It's fourth and goal for Waynesville High School Head Football Coach Rick Vernon.
It’s fourth and goal for Waynesville High School Head Football Coach Rick Vernon.
With 33 years as the head coach, Vernon has seen it all -- wins, losses, great plays, bad ones, a state championship in 2007, his players on collegiate teams and three in the NFL.
But this Friday, Aug. 22, will mark a first for the seasoned coach: This will be Vernon’s first home game of his final season as WHS’s head football coach.
“It’s time,” he says. “I still love to go to work everyday; I love the students and I still love football, but I am at the age where it is time to try something else.”
While most teachers and coaches retire after 30 years, Vernon is in his 39th year of teaching this year -- with 33 of them having been at WHS.
“When my wife Cheryl and I moved here, we planned to make this our permanent home and I am so glad we did,” Vernon says. “I have never had a bad day; Cheryl is still my best friend; and she is still by my side.”
His longevity is most evident in his closet where two colors -- orange and black -- dominate. A Waynesville Tiger through and through, Vernon admits to having one favorite year that stands above the rest: 2003 -- the year their son Brent was playing center, their son Brian was an assistant coach and his wife Cheryl was coaching the cheerleaders, which she did for 25 years in Waynesville and 31 years total.
“We spent the entire season together as a family and we have such great memories of that time,” Vernon says.
Despite being named to the Missouri Football Coach Association’s Hall of Fame in 2006 and being named the Coach of the Year over a four-state region in 2008, he quickly deflects the spotlight from himself and even from individual players.
“It has always been and will always be about the players. The memories about individual players are locked in here,” Vernon says, pointing to his temple. “Each player is special to me, but I try to keep the focus on the whole team.”
That’s just one of the many reasons his former players love and respect him and stay in touch with him.
“When he called me to tell me he was retiring from coaching, I told him ‘no one deserves to retire more than you; you’ve been doing this a long time,’” says Damon Frenchers, who played as a sophomore during Vernon’s first year as a head coach.
“Through all these years, Coach Vernon has been like a father to me,” says Frenchers, a 1985 WHS graduate. ”My mother passed away in 1980 and my step-father and I didn’t agree, so I moved out. I bounced from house to house, but then Coach found out and I stayed with him and his family until I could be placed in a home. Ever since then, they have been like my family. They quickly put me into their circle and I have been blessed to remain there. The Vernons have been gracious to a fault and I love them for it.”
When he suffered a separated shoulder, it was Cheryl Vernon who went to the hospital with him. “She was like my mother, advocating for the best care and staying by my side,” Frenchers says.
Frenchers also recalls how he put Rick and Cheryl’s sons -- or the Vernon “boys” as he calls them -- on his shoulders and carried them around after practice. Today, those “boys” are Brian Vernon, an assistant principal at WHS, and Brent Vernon, who is the director of football operations and in his sixth season with Wyoming Football.
During his senior year, “I received a football scholarship to Mizzou, and Coach was so proud,” Frenchers says. “You could see it in his eyes.”
Throughout his career, Frenchers has consulted with Vernon. “We have a relationship that is built on trust, love and respect,” says Frenchers, who is in his 26th year of collegiate coaching and is the defensive coordinator at Lincoln University in Jefferson City. “I think the world of him and I know so many other players do, too. The Vernons are special people and my life has been blessed and enriched because of them. I would not be the man I am today without Coach Vernon.”
Etched forever in his memory, Vernon has one loss that he just cannot get over. No wins, no accolades and no state championships will ever fill the empty void left by the passing of Derringer Cade on Sept. 22, 1990.
At WHS, Cade was a star player, an all-state athlete, a school leader and an all-around good guy. Cade was living the dream, playing collegiate football for Truman State in Kirksville against Southwest Baptist, when he went down on the sidelines with less than five minutes left in the game. CPR efforts were unsuccessful and the college junior passed away from a heart condition, complicated by undiagnosed diabetes. Derringer’s father was at the game; his mother was not.
Upon receiving the news, the Vernons picked up Derringer’s mother and made the longest drive of their lives.
“From that point on, I became a better coach and a better person, Vernon says. “I still think of Derringer before I go out for every game.”
A scholarship continues to be given in Derringer Cade’s name every year and no one has since put on number 54 for the Waynesville Tigers. Vernon didn’t retire the number; he just could not watch another student wear it.
WHS players beat the NFL odds
The odds of playing in the NFL are slim, really slim. The NFL Players Association says that each year of the 100,000 high school seniors who play football, only 215 will ever make an NFL roster. That’s two-tenths of one percent.
The odds are clearly not in a player’s favor, but, if you want to beat the odds, play at WHS, where three players – L.J. Fort, Gijon Robinson and C.J. Mosley – have made it. Their jerseys are framed in the entrance of the fieldhouse.
Robinson, who played for the Indianapolis Colts, credits Vernon with teaching him great techniques, offensive schematics, but most importantly, perseverance.
“Football is a game of inches,” Robinson says. “It’s all about who wants it most, who wants the title, who wants the w in the win column.”
With a mixture of pride and nostalgia, Robinson remembers Vernon pushing him to go faster in suicides – a series of fast-paced runs that test agility.
“I would be out in front and he would still yell,” Robinson says.
Robinson thrived, learning to analyze his movements, retool his efforts, change his approach and become more efficient and effective.
“Don’t get me wrong, I did not enjoy suicides,” Robinson says. “I was glad when they were done, but I learned that perseverance pays off – not just on the field, but also in the classroom, at home and in life.”
Robinson also learned how to be a better person and a more effective leader.
“Coach Vernon is an absolutely amazing man,” Robinson says. “I think of him as a father figure before I think of him as a coach. I could always talk to him about grades, about what classes were fundamentally important to me and about girls. He did a great job of instilling in me how to be a young man and how to approach life.”
While they talked about a lot of subjects, the idea of playing in the NFL never came up while Robinson was in high school. It did, later when he was in college.
“Playing in the NFL was a pipedream and I knew the chances were slim,” Robinson says. “but perseverance paid off.”
As they have for their collegiate players, the Vernons traveled to watch Robinson play in the NFL.
“I was like a kid at Christmas,” Robinson says. “I was a product of his labor and it was gratifying to know that he was watching me. I wanted to make my coach proud – to know that his investment in me was worth the effort.”
Robinson, who serves as a motivational speaker and preacher, still easily recalls several of Vernon’s philosophies: You are who you are when no one is watching; winning is not everything, but working to be better is; you are measured by how many lives you have touched; and who you align yourself with dictates your future.
“The NFL opened avenues for me and I thank God for putting me in a situation and blessing me and empowering me through those around me, like Coach Vernon,” Robinson says.
The 2007 team
Winning a state championship will always be a highlight of his career, and the humble coach can still recall how it felt to enter St. Louis and look up from the bus windows and see the skyscrapers overhead.
“At that moment, I realized that this is it! We really are in the state championship,” Vernon says. “Before we went out there, I told the boys to do their best, play their game, be confident and they would be state champions.”
As they took the field, Vernon looked up and the stands were filled with orange and black -- thousands of people. Many say it’s the biggest single crowd for any state football championship, before or since. Vernon says one thing is for certain: in Class 5, Waynesville remains the only football team located outside the greater St. Louis and Kansas City areas to win state.
“In 2007, our fans followed us everywhere, and there were even people from the outlying communities coming to cheer us on,” Vernon says. “I know everyone says that their fans are the best, but I really believe that our fans are the best. Whether we are winning or losing, year in and year out, our fans come out and fill up the stands. They cheer and motivate our players to do their best.”
Holding true to his philosophy, Vernon shifts the focus back to the team when the conversation goes to the final play of the game, the celebration afterward, or an individual player.
“Just like every year, it was a team effort between the players and coaches,” Vernon says. “We knew going into that year that we had a lot of potential. The players were self-motivated and we gained momentum each time we beat the number one ranking teams (Kirkwood and Jackson).”
And, while some use that phrase as a cliche and really want praise heaped on themselves, Coach Vernon is sincere and humble. For 33 years, it has been the same story -- one of a man who wants to be remembered for making a positive difference in the lives of the students for whom he has served as their guidance counselor and for those who played on the field. Vernon will remain a guidance counselor at WHS, but he will continue to use the same measure of success – not by yards and first-downs, but by every inch that each student moves forward in the right direction. Because every inch is that much closer toward a goal.