After 33 years, Trojans' head football coach will hang up whistle for good
WORTHINGTON -- The year was 1970, and 22-year-old Dennis Hale was at the Washington Redskins' pro football camp in Carlisle, Pa. The former Jackson standout's future on the gridiron looked bright. He shined at the University of Minnesota, where h...
WORTHINGTON -- The year was 1970, and 22-year-old Dennis Hale was at the Washington Redskins' pro football camp in Carlisle, Pa.
The former Jackson standout's future on the gridiron looked bright. He shined at the University of Minnesota, where he started at defensive back for the Golden Gophers.
Now, though, as he was so close to the NFL -- so close to fulfilling a lifelong dream shared by almost every amateur football player -- Hale realized that he didn't want to play the game anymore.
"It didn't feel right," Hale said. "There was just something in my mind that said, 'Man, I don't know if I want to get up in the morning and hit some guy that weighs 240 pounds every day to make a living.'"
As reality dawned on him, Hale went up to the Redskins' defensive backs coach with tears in his eyes.
"I said, 'I don't know what's wrong with me, but I don't think I want to play football anymore,'" Hale recalled. "He said, 'I appreciate you came and told us, because a lot of guys just up and leave.'"
But Hale had to speak up. He was in the middle of Pennsylvania he had no money and he had no way to get back to Minnesota.
The assistant took him to the general manager, who was less than thrilled to have a promising rookie quit on him.
"That guy was really mad at me," Hale said. "He said, 'I'm not paying, I'm not giving you a penny.'"
"He had the guts to come and talk to me," Hale recalled the assistant coach answering. "Pay his way home."
The Redskins ended up footing the bill for a plane home, and Dennis Hale's football career was over -- as a player, anyway.
Thirty-nine years later, Coach Hale is making a similar decision, one that's proven to be just as tough.
The Worthington Trojans' head coach for the past 33 years, Hale has decided to finally hang his whistle up and step away from the game for good.
"I think I'll be comfortable with it, just like I was when I made my NFL decision," Hale said. "My time's done."
The Trojans' coach who directed WHS to 160 career victories and nine conference championships will be the first to say that he's always belonged on the sidelines.
It's not that Hale wouldn't have made the professional cut almost 40 years ago. He was athletic, he was fit and he was one of the top performers for almost every drill at the Redskins' camp.
In fact, the New Orleans Saints eventually called Hale up and all but offered him a starting spot in their defensive backfield.
Hale turned it down.
"If I had never been drafted, I would have just gone straight into coaching," he said. "I was tired of football by the end of my career at the U."
It was the Saints that had originally picked Hale in the fourth round of the 1969 NFL draft.
But Hale was drafted one more time that year.
The United States Army, busy in Vietnam, also wanted his services.
When Hale got traded to Washington, the Redskins' coach at the time was none other than Vince Lombardi.
"He came across the locker room while I was getting dressed and said, 'Denny, I'm Coach Lombardi,'" Hale recalled. "Like I wouldn't know."
"I said, 'Coach, you've got to understand that I've been drafted by Uncle Sam.'"
Lombardi turned away, swearing. The Saints hadn't told him.
It was either Vietnam or more schooling for Hale, so once he left Washington he went back to Minnesota to pursue his teaching degree.
He had always wanted to be a coach, even as a kid back in Jackson -- a farming community where football was a way of life.
"Growing up in Jackson, football really had the emphasis," Hale said. "When you went downtown, you went into the stores and the businessmen would talk to you about football, especially during the season."
But Hale caught more attention than just that of a few Jackson businessmen.
College scouts quickly took notice of the 6-foot-2 safety who could run and hit with the best of them.
Hale chose to play college football at Minnesota, where he was part of the Golden Gophers' Big 10 championship squad in 1967. That's the last time the U of M won the conference.
While at Minnesota, Hale played under Gopher coaching legend Murray Warmath.
In the Shrine Bowl all-star game Hale made as a senior, he was coached by Notre Dame great Ara Parseghian.
Hale also played for former Saints coach Tom Fears, as well as Lombardi.
He learned from those coaches' examples, picking up certain philosophies that he liked, and disregarding others.
Hale's biggest influences, though, were his high school coaches at Jackson.
"Growing up in Jackson I had teachers that were role models," he said. "I would say, 'I want to be like this guy,' and he would be a coach."
Hale has influenced many other students in exactly the same way.
"He's certainly a big reason I became a coach," said 1994 WHS graduate Jeff Drent, who now coaches football at Southwestern United. "I had him as a teacher, a ninth-grade basketball coach and a football coach. You could tell he loved sports and his kids."
Oddly enough, Hale had no intention of leaving Barnesville, where he landed his first coaching job in 1974.
Hale coached Barnesville to a 22-7 record and three conference championships in as many years.
A golf tournament in Jackson, though, changed everything.
Ken Thompson, Worthington's athletic director at the time, was at the same tournament.
The AD asked Hale if he would be interested in the head coaching position that had just opened up at Worthington.
It was close to his hometown, so Hale said yes. He became the Trojans' head coach in 1977.
Back then, the coach's hair was a little longer, and he looked a little younger, former WHS athletic director Don Kuiper, then an assistant coach on the football team, said.
But Kuiper knew the Trojans had landed a good one when he was helping Hale unpack his boxes in Worthington.
"There were notes in the boxes from the kids he coached in Barnesville, who must have helped him pack," Kuiper remembered. "You could tell those kids really loved him.
"He was a real players' coach."
Hale and his other coaches always tried to reach kids on the gridiron. Some of them, he said, wouldn't have been reachable anywhere else.
"Sometimes the only chance you get to reach kids is on the practice field," he said. "They might be struggling in the real classroom, but they get in your classroom, and you can reach them."
"We've had countless examples of kids that spent a lot of time in detention, but as coaches we related to them," he added. "By the time they graduated, maybe they were a better person because they were out for athletics. That's probably what keeps you going, too."
But Hale might have had his biggest impact off of the football field. Those 33 years spent coaching at Worthington also included Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) sessions before Monday Night Football at the Hale house.
"They would go over to his (Hale's) place, listen to a devotion and then stick around for the Monday Night Football game," Kuiper said of the players.
Drent was one of them.
"There was always a group of us that would go over there," he said. "I always looked forward to that."
The last time WHS made the state football playoffs was 2005. Some thought it would have been ideal for Hale to step down after that season.
"If I wanted to go out on a high, I'd have gone out probably after our state appearance in 2005," he said.
But for Hale, it was never about the wins and losses.
"If they put on your gravestone that he won 200 or 300 games, would that be more meaningful than to have some kid write you a letter saying that you made a difference in his life?" Hale asked.
"I think that's why coaches stay in it for a long time."
But this season, Hale started to have some doubts.
"I always enjoy practice, but maybe at one o'clock I thought for the first time in my career, 'I wonder what it'd be like if I didn't have to go to practice today?'" he said. "I still loved every minute of it, but I paid a lot of attention to how I felt."
Hale said he's at ease with his decision -- for now, anyway.
"There's no question that next fall it'll be tough," he said. "I don't know if I'll be able to go to a Worthington game. I know I won't be able to sit in the stands."
He has no regrets, though, about this decision or the one he made 39 years ago.
"If I did it all over again, I would do it, and I would do it in Worthington," the coach said.
At least this time, he won't need a plane ticket. He's already home.