling finally set in that this could be his last time on Mountain View's sidelines.

Asked whether he'd miss it all, "I think so," he replied quietly. "I think so."

Ryan J. Stanton covers the town of Marana and the Marana Unified School District for the EXPLORER. He can be reached at 797-4384, ext. 110, or at rstanton@explorernews.com.

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