Kearns • The football field at Kearns High was full of teenage players, most of them dressed in dark green jerseys with white and yellow accents. Cougar colors.
On the sidelines, two coaches synchronized hand gestures to hip-hop beats. Some players stood next to them, holding up posters of rhinos, horses and candy — signs for plays by the offense.
It was a regular practice day.
Matt Rickards, the head coach, moved along the field with a hat and sunglasses, while teammates worked on strategies. Although the players hail from various ethnic and economic backgrounds, they find common ground on the football field.
That level of connectedness doesn’t come automatically. It has to be instilled. From his beginning as head football coach in 2013, Rickards has emphasized discipline and set high expectations. Winning games came second.
When COVID-19 and the uncertainty of 2020 struck, however, priorities shifted to a more basic need: food.
Rickards’ wife, Ashley, who is a hairdresser, organized a food bank for the players with one of her clients, who conducts similar activities on a larger scale.
Every Thursday and Saturday, the Rickards get a food delivery from that client and load up a fridge in the team’s equipment room with chicken, milk, fruits, vegetables and other essentials. The offerings are open to everyone, but the coach makes sure they get into the hands of players with larger families or ones he knows struggle financially.
“Some of the kids, unfortunately, don’t get a lot of food. Eating at the school, with free or reduced lunches, is typically the majority of their meals,” Rickards said, “and that’s not enough food for them, especially if they’re athletes, and they’re trying to compete at a high level and train at a high level.”
Although most pandemic restrictions have been lifted, the Rickards plan to keep stocking that fridge as long as they keep getting food and as long as the players keep taking it.
‘Passion for helping’
Virus or no virus, the need certainly exists. About 55% of Kearns High’s student body is considered economically disadvantaged, according to data from the Granite School District.
The school already has a food pantry for the student body, but Principal Danny Stirland said Rickards’ extra measures to tend to his team stand out.
“His passion for helping kids is unsurpassed. His motivation is in the right place,” Stirland said, “and that matters the most.”
The coach’s giving inspires his players to give of themselves through service projects to the Kearns community, the principal said, actions that help mold the team’s character.
Rickards also collects success stories from the team’s alumni.
His face lights up with enthusiasm, for instance, whenever he hears stories about David Tongolei, a former Cougar who now suits up for Southern Virginia University.
“I know that it’s tough to get a good coach out here on the west side,” Tongolei’s father, also named David, said. “I know that there’s talent everywhere out here, but we’re just grateful to have a great coach.”
Tongolei, who also coaches a little league team, is a fan of the Kearns program. His second son, sophomore Raymond, plays right tackle. Tongolei hopes that his youngest, seventh grader Samson, plays for Kearns as well.
“Out here on the west side, we don’t really have what seems like the best reputation, from what we hear from others, and it seems like [coach Rickards] wants to change that perspective,” Tongolei said, “[by] just trying to get the kids to really play with class.”
Tala Sapoi’s son, Kingston, now attends Northern California’s Chabot College, where he still plays football. Although he graduated from Kearns High in 2020, his mother still returns to the school to watch Rickards’ Cougars.
“I love the way he coaches and how the whole community comes together as one to support our high school,” she said. “It’s just amazing, this community at Kearns.”
Bouncing back from 2020
Gathering to play or watch football this year brings positive feelings, especially after the 2020 season got cut short.
As the pandemic unfolded, after-school practices turned into Zoom meetings to talk strategy and watch videos. Managing exposures to the virus and other COVID-related issues became paramount.
“Every Monday, I just dreaded picking up my phone and reading [a text saying] ‘Hey, coach, I might have been exposed. I need to go get tested,’” Rickards said. “During that time, it was days before you got results.”
That fear became reality when the Cougars had to forfeit just before their first playoff game because of an outbreak on the team.
“It was tough on the kids, the community and program,” the coach recalled, “because they felt like that was a group that could potentially have one of the best runs in a playoff that Kearns has had in a long time.”
After returning to the field in 2021, this season looks uncertain as the team tries to recover from some losses and injuries.
“We’re in some uncharted territory, and we’ve got to learn,” Rickards said. “We’ve got to adapt and adjust to some injuries. We’ve got to adapt and adjust to the way we do things and find ways to win.”
True, but winning still comes second. And that fridge is still stocked.
Alixel Cabrera is a Report for America corps member and writes about the status of communities on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep her writing stories like this one; consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.