For two decades the DFJ?has been my work home, and it’s been quite a ride

Twenty years, where have you gone? Yes, this week marks my 20-year anniversary as the sports editor at The Daily Freeman-Journal, a job I took just a few months out of college and, somehow, fooled my bosses into allowing me to keep all this time.

To commemorate this week, I’ve compiled a list of my top 20 memories on the job. These aren’t necessarily the top stories, but when I think back over the years these are the things that flood my memory bank first.

Some make me laugh. Some make me nostalgic. A few put a lump in my throat. And each and every one of them make me realize how lucky I was to land in this position back in September of 1999. It’s been a hell of a ride.

20. Hello, DFJ — With butterflies in my belly and the belief that I had the most important job in the world, I headed to Fort Dodge to cover my first event in September of 1999. Webster City volleyball against St. Edmond, and I expected it to be raucous. Reality was a little different. Truth be told, neither team was very good and in the days before rally scoring, the match took forever. Five sets and some three hours later, WCHS prevailed. I was exhausted as I escaped the gym.

19. Are you kidding me?!?! — A few days later I covered my first WCHS football game at Lynx Field. The opponent and final scores aren’t important (mainly because I don’t remember). What stands out is this: WCHS had a fantastic wide receiver. Great hands, burner’s speed, someone who jumped off the field. I played his ability up huge in my first game story and I was pretty proud of the final product. JD Blue, what a star. There was just one problem … the program had the numbers and names wrong. The phenom was actually Matt Tharp, something his mom pointed out to me a few hours after the paper hit the streets. Yep, the start of Week 2 on the job and I’m an idiot. Tharp was an athletic freak though.

18. Rod Carew in purple and gold — When baseball season rolls around, the first person I always think of is Alex Davis, the guy with the best swing I’ve ever covered. Hitting from the left side, he was Mozart with an Easton. Younger brother Jonny Davis was one of the best all-around athletes I’ve ever covered, but what Alex could do with a baseball bat was mesmerizing.

17. The showdown — The most highly-anticipated regular season football game I’ve ever covered occurred on Oct. 7, 2011. No. 2-ranked WCHS at No. 1 Clear Lake, and it lived up to the hype. The Lions started fast and hung on late for a 28-27 victory, a devastating result for the Lynx, but what a game.

16. Phone problems — I was at the state wrestling tournament in the winter of 2007 when I got the news that Bob Howard was leaving Sigourney to become the head football coach and athletic director at Webster City. The high school I graduated from, English Valleys, was in the same conference as Sigourney, and I’d first met Bob probably when I was 8 or 9 years old (my dad was an AD as well and had known Bob for years). I quickly found Bob’s phone number and from the bowels of Wells Fargo Arena, I dialed him up. The conversation (or conversations) were over before they got started. He hung up on me … not once, but twice. In fairness, I never got the chance to get my name out before I heard the “click.” That story still makes me laugh.

15. The franchise — I’d heard about how good of a prep wrestler Tyler Patten was going to be long before he hit the high school mats. As it turned out, everyone undersold him. Not only was he one of the best to ever wear a Lynx singlet, but he was (and is) an even better person. He was the first WCHS grappler to win four state medals, but the wins and accolades aren’t what I remember about his career. In the final column I wrote about Tyler, I said he’s the type of kid I hope my daughters someday grow up to marry. I still feel that way today.

14. The resurgence — It was years in the making, but WCHS finally returned to the top of the NCC wrestling landscape in 2011. I’d watched the program scrap through some pretty lean years, but head coach Ted Larson was determined to return the Lynx to prominence. He did just that, and watching his wrestlers carry him around the mat with the championship trophy in his grasp was special. It was the first of four crowns in a seven-year span.

13. The Bus — Tony Bussan, forever one of my all-time favorite individuals to walk this planet. On a daily basis, I wish I had even a small fraction of his energy. The moment that stands out about the WCHS Hall of Fame cross country and track coach occurred at Maynes Grove in Hampton. The year, I’m not sure. But following an NCC meet, with next to no sun left in the sky, he stepped onto a tree stump and threw his hand into the air. The Lynx crowd immediately grew silent. It. Was. Amazing. That’s respect, folks.

12. Sibling rivalry — Maybe my two favorite athletes to interview were twin brothers Alec and Avery Fuhs. Fantastic three-sport athletes at WCHS, it was their familial love-hate relationship that was so fun. They were inseparable, yet they bickered like an old married couple. Here’s the most memorable moment: an interview with Alec following a district basketball game against Algona their senior year. Alec had saved the day late and conventional wisdom said he’d be elated. Nope, he was fuming. “(Bleeping) Avery,” he said. “He better pull his head out of his (bleep) before the next game or we’re going to lose.”

11. One Hill of a run — South Hamilton’s basketball run from 2016 to 2019 was remarkable. Three HOIC titles, three trips to state, so many wins and just a handful of losses. And at the forefront was the Hill family — head coach Nathan, and his sons Collin and Conner. A great coach and two great players. It was hard to see them all go.

10. Doo-a-lot — Of all the athletes I’ve covered, very few faced the pressure or scrutiny of Drake Doolittle. And of all the athletes I’ve covered, none wanted to fly under the radar more than Doolittle. But even with the hype and the roller coaster ride, he left WCHS this past spring with one of the best wrestling resumes in school history. Watching him win a state title earlier this year, I’m not sure I’ve ever been happier for a kid. He deserved it.

9. A Special day — Amanda Warweg, I will always be grateful that you asked me to be a part of the Special Olympics this past spring. I wrote it at the time and it still remains true: the smiles, so many smiles, made it a day I’ll never forget. Covering Webster City’s athletes that day rivaled anything I’ve seen on a state tournament stage.

8. Air Josten — That was a headline I wrote following a WCHS basketball game at Iowa Falls during Jared Josten’s playing days. No disrespect to Brock Jacobson, or Clay Harreld, or Marco Balderas, or Collin and Conner Hill, but Josten is the best basketball player I’ve ever covered. Standing a few inches shy of 6-foot, he was a video game in high tops. So fast, so athletic, so skilled. I was so spoiled in my early days at the DFJ.

7. Hilton’s goodbye — I was sitting in the third-base dugout at the Forest City softball field for my final interview with Dave Hilton as the head softball coach at WCHS. The winner of two state titles, I’d never encountered a better coach. Tough, but fair, that’s how I’d describe Hilt. And If I could interview just one coach for the remainder of my career, I’d choose him without hesitation. There was nothing cookie-cutter about his answers to questions.

6. Gridiron champs — The 2006 Northeast Hamilton football team, still the only gridiron state champion team I’ve ever covered. The Trojans had everything that season — size, speed, talent, etc. Dirk Timm shied away from nobody and Alex Renaud was the perfect leader. And that playoff game at Janesville that season? It still gives me goose bumps.

5. Roundhouse dejection — I’m sorry, South Hamilton basketball fans, but you had to know this was coming. Late winter, 2001, substate game, the unbeaten Hawks taking on AGWSR with a trip to the state tournament on the line. Led by Ryan Penning, It was a season of destiny for South Hamilton, right up until the moment that AGWSR hit a desperation shot from just inside half-court at the buzzer to pull the upset. A photo I took of Penning, with his hands on his head in disbelief as tears fell down his cheeks, is burned into my memory. One of the more devastating losses I’ve ever witnessed.

4. I’m clueless — How was WCHS going to be on the football field in 2016? That’s a question I was asked so many times (as I am every fall), and my standard line was, “Probably just OK. I’d say 5-4, 6-3 would be a good season.” Folks, never ask me for a prediction because I’m obviously clueless. The team I thought was going to be average ended up winning a Class 3A district title and making it to the state championship game for the first time in school history. I’ve never been more surprised by a team, and I’ve never enjoyed covering a team more.

3. Pack the house — Let’s go back to my first winter at the DFJ. WCHS had a top-five boys’ basketball team … Brandon Bahrenfuss, Matt Johnson, Jake Bettis, Kory Wirtz, Scott Wilson. And two games from that season remain first page of the leaderboard contenders for the most memorable in my career. Starting with the game at St. Edmond in which the 8 p.m. tip-off was sold out by 4 p.m., the gym packed by 4:30. And then the district game against Forest City, another top-five team, that was standing room only. One side of Jeff Gym was all purple, the other side all red. I believe the multi-purpose gym had fans in it as well watching a live feed. This was how I was introduced to basketball in central Iowa. Such great memories.

2. The Champs — WCHS was a surprise qualifier for the 2A state softball tournament in the summer of 2001, so much so that I already had a planned vacation to a lake in South Dakota for the week of the tourney. Young and dumb, I quickly surmised the Lynx would get bounced quickly, so I went on my vacation. A few days later I raced back to Webster City at about 90 mph after the Lynx upset second-ranked Independence in the quarterfinals. I was on hand for the team’s semifinal win over Grinnell and for the stunning upset of top-ranked Clear Creek-Amana in the title game. Eighteen years later, I can still name every starter on that team and tell you each of their strengths. No offense to all the others, but this is and will always be my favorite DFJ-area team.

1. The Interview — This one is going to take more than one paragraph. I’m sure I’m about to shed a tear or two as well …

It was early December, 2005, and I was incredibly nervous as I sat inside the WCHS wrestling coach’s office opposite then head coach Dick Kennedy. While courageously fighting kidney cancer, Kennedy agreed to a “tell all” of sorts with me where no question concerning his health was off limits. I had my list of questions as I took my seat, and over the course of the next 60 minutes I barely said a word.

I think I asked a total of two questions. Coach did the rest. In an even and quiet voice, he told his story, and he did it with love, with compassion, and with a courage I marvel at to this day. He knew he didn’t have a lot of time left, but he wasn’t angry. Taking myself back into that setting now, I truly believe he was at peace.

He had a constant smile on his face as he talked about his kids and the dreams he had for them after he was gone. I wish so much that I had kept the recording of that interview. I would listen to it often.

After Dick had finished his story and I’d shut off the recorder, he looked at me, chuckled and said, “I don’t know how you’re going to make a story out of all of that.” But I already knew the answer. The story was done.

His words, transcribed onto the page, topped anything I could ever write, and so that’s how it appeared in the DFJ. Timeless and poignant even today.

Dick passed away seven months later. There isn’t a day that I cover wrestling each winter where I don’t think of him at least once.