SNOHOMISH — Keith Gilbertson Sr. rises early, sits down in front of his old Underwood Typewriter and begins to write.
He dashes off letters, as many as 60 a week during the football season. Just a few lines to let people know he’s thinking about them.
He talks about his beloved high school football team, the Snohomish Panthers. If he’s writing to a coach — which he often is, likely as not a former Snohomish student — he’ll congratulate him on a win the week before and pass along good wishes to the family.
Not even Gilbertson knows how many people he keeps in touch with, but Denny Schuler estimates it’s got to be in the hundreds.
"I’ll get a little note every couple of weeks," said Schuler, who coaches the defensive secondary for Stanford University. "It’s unbelievable the number of people he corresponds with. A lot of these are not only people who played for him but coaches he has met through the years."
Sometimes it’s a current student who’s the recipient of a Gilbertson missive. Last summer Kirsten Brockman, who was about to enter her senior year at Snohomish, came down with mononucleosis.
Gilbertson wrote cards and left telephone messages that said: "Kirsten, get well soon. I’m praying for you."
"It was so thoughtful that he would do that," said Brockman, a standout basketball player for the Panthers.
How many Denny Schulers, how many Kirsten Brockmans have had their lives touched by Gilbertson? How many lives does a coach impact over the course of 50 years? Hundreds, maybe thousands.
The remarkable thing about Gilbertson is, every one of those years has been spent in the high school from which he graduated in 1945. For the past 35 years, he has been an invaluable assistant on the football team, a man happy to stand in the background and do whatever he could to help Panther teams excel. And excel they did under the late Dick Armstrong, winning two state championships in the 1970s.
This year’s team went unbeaten during the regular season and there on the sideline beside coach Mark Perry was the 73-year-old Gilbertson, tutoring running backs and defensive backs.
It’s truly a labor of love because for the past 19 years, Gilbertson, who retired in 1981, has been volunteering his services to the Panthers. He’s starting his sixth year as an assistant coach with the girls basketball team after serving in the same capacity with the boys teams for many years. "I just enjoy it so much," he said. "I should be paying them for the opportunity."
Gilbertson hasn’t only served the Panthers as an assistant coach. For three years in the ’50s, he was the head coach in football until he disciplined some kids for breaking team rules and it cost him his job. A few years later, when he was coaching the Panther cross country teams to unparalleled success (seven years without one dual meet loss, two state championships and three state runners-up), someone remarked what a great coach he was. "I’m the same coach I was when you fired me," Gilbertson said.
That he would stay on and be unstintingly loyal to his alma mater, that he would work for the past 19 years without taking a cent, tells you all you need to know about the man everyone affectionately calls "Gilby."
"When you get guys to volunteer, sometimes things come up and they miss, you know, because of priorities," said football coach Perry. "He’ll cancel whatever it is to come to Panther football."
One year, his oldest son, Keith Gilbertson Jr., was playing a football game for the University of Hawaii in Las Vegas. It might have been the last game of his career, Gilbertson Sr. couldn’t recall for sure. Anyway, Senior and his wife Eileen had purchased their airline tickets and were all set to go. But at the last minute he felt so obligated to scout a Snohomish opponent that weekend that he canceled his trip. That team he got the scouting report on? It lost to the Panthers by 60 points.
For Gilbertson, coaching isn’t about wins and losses. It is more about helping a young person realize his or her potential. If each and every one of them did that, success would follow.
"I love kids," Gilbertson said. "That’s pretty much been my enjoyment over the years. They’ve been more than willing to try to improve themselves to be the best they can be."
People who have followed his career know that Gilbertson was a man ahead of his time. He initiated a weight training program in the ’60s. In the summer, not only would high school athletes flock to it, but so would college and pro players. One summer in the ’80s, he had 32 pro, college and junior college football players enrolled, including ex-Panther Curt Marsh.
Marsh, who went on to be a first-round draft choice of the Oakland Raiders, credits Gilbertson for two important life lessons. One, the value of hard work. Two, no matter how hard you work, you can always do more.
Marsh says he always went into Raider training camp knowing that he was in better shape than anyone else. "I always thought if I couldn’t be better than those other guys, I could outwork them," Marsh said. Here was a guy who played in the line, weighed 270 pounds and carried just 7 percent body fat, the same as a cross country runner.
After he got to the NFL, Marsh had his own weight room in his home outside Snohomish and Gilbertson would tutor his workouts there. Some mornings Marsh would shut off the alarm clock, roll over and go back to sleep. Then, horrified, he’d awaken, jump out of bed, look out the window and see Gilbertson waiting patiently in his car.
"I’d go down and say I was sorry," Marsh said. "He’d say, ‘Let’s go to work.’ "
Marsh would go until he thought he couldn’t do anymore and he’d ask Gilbertson, how much more? "He would say, just worry about doing one more," Marsh said. "I proved to myself when I didn’t think I could do any more, I could always do one more. I’ve used that so many times in my life."
Gilbertson also started a spring conditioning program in which kids could improve their agility and quickness.
Then there were the one-on-one sessions he had for kids at odd times of the day. "He’d meet me at 7:30 in the morning, five days a week," said Brockman, the basketball player. "He’d run me through drills and exercises and he was always encouraging me."
Brockman recognizes the abundance of knowledge stored in this man’s head, and appreciates the fact that he doesn’t "abuse" it like some people would. "When he talks," she said, "everyone listens."
Barry Rodland has been listening to and learning from Gilbertson for more than 30 years. Gilbertson was Rodland’s backfield coach in 1966 and ‘67. Today, they’re on the Panther staff together. "He’s forgotten more than I’ll ever know," Rodland said.
Gilbertson understands the psychology of sport. Armstrong was a wonderful football coach and a peach of a guy. But he had a tough-love approach to his kids. And sometimes when a player screwed up an assignment, he’d get scorched by the old coach.
"I’d come into the locker room thinking I wasn’t any good, thinking the coaches had lost all confidence in me," Rodland said, "and Gilby would come in, put his arm around me and say, ‘Don’t get down.’ He’d make you excited to come back the next day."
To people who enjoy their jobs, it’s not work. That’s the way coaching is to Gilbertson. It’s what makes waking up in the morning worthwhile. It’s what makes each day special.
It’s what got him through last year. Armstrong’s death in the fall of 1999 was the culmination of a hard five years during which Gilbertson lost his wife and several friends. "I had a hard time last year," he recalled. "I was only sleeping two, three, four hours a night."
He overcame the difficulty by pouring himself into the Panther football team. "I thought they had a chance (to be good) if they just stayed together and improved every week," he said. "We had some kids with some talent and they were dedicated to what we were trying to do."
Gilbertson was just as dedicated as the kids were. He was at the school five hours a day, watching film or discussing strategy with Perry. "He’d come in during my prep period," the coach said. "As soon as I’d come in, he’d say, ‘You’re just the guy I’m looking for,’ and it was never ‘this is what we have to do’ but ‘What do you think about this?’ or ‘Is this something we could do?’ "
Gilbertson has never thought he had all the answers. That’s why he was always seeking to get better, just as he was always trying to help the kids get better. He would go to football seminars, he’d attend training camps, he’d confer with his many coaching cronies. There was always some way to improve.
"He works as hard as he can for us," said Tim Lockhart, a running back on this year’s team, "and we do our best for him, too."
Marsh says Gilbertson "gave and gave and gave. And you know what? He doesn’t expect anything in return."
It’s all about the student/athletes. "He truly cares about the good of the kids," said Mark Albertine, the former girls basketball coach at Snohomish.
"He’s a special man just for the number of kids he’s helped throughout his career," Rodland said. "What dedication and service he’s brought to this program."
And there are other qualities he has brought. Enthusiasm. Intensity. Competitiveness.
Chris Utt, who played on some marvelous Snohomish teams in the ’70s, remembers running for a touchdown in a game and glancing over to the sideline and seeing Gilbertson matching him step for step. "He was so into the game," said Utt, now a Panther assistant coach.
Gilbertson could have coached at the college level, but why move when you’re having as much fun as he was? "This was big-time to him," said Tom Sursely, the golf director at Mill Creek Country Club and a one-time Panther player. "And it’s not gotten old-hat to him."
One day not long ago, the Snohomish girls team was practicing in the old high school gym, a replica of the one in the movie "Hoosiers." Underneath the backboard stood an elderly gent with his arms folded and paying close attention to the goings-on on the court. Every now and then, when there was a lull in the action, he would offer quiet instruction to a Panther player. That fellow has always stood in the background, but people who know anything about Snohomish athletics recognize that Keith Gilbertson Sr. has played a major role in the success of the program over the last half-century. Even after students moved on, he had an effect on their lives.
Schuler, a longtime assistant coach in the college ranks, says of his former mentor: "There have been few decisions, even in my professional life, that I didn’t consult him on: ‘Is this a good move?’ I can’t say enough about the man."
This says a lot about Gilbertson. He is in both the state football and cross country coaching halls of fame. He may be the only assistant coach in the former. And this says even more: Curt Marsh’s son, C.J., is a running back for Jackson High School. C.J. is anxious to improve before next year and he asked his dad if he thought coach Gilbertson would be willing to work with him. "Then he goes and tells his friends about this guy who can make them great," Curt laughed. "They will learn things from him beyond improving their skills. They’ll learn about consistency, hard work, class and character. All of those things he lives, he shows you how to do."
Players come and players go. Then their kids come and go. But one thing remains stable at Snohomish High School.
"So many people when they come back to Snohomish, they always stop to see Keith Gilbertson," Schuler said. "He’s always the base we come back to."
The man behind the scenes. Working with kids, making them better.
Rising early each morning, sitting down at the old typewriter in his house three doors from the high school, and pecking out letters to old and young friends alike.
They broke the mold for sure after they made this guy.
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