So, you want to be here, Lenny? Around me? OK, fine, said his mom, Joann. Joann owned a bar, The Locker Room in Placentia, a Los Angeles suburb. Son, be useful. Clean the bar. Wipe it perfect. Open the joint in the morning. The bar was a dive, Lenny says now, a real dive. No windows. No ventilation. Smelled exotic, you might say. But what did Lenny know? He was only in the fifth grade at the time.
"If somebody got too drunk," Lenny Wagner said, "my mom wouldn't let them drive. She'd tell them to crash in one of the booths inside the bar. I'd come in the morning to open the place up. It was totally dark. I'd walk toward the light switch when I'd hear a roar. It was someone snoring, someone who had passed out in the booth. Scared me witless."
And this is how Lenny Wagner began preparing to be Santa Rosa JC's new head football coach and interim athletic director.
For some, the journey of a million miles might begin with a single step. For Wagner, it began with a dry cloth and a mandate from his mother.
"Go say hello to everyone that comes into the bar," Joann told young Lenny. "Be very social."
Joann knew that a little kid has a way of disarming people. Joann also knew she didn't have to tell Lenny how to be very social. Her son took to having conversations with strangers the way ham takes to an egg in an omelette. It didn't matter to Lenny if someone was tall or short, fat or skinny, white, black, pink or polka-dot. Lenny talked to them all and as he grew older, he became very comfortable in his own skin, to where he could move smoothly in and out of delicate situations.
Wagner, 43, has worked as a bouncer, bartender, private investigator, repossessor of cars. He's worked rock-concert security. Wagner has his bachelor's and master's in kinesiology, he may have wedded himself to higher education, but it wasn't as if he always buried his head in a book while doing it.
"Fake it 'til you make it,'" Wagner said. "That's what my mom always said."
That's what Wagner did, for a while. He played the piano for 12 years and thought that's what he wanted to do.
Until he became a painter. No, not the kind of guy who dips his brush into a Sherwin-Williams blend. The kind of guy who paints scenes, pictures. Even sold a couple of paintings. Yep, Wagner knew he was going to be a commercial artist.
Until he got to Sonoma State in the late '90s and became attracted to physical therapy. An honorable, meaningful profession. He could take pride in that. Yep, Wagner was going to be a PT.
Until he saw the SSU athletic trainers work on the ankles and legs and arms and whatever of his fellow football teammates. He could reduce the chance of injury. Help keep people healthy. Yep, Wagner knew he was going to be an athletic trainer. Was even set up to be a student trainer.
Until someone offered him a chance to coach football.
That's when Wagner stopped faking it.
Over the last 14 years, he worked at SSU, Mendocino College and SRJC. The kid who was told to talk to everyone at The Locker Room found it as easy as taking a breath to talk to coaches about football. Didn't matter college, high school, Pop Warner or at a Fourth of July picnic. Wagner loved football, loved people. He had been SSU's team captain for two years, is a member of that school's Hall of Fame. He was named Coach of the Year at Mendo. He was a starting linebacker in a national junior college championship game.