REGGIE HAYES: Chris Svarczkopf leaves life-lessons legacy on Bishop Dwenger players

Bishop Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf claps for his team after it scored after Robby Kimes scored a touchdown in the Saints' 52-20 victory over DeKalb in the Class 4A Sectional 11 championship in 2007 at Zollner Stadium. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)
Bishop Dwenger High School football coach Chris Svarczkopf on the sidelines against Bishop Luers earlier this season. (Photo by Reggie Hayes of news-sentinel.com)
Bishop Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf praises his offense after it scored a touchdown in the second half of a 2010 second-round sectional game against East Noble at Zollner Stadium. (News-Sentinel.com file photo)

Bishop Dwenger High School senior Tommy Steele stood in the cold rain, the reality of a loss pelting him in the face, and saluted his coach.

He couldn’t have known how fitting his words would be.

Minutes earlier, Dwenger had lost to Lowell in the Nov. 17 Class 4A semistate game, and Steele was told his coach Chris Svarczkopf called Steele’s senior class his “favorite.” Svarczkopf added that he “loved them all,” referring to all the seniors who came before Steele.

Svarczkopf also knew, even though it wasn’t public, that this was his last senior class. He had decided to retire after 15 years as head coach. Of course, this class would forever hold an extra special place.

Steele didn’t know then about the coach’s impending retirement – Svarczkopf made his decision public Monday afternoon – so there was no extra sentimentality in his response.

“I’ll take a bullet for Coach Svarczkopf,” Steele said that night. “I’ll go to war with him any day. I love him with all my heart and I love my team with all my heart.”

RELATED STORY: Bishop Dwenger coach Chris Svarczkopf announces retirement

What more could Svarczkopf want to hear as he steps down after 15 years as Dwenger coach and nearly four decades of coaching in Fort Wayne?

A coach wants to make an impact on his players and, of course, win some games along the way.

Svarczkopf can walk away from his post knowing that he accomplished both.

In my years of interviewing and talking with Svarczkopf, he often spoke of molding young men to be quality husbands, fathers and community leaders. He talked of how football could teach some lessons that would come in handy later, lessons about adversity and highs and lows and being part of a team, part of something bigger.

“In this profession,” Svarczkopf said in 2016. “we’re so lucky to have a position where we can impact people. We have to be careful, because everything we do and say is followed, and we have to be careful we’re trying to do things the right way.”

Svarczkopf’s won-lost record speaks for itself: His teams were 149-49. Counting the 2015 season, when Svarczkopf stepped away due to a battle with cancer, the Saints won 11 sectionals, 10 regionals and five semistates. They won six Summit Athletic Conference titles. Dwenger had had only two head coaches since 1980: Andy Johns and Svarczkopf.

The 2015 team, with Svarczkopf’s friend Ernie Bojrab filling in as interim head coach, won the state title. Svarczkopf was able to be a part of that as he went through the health battle. He returned to practices. He provided some inspiration with his personal resilience in dealing with life-and-death issues. He finished the year up in the Lucas Oil Stadium press box, charting plays and helping Bojrab as an assistant.

The Saints dedicated the 2015 season to Svarczkopf and Fred Tone, another coach battling cancer. Tone passed away a month after that season. After a full recovery, Svarczkopf returned to the head coach’s job in 2016.

After a tough first month this season, Svarczkopf turned the Saints into one of the area’s best teams, shutting out previously unbeaten Angola for a regional title.

One defining characteristic about Svarczkopf as a coach was his ability to put the game in perspective after tough losses or big wins. He coached four teams that came up short in the state title game: 2002, 2008, 2010 and 2013. Three of those losses were by three or fewer points.

Yet Svarczkopf made sure his players knew the journey, and the lessons learned, were the most important part.

“As long as you never quit, as long as you give it your all, all the time, that’s all we ever ask,” Svarczkopf said after a loss to Indianapolis Cathedral in the 2010 title game. “Maybe the ball didn’t bounce just perfect. Maybe the ball squirted through their hands a time or two. It sure wasn’t for lack of effort. I’m proud of their effort. As long as you give it all you’ve got in life, what more can you ask?”

Many of Svarczkopf’s players have gone on to play college football and some in the NFL, most recently Tyler Eifert. Some of them have gone on to become doctors, lawyers and, yes, coaches.

We’re guilty too often of rattling off the facts, the number of wins and championships. Svarczkopf had plenty of those.

That wasn’t the measure of the man as a coach.

“These guys have overcome a tremendous amount,” Svarczkopf said of his 2017 seniors after their last game. “They love one another. It’s not about the senior class with them, it’s about the team. I hope they understand it’s not what you gain from the game but what you become from playing the game.”

Svarczkopf’s legacy lies in what his players took with them when they moved on. They have more than memories of wins and losses. They gained insight into what it takes to win in life.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at rhayes@news-sentinel.com.

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