I was on Facebook when I saw the announcement of the passing of Golder Ranch Fire Fighter Jose Samaniego. I instantly recognized his face but it took me a second to realize where I knew him. Maybe it was the shock of learning that a 33-year old father was gone, but after a moment I realized, he was one of “my guys.”
I coached high school football at Cholla High School in the early 2000s, and Jose was one of my players. Of course, we did not call him Jose, he was simply “Samaniego” though by the time I got “Saman…” out of my mouth he had his helmet on and was by my side. While I was hardly a taskmaster, the guys knew I had little patience and that they better be ready to go when I called their name. Samaniego was one of those guys. He got it. He worked hard.
I was in my mid-20’s and trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life. After getting laid off from a marketing job, I decided to go back to school and become a teacher and football coach. The first step in my journey was volunteering at Cholla in the midst of a losing streak. While I was 27, I looked younger and I remember one of the coaches playing a joke on me, and the team, and introduced me as the new fullback the first day of practice. I still laugh because, while most of the team figured out it was a rib in a few minutes, it took two players about a week to realize I was really a coach and not a player. What makes it funnier is that I was coaching freshman football.
As one of the youngest coaches, I bonded with many of my players. I tried to be a sort of ‘big brother” to many. They became “my guys” or the “fellas.” Many did not have a strong male role model at home and I tried to fill that role. Before and after practice there were a lot of high fives and ball busting, but once that whistle blew we were all business. Things were not always smooth, we lost way more than we won, but my last freshman team advanced to the state semi-finals as seniors. I was no longer coaching then, but I was on the sideline reporting on the games.
I don’t know if I made a huge impact on these kids, but they did on me. I still tell stories about my guys.
I have run into a few since leaving coaching. One is the head coach at Rincon High School, two more worked at UPS when I was a seasonal driver there several years ago after the old magazine I worked at went under. One of my former players nearly accosted me at the mall. He was excited to tell me he was joining the Border Patrol and was moving to New Mexico the next month. Another installed my Direct TV and was part owner of a business. I know several joined the military and I know a few did not make it out of high school and got in trouble with the law.
The last player I ran into was Samaniego. I was at the opening of the Oro Valley Children’s Museum and I heard someone say “hey coach.” Like seeing his picture, it took me a second, but soon the dark blue of his uniform was replaced with the dark blue of his football jersey in my minds eye and it was clear. He told me about being a firefighter and his family. He said he had heard me on the radio and knew I was still writing. It was brief, but good conversation and I was proud that one of “my guys” was doing something so positive with his life. Just being a firefighter is valiant enough, but I have since learned that he was active in the community. He was once a good kid and a good man.
Rest in Peace Samaniego.