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Riley leads Bears to winning year

The fact most of today’s coaches were yesterday’s players is a beautiful aspect of coaching.
Once, they were students of game, sweating it out in long practices and giving their coach all they had.
While coaching is rewarding no matter what level, coaching where Tom Riley works affords him the opportunity to not only make an impact on his players’ lives, but also to show his kids sometimes shunned by society, he cares.
And while they’ll never hear his words, it’s his hope they’ll remain with his players the rest of their lives.
Riley graduated from Catawba College in Salisbury with a degree in recreational therapy. Upon graduation, he took a job at Broughton Hospital, in Morganton in the adolescent unit, a job he not only enjoyed, but relished.
“I always wanted to work with adolescents but I didn’t really want to teach. I was fortunate enough to get a position working with adolescents in my field,” Riley said.
For two and a half years, Riley worked with adolescents at Broughton before his supervisor, Flo Carter, encouraged him to apply for a position in its final stage of development at North Carolina School for the Deaf, also in Morganton.
“I was content working at Broughton and thought I would be there until my retirement days,” Riley said.
But Riley’s initial plans gave way bigger ones.
Upon Carter’s urging, he applied and got the job of recreational therapist at NCSD. His average day consisted of working with an adolescent one-on-one on social skills, anger management, leadership skills, frustration tolerance and any other needs.
The school had quite a reputation in high school football, winning six national championships in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.
The most recent national title the Bears won came in 1975, but the 1960 edition is largely considered the school’s best team.
For two years, Riley fulfilled his duties as a recreational therapist and charting defensive statistics until 2001. That’s when Bears head coach Mark Burke announced he had taken an athletic director’s position in Fremont, Ca.
While Burke’s departure was somewhat a surprise, who he wanted to become the head coach was an even bigger surprise – Riley.
“I was indecisive, because I had only been there for a couple years, and I was still working on my sign language, but then I felt it was a good challenge and not too many people get a head coaching job without any varsity experience, so I said yes,” Riley said.
Riley has led the Bears to a 12-19 record in his first four seasons as head coach, including a 7-2 mark this year, which was the school’s first winning season since 1980.
His sign language is ‘still a work in progress,’ but if his players’ performances indicate how well he’s caught on to both sign language and eight-man football, he’s doing just fine.
In a game that has no wide receivers, five men on the line of scrimmage, two running backs and no corners or safeties, Riley’s senior quarterback Dale Latkowski passed for 834 yards and 19 touchdowns against only three interceptions.
Latkowski was a dual threat as he rushed for over 500 yards and 11 touchdowns in just a nine-game season.
NCSD was far from a one-man band though, as junior running back Derrick Blake rushed for 1,143 yards and had 12 touchdowns.
Tight ends Miguel Almos and Jesse Dunn refused to let Blake and Latkowski get all the notice as they both posted 10 touchdown receptions.
On defensive side of the ball, linebacker Josh Casper notched 123 tackles, which broke a school record.
While winning is important to Riley, what takes more precedence is paying forward the football knowledge he learned as a West Lincoln Rebel to his current players.
“Working with adolescents in general, the rewarding factor is the same if you work at NCSD or a public school. You’re able to teach them football and the idea of teamwork,” Riley said.
Another rewarding aspect won’t immediately be seen, rather it is a hope Riley has.
“I think of the coaches I’ve had that taught me the game. Then some of us (former players) pass that knowledge on down. Hopefully, one or two (current players) will get the desire to coach,” he said. “That’s the fun part of it – watching these kids grow as people and as team, and when my days are done, maybe I’ll get to come back to a game at NCSD and watch one of my players coach or one of their kids coach,” he added.

Coming full circle
Riley’s high school coach Dan Hardee, who coached the Rebels in the ’80s and ’90s, remains a close friend to Riley to this day.
Earlier this season, Dan was on hand to watch his nephew, along with Riley, Brad Hardee lead the South Caldwell Spartans to victory over the team he once coached.
For Riley, it was an opportunity to talk X’s and O’s.
“It’s more two coaches talking football, instead of me just reminiscing. Sometimes you talk strategies,” Riley said. “I hope he’s proud of me because I used to play for him, and now I’m getting to pass things he’s taught me on to my kids,” Riley added.
Despite the loss, the Rebels made the state playoffs for the first time in school history, a fact not missed by the two coaches.
“It was good to see it. My senior year, we only won three games, but there were two games if we would’ve won, we would’ve had an outside chance of making it,” Riley said. “So that’s always on my mind. It was big for the school and the community, and maybe this will motivate the boys to really work hard for next year.”

by John Mark Brooks

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