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12-1-10: 'Coach Wilfong' dedicates 50 years to helping student athletes
12-1-10: 'Coach Wilfong' dedicates 50 years to helping student athletes

The year was 1962. Sparks Stadium was yet to be built in Puyallup, and the first Super Bowl game between the National and American football leagues was still five years away from kickoff.

This was also the year that George Wilfong, referred to by most as simply “Coach Wilfong,” arrived in Puyallup.

This year, Wilfong is celebrating his 50th year of coaching school sports teams, including one year as a high school coach in California.

And he doesn’t plan on hanging up his cleats anytime soon.

When the days get shorter and the brisk autumn air settles in, Wilfong can still be found on the football field with a whistle around his neck and a pigskin in his hand.

Since his retirement from teaching in 1995, the 76-year-old has turned out every year as a volunteer coach for the Puyallup High School Vikings football team.

Coaching history

After spending the 1960-61 school year coaching high school sports in California, Wilfong headed north to Washington.

He attended graduate school for a year at the University of Washington before joining the Puyallup School District in fall of 1962 as a P.E. teacher and football, wrestling, and track coach at West Puyallup Junior High (now Aylen Junior High).

Wilfong spent five years at West Puyallup Junior High and the next 28 years at Puyallup High School as a P.E. teacher and football, wrestling, and track coach. During those 33 years, Wilfong never took a break, logging 99 continuous seasons of coaching.

The Puyallup resident became well-known throughout sports circles both locally and statewide during his coaching tenure, including serving as the high school’s head wrestling coach and as an assistant coach for both the football and track teams.

He retired from the school district 15 years ago, but his love of football brought him back onto the field immediately after retirement.

There, somewhere between the 50-yard line and the end zone, Wilfong can be found at football practice every weekday after school. He is surrounded by student athletes eager for advice on how to run the ball, block opponents, and protect the quarterback.

Wilfong begins each practice by leading the football team in warmup exercises and then meets one-on-one and in small groups with the team’s running backs.

He also helps remind those on the offensive line about the play clock by counting down, five seconds at a time, the 25 seconds from the time the referee calls the ball ready for play to the time the center must snap the ball.

“George is the live embodiment of everything that is Puyallup pride and tradition,” said head football coach Gary Jeffers. “He brings an historical perspective and is a great role model of what a man is supposed to be. He has lived his life for other people.”

Accolades from players

Colleagues, students, and former players describe him as a man of character who brings wisdom and continuity to the program.

"Coach Wilfong was a servant leader,” said Brock Huard, a 1995 Puyallup High graduate. Huard was a star quarterback for the Vikings and one of the most highly recruited players in the country following his senior year.

Huard played college football at the University of Washington, professional football for the Seattle Seahawks and Indianapolis Colts, and currently works as a television sports commentator and radio talk show host.

“He is an example to all of us with his work ethic, commitment, and service to the Puyallup football program for so many years,” Huard added.

Dane Looker, who also played football under Wilfong in high school, graduated with Huard in 1995. He also played football for the Washington Huskies and was drafted as a wide receiver for nine seasons, including one with the New England Patriots, one with the NFL Europe League, and seven with the St. Louis Rams.

Looker returned to Puyallup this year as the football team’s offensive coach, working side-by-side with Wilfong.

“Times change, coaches come and go, and high school kids go through different fads and phases, but George Wilfong has remained the one constant figure for Puyallup football,” Looker said.

Like many other Vikings over the years, Wilfong coached several generations of families such as the Lookers, including Dane’s father, Dan (Class of ‘70), and his two brothers Ky (Class of ‘93) and Jesse (Class of ‘98).

“Coach has spanned the generations and has bridged the gap between head coaches, bringing continuity to the program,” Looker said. “He is a very disciplined coach, and his coaching style remains timeless, emphasizing hard work and stressing the fundamentals of the game.”

Wilfong is described as a man of few words on and off the field, but also someone with quick wit.

“The one image that always enters my mind when I think of Coach is the one of him riding his bike down the streets of Puyallup, no hands on the handle bars, pedaling alongside his P.E. students as they attempt to complete a long run,” Looker said.

That sense of humor is also evident to those who play for him in the 21st century — an era of football when technological advances provide coaches with game day videotapes to review with the team instead of their notes scrawled on a writing pad.

“Coach will say things like, ‘back in the day, when we didn’t have those cool face masks like you have now …’” said running back Matt Becker, a junior this year. “He’s one of the best coaches because he teaches us what we need to do, and he’s funny at the same time.”

Awards and recognitions

Wilfong has a string of awards and recognitions from his five decades of coaching. In addition to numerous local and regional Coach of the Year honors, Wilfong helped lead several teams to regional and state championship titles.

His wrestling teams captured 11 South Puget Sound League (SPSL) titles, including a stretch of eight consecutive wins from 1980 to 1987. During his time as assistant football coach, the team clinched the state championship in 1987 and was runner-up in 1990 and 1991. He also coached six state track champions, including one who held two all-time state records.

In 1997, the Washington State Wrestling Coaches Association honored Wilfong by inducting him into the organization’s Hall of Fame. His name joins an elite group of coaches, including former Puyallup High wrestling coaches and state Hall of Fame inductees Ray Barnes and Dick Pruett.

Wilfong said another highlight of his career was being named one of the Puyallup School District’s 150 honorees and recognized during the district’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2005.

Five decades of service

Wilfong has worked or volunteered under six head football coaches: Bob Ryan, Jerry Redmond, Mike Huard, Jeff Gardner, Tom Ingles, and Gary Jeffers.

“Working as a coaching volunteer allows George Wilfong to impact dozens of students and families in our community, as well as the league-wide audience of staff, coaches, and fans that make up the SPSL,” said Rick Wells, director of athletics, health, and fitness. “We are truly grateful for Coach Wilfong's meaningful contribution of time and energy.”

Wilfong said he keeps coming back year after year because he enjoys coaching students, working with coaches, and being part of the football program.

“I’ve always liked the game and liked to be a part of the game,” he said.

Wilfong played quarterback and running back at Coronado High School in Southern California and was a member of the school’s wrestling and track teams. He continued with football and track and added swimming as a sport while a student at the University of Redlands in California.

In the late 1950s, while serving as a paratrooper with the 101st Airborne Division, Wilfong used his quarterback skills to help lead the football team to an Army national championship.

Wilfong and his wife, Sibyl, have three children and four grandchildren. All of his children and two of his grandchildren are Puyallup High School graduates and were three-season athletes in school, including participation in the Vikings football, wrestling, baseball, volleyball, softball, swimming, gymnastics, track, and cross-country programs.

His daughter, Peggy Haskey, has been teaching at Puyallup High for 21 years and is a former gymnastics coach, while his son, Tom, is athletic director at Stanwood High School.

Wilfong said he is especially proud of the many former Vikings who played football or wrestled in high school and are now coaches themselves in Puyallup or other surrounding school districts.

Former Puyallup High wrestler Jim Meyerhoff, for example, coaches wrestling at Emerald Ridge High. Viking alumnus Gene Bowen, a wrestler and football player when in high school, is head football coach at Rogers High. Former Puyallup wrestler Bryan Bartelson is head wrestling coach at Edgemont Junior High, and Kelly Susee, who participated in football, wrestling, and track under Coach Wilfong, coaches varsity football and track at Kalles Junior High.

On game nights, Wilfong said he enjoys looking up into the bleachers and seeing the many former Vikings who turn out to support the team.

“There is a great pride and tradition in Puyallup football,” he said. “Over the years, kids have grown up wanting to be Vikings.”

Coach Jeffers added, “Puyallup football is a community gem. It’s bigger than George Wilfong. It’s bigger than the Huards and the other well-known names of the past. It’s an icon valued not only by the players and their parents, but by the community. It’s a community jewel, and George has been the caretaker of that jewel for nearly 50 years.”