GRANITE FALLS — Every time Dylan Wold walks into the weight room at Granite Falls High School he half expects to see Coach Joe.
Wearing his trademark worn-out, ugly orange shorts, big Joe Montooth was always there barking at the football players to push themselves to get ready for the upcoming season.
But Montooth is gone. The void sometimes overwhelms Wold and his teammates.
“You look over and he’s not there,” said Wold, a junior running back/linebacker. “It hits you pretty hard, pretty quick.”
Montooth, who would have been the team’s offensive coordinator, died in his sleep July 26. He was 46.
Losing Coach Joe, who struggled with diabetes and had heart problems, deeply shook the Granite Falls football players, their coaches and their parents. This would have been the California native’s 13th year coaching in town. Everyone, it seemed, knew and liked him.
“There’s guys who never played football in their life who (said), ‘Hey Coach Joe, how you doing?’” said Zach Jones, a senior on the team.
Montooth knew football, but his influence on youngsters went beyond X’s and O’s. He often invited players to stop by his house and talk — about sports, life, anything.
“He was a best friend and a father figure, not just a coach,” said Wold, one of several players who were close to Montooth.
“Whenever you need him, he’s there,” Jones said. “He gives you advice for everything.”
At times, Montooth had more than a dozen athletes hang out at his home. “A lot of people say their door is open. Joe’s was open,” said Granite Falls head coach Tracey Bechtholdt, one of Montooth’s best friends.
Because Coach Joe meant so much to them, the Tigers dedicated the 2009 season to him. Their first game is Friday against Seattle Prep at Hi Jewell Stadium in Granite Falls. Every time they score this year they will meet in the end zone and point skyward, in Montooth’s honor.
“Whenever one of us starts getting down,” Jones said, “we always say, ‘Come on. What would Joe want? Let’s pick it up for him.’”
Granite Falls will unveil perhaps its most touching tribute in the season opener. In addition to sharing a moment of silence before kickoff, the Tigers will use a play called “Tooth Right 43 Lead” on their first offensive snap. Renamed in honor of their beloved assistant coach, the no-nonsense, wishbone-formation play was Montooth’s favorite.
“We had success with it and Joe firmly believed in that one,” coach Bechtholdt said. “That was his bread-and-butter play.”
It will be the second time Granite Falls has run the play in honor of Montooth, but the first against an opponent. On July 30, at Montooth’s memorial — which was held at the team’s packed stadium — Granite Falls players wearing team jerseys closed the ceremony by lining up on the field, calling the special play and walking the ball into the end zone.
Wold was the ball carrier then. He’ll take the handoff against Seattle Prep, too.
In addition to the saddened players and coaches Montooth left behind, there is his immediate family: Montooth’s wife, Teri, and their daughters, 16-year-old Alix and 7-year-old Sidney. Community members immediately reached out to them after Montooth’s death, sending donations and sympathy cards.
Montooth, who worked as a door and cabinet salesman, would have made a few thousand dollars coaching this fall, Bechtholdt said. Joe Gelakoska, Granite Falls’ new offensive coordinator, will make sure that money goes to the Montooths.
Taking over Montooth’s role on the coaching staff, Gelakoska decided to donate his season salary to the Montooth family. Gelakoska — known to Granite Falls players as Coach G, because there was only one Coach Joe — downplayed the significance of his gesture. But it impressed others.
“That’s the character of our entire staff,” said Bechtholdt, the head coach.
Granite Falls players are getting used to Gelakoska. He is part of the team, but he didn’t replace Montooth. That’s not possible, they said.
Besides being loud and demanding, Montooth was always supportive.
“He firmly believed in each and every one of us,” Wold said, “even before we believed in ourselves.”
Jones still gets chills thinking about how many evenings he spent at Montooth’s house. Coach Joe often talked about how badly he wanted to see Jones play in college, Jones said.
“Him and I talked about that a lot,” Jones said. “I’m playing for him.”
Mike Cane: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out the prep sports blog Double Team at www.heraldnet.com/doubleteam.