An editorial from Jon Miller, a former West Branch football player, on the passing of Coach Pedersen.
On March 29th, 2023, I learned that my high school football coach, who was my high school basketball coach, who was my junior high track coach, and elementary school teacher was leaving the hospital and returning home to hospice care to be with family and friends for however much time he has left on this planet.
Butch’s son Kip shared the news with me via text. I was instantly heartbroken in a way that you only feel for those who have made the biggest impacts on your life. I have felt this way just a handful of times in my life, so the feeling is not something I am used to; however, I am getting to the age where this is going to become far more common. I hate that. I hate it very much.
Yet it also provides me time and solitude as I seek a quiet place to sit with my thoughts. That’s just a figure of speech, as I rarely sit with anything. I process, I write, and I do.
When I heard the news about Butch, who I will simply refer to as Coach from here on out as that is what I have always called him, I just wanted to sit down and write…because this is how I cope with grief. I write.
However, with Coach, it would be impossible to fully capture the depth of respect and love I have for that man via a keyboard…yet, I will endeavor to try.
I have joked throughout the decades since leaving West Branch that while I have had so many amazing people pour into my life and make a difference, few people outside of my family impacted me in the ways that Coach did. Nobody impacted me in some of the ways that Butch did.
Coach was a combination of a father figure, a drill sergeant, a teacher, a motivator, and an authority to me while I was still in school. The level of respect and reverence I have for Coach is still powerful to this day. More powerful than I even realized, given how instantly the tears flowed when I read the message from Kip at 7:30AM on March 29th, 2023.
It was the first thing I read on that day. I got up, put on some clothes and walked out to the living room of my house and my wife and daughter could tell something was wrong…and all that I could manage to say was ‘My coach is dying, and he’s going into hospice care,’ before I melted into a ball of tears and into my wife’s arms.
I was caught off guard by this unstoppable flow of tears, not because I am incapable of crying or feeling emotion, but because of how hard this news hit me.
As I left the house to take my daughter to school, she asked about Coach, as she met him this past fall when we went back to Iowa to see my folks and brother, and we took in a West Branch football game.
She said, ‘You should drive back and see him,’ I told her he was so ill that I assumed they were not letting anyone into the house except close family. She knew I had spoken with Coach during that trip to West Branch back in September, and she asked me something simple but something heavy. “What was the last thing that you talked with him about?”.
That evening in early September, I played catch with my brother down on the field of The Little Rose Bowl, the first time he and I had done that in decades but something we had done hundreds of times as children.
The ghosts of my past are so active anytime I am near the field, the grade school, or even the town…it’s challenging to keep them at bay, but then again, I don’t try to hold them back…I let them rise up because they fill me with joy and completeness. I feel the echoes of my youth, and I take solace in retracing the footsteps, now as an adult and in my 50s, that I once trod as a grade-schooler.
I had the chance to grow up in West Branch during a magical time. I’m sure a lot of people have magical memories of their childhood, but the time of life I spent there from the age of 8 through 17 (1979-1988) was straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.
The community was indeed a village, and just because a grown-up was not your parent didn’t mean that you didn’t respect them with the same attention and focus as your own parents…and they would love you like you were their own. I experienced so much love from so many different parents. The Stout’s, Kessler’s, Stoolman’s, Wright’s, Sexton’s, Zinkula’s, Hierseman’s, and dozens more…and the Pedersen’s.
Lance is a year younger than me and I was just as close with his class of 1990 as I was with my own class of 1989…. as such, we played a lot of AAU and American Legion together. Sometimes, like once when we had an AAU tournament in Cedar Falls, Coach would be along on those weekend trips and staying at hotels.
Coach had a good relationship and friendship with my father, Dave Miller, until the end of Coach’s life. Seeing Coach sitting at a table next to an indoor pool with all of the parents on the trip and laughing threw me for a loop the first time I saw it…it’s like seeing Superman in his street clothes…it was just a jarring juxtaposition to me, as Coach had always been an authority figure. He intimidated me more than any other human being ever, but in the best of ways…to see him laughing and being just like every other parent humanized him to me…at least a little.
As I went into high school, my freshman year, I was a few minutes late for the first two-a-day practice…yeah, you can imagine how well that went, and I paid the price for it…as I should have.
To this very day, I am 52 years old, and I am never, ever late for anything if I am in total control of the departure time… as you might imagine, I make certain that I am in total control of departure times. Whenever I feel I might arrive somewhere exactly on time, I begin to feel anxious.
That is due to high school football and playing for Coach on Lombardi Time, which means that if you are on time, you are late. I might be a lot of things, and people might have a few different names they’d like to call me from time to time, but ‘late’ is not something anyone says about me.
At the end of my junior season, my teammates voted me as one of four captains for the upcoming 1988 season. I never got to experience that season in West Branch, as we would move to Illinois in the spring. But before I decided to move to Illinois with my parents, I had options; both the Kessler’s and Pedersen’s told my parents I could live with them for my senior year. I sometimes thing back on what that might have been like, how much fun it would have been to be a part of the first-ever West Branch team to make the playoffs, but I wound up moving to Illinois with the rest of my family and experienced new and meaningful relationships and adventures that I cherish. But this is just one short anecdote on how closely-knit the community was, and likely still is. I wasn’t a star athlete, but I was a part of the West Branch family, and boy did I feel it.
High school football was one of the most comprehensive teachers I have ever experienced. It teaches you to trust others even when it’s scary, it teaches you that you can push yourself beyond the comfort levels of your own personal homeostasis. It teaches you about brotherhood, mutual respect, individual accountability, and discipline…and though you do not realize it at that time, or at least, I didn’t, it’s the activity and lifestyle I miss the most from my childhood.
Most people will have a chance to create new friends as they move through life, but you cannot make old friends. You will be hard-pressed to develop the same types of bonds with others as you had with your football teammates. Football is a great teacher, and Coach Pedersen was the heartbeat of West Branch Football for 40 years. Sure, the players play the games, but Coach was the heartbeat. Coach was the rock…Coach was one of my constants, one of my touchstones to a beautiful and magical childhood in West Branch.
When I have come back to town through the years, and the visits have become less and less frequent as life has become more and more complicated, I’d still get a charge out of talking with Coach.
I’d be more at attention, I’d subconsciously present a deferential ‘posture,’ and then I’d become self-aware that Coach was treating me as a contemporary, a peer, an equal…as a man. Those things both invigorated me and made me uncomfortable at the same time because this was Coach Butch Pedersen I was talking with, and he was treating me like an equal; this is not the natural order of things, yet I still cherished every second of it.
So as I circle back around to Mary’s question to me on the morning of March 29th, 2023, minutes after I learned that Coach Pedersen was transitioning to hospice care, when she asked what the last thing we talked about on that September evening of 2022 was, I pause and breathed in the memory of that meeting.
Back in September, my brother Jason had texted me that Coach Pedersen wanted me to come down onto the field to say hello before the game. The Bears were already out on the field doing warm-ups, and Coach was out there too, with his patented crossed arms and stern look, and I thought to myself, there is no freaking way I am going to walk out onto that field during warmups.
I was 51 years old. I’ve seen and done a lot of things in sports and business. I’ve spoken in front of 25,000 people in convention halls, hundreds of thousands of people on the radio, and in millions of people on television. I’ve interviewed Bobby Knight and survived that experience.
But the thought of walking down onto Oliphant Street Field during warmups of a real game while Coach Pedersen was on patrol and had his arms cross was a thought that generated some anxiety inside of me. But Jason said Coach Pedersen had asked me to come down there, so to deny a request from Coach was a greater fear than trespassing on that sacred acre at that sacred time…so down I went.
I walked out onto the field, and from about ten yards away, I locked eyes with Coach… his stern and focused game face melted and transitioned into a huge smile…his entire face smiled, his eyes lifted, the visor on his head lifted due to the muscles that move when we smile a big smile.
I’ve interviewed and spoken with national coaches of the year, and some of them know me by name…and that’s kind of a cool feeling. But none of that holds a candle to the way I felt when Coach Pedersen looked at me like that and made me feel like the most important person in the world in that ten seconds.
I didn’t want to be on the field any longer than I had to, as a great sense of imposter syndrome had set in…but I walked up to Coach Pedersen and shook his hand, and he said, ‘Thanks for coming out, Jonny, it means a lot to me,”
At that, I leaned in and threw my arms around him, and said, “Coach, it’s an honor to be here, and I love you.” Coach leaned into the embrace and hugged me back, and said, “I love you too, Johnny.” I then went back up into the stands, where I belonged.
I won’t lie to you with some revisionist history and say I had some premonition that I would never see him again. However, I felt something different, something significant…and I have revisited the thought and tried to distill them to their essence, I think it was something simple but important.
I remembered thinking that so many people from this town who poured love into me over 40 years ago are either gone or will be in the coming years…and that every chance I get, I am going to try to tell each and every one of them in some way shape or form, how much they meant to me then and still mean to me.
I remembered thinking as I walked off the field that Coach Pedersen, my parents, my friend's parents, and even my friends will not be here forever..so love now, love often, love always.
So I say to you and to all who are grieving this loss; love now, love often, and love always.
I had one last chance to speak with Coach, on Friday, March 31st. It was via Zoom, and the call was brief as Coach was running out of strength. Coach’s body had been ravaged by his illness and it was difficult to see one of your heroes losing the battle with mortality. However, and I am crying as I type this on Tuesday, April 4th, one day after Coach passed into the next stage of existence, it was one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given.
Coach was unflappable. He was Coach. He was strong, probably more so for me than for his desires. “Jonny, when this is all over, and we have reunited in heaven, we are going to play a lot of golf together and share so many good times.”
I had to take a long pause, and my daughter Mary was in the car with me as I had pulled over on the interstate to take the call, and through tears and a broken voice, I said ‘Coach, I will love you forever. All of the things you have poured into me and taught me, I have passed along to my children, and they will pass along to theirs, and to theirs…so that piece of you, a part of you, will live on in this world forever. I love you.”
The call was a gift I will cherish all of my days, and it was therapy for my soul.
Love now, love often, love always.
Coach, there will never be another person to take your place in my heart because there simply isn’t anyone capable. You were one of one, and I am so lucky to have learned from you and crossed paths with you in this life and I look forward to doing it again in the next one.