Camas coach’s lessons help soldier face adversity in combat zone, life

timestamp icon
category icon Columns
(Contributed photo courtesy of Robert F. Williams) Members of the 1999 Evergreen High football team, including author Robert F. Williams (second from right, top row, No. 57), pose for a photo during the team's winning season.

As the Camas High School football team enjoys another state title, I hope the players realize how lucky they are to play for Jon Eagle. Jon Eagle is, 20 years later, one of my most revered mentors. Whether they realize it or not, Coach Eagle, through football is teaching them more than Xs and Os, but rather life lessons that will carry these young people into adulthood. Much like former Washington Huskies head coach Chris Petersen’s Built for Life program, Jon Eagle made me built for life, and has been doing the same for area youth for 30 years. The intangibles learned playing high school football in the Pacific Northwest have stayed with me through life’s trials and tribulations — they are an integral part of who I am in the 20 years since last donning a helmet and pads.

The football coaching staff at Evergreen High School in Vancouver in 1999 was excellent. Led by Jon Eagle, Dan Kielty, Mike Kesler, Cale Piland, and the late Mark Rego, they taught us many lessons, the most important of which was resilience. The ability to bounce back from the game’s setbacks allow all of us to bounce back from life’s setbacks.

Team sports and military idioms go together like peanut butter and jelly. Whether television announcers are commenting on battles in the “trenches,” or launching an “air attack,” the references are relentless. More important than idioms, are the comparable notions of brotherhood and teamwork. High school football prepared me for combat in a way nothing else could have, but not as you might imagine.

Every player had a sticker on the front of their helmet — “W.I.N.” (what’s important now?) — situated between the two screws above the eyes. This mantra was designed to teach us about adversity. It meant that, no matter what happened, the only thing that mattered was this moment. We were taught to focus on the moment, to not dwell on the past, but to look forward. This mantra permeated my life, and I return to it when I face adversity.

This lesson stayed with me as I entered the Army just four days after my high school graduation. The coaches did not know it at the time, but they taught us how to respond to failure and difficulties, which would pay dividends as I faced combat in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have experienced massive tragedy and loss over three deployments. High school football taught me how to deal with that.

W.I.N. mattered as much on the battlefield as it did on the gridiron. When something tragic would happen, or even something small that maybe didn’t go the way we planned, I would think, “What’s important now?” I will never forget my past, where I came from and what I have learned along the way.

Sport, then, is a microcosm of life and the trials and tribulations learned as children on the sporting fields pay dividends later. No matter their chosen vocation, the lessons imparted through sport follow us as we pursue excellence. I am fortunate to have learned from some of the best mentors in the Pacific Northwest in Jon Eagle and his coaching staff at Evergreen High School during the late 1990s. I am proud to watch him continue to build a legacy. I hope the young people he has coached — especially the current Washington 4A state champion Camas Papermakers — realize just how lucky they are.

Robert F. Williams is a 2000 graduate of Evergreen High School in Vancouver. A former Army infantry NCO with multiple combat deployments, he is now a PhD student at the Ohio State University. To reach Williams, email