ST. HELENA — “What’s cool about it,” St. Helena football coach Brandon Farrell said, “it’s a perfect example of where I think people get misconceptions about sports in general. Like how they say not many people are going pro in sports, and that’s true. Only a tiny, tiny percentage of athletes go pro.
“But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a profession or be involved in sports in other ways.”
Farrell was talking about his unique assistant coach, junior Maddie Wagner. But he could just as easily have been describing Maddie’s dad, Craig Wagner. Neither of them plays football. Both have found interesting ways to get close to the game.
Maddie, 16, is Farrell’s signal girl. When the Saints line up to play Fort Bragg in a first-round North Coast Section playoff game Friday, she will stand next to Farrell on the sidelines and relay formations and motions to the offense via a series of hand signals. Craig, 52, is a pilot for Robert Kraft, whose corporate interests in paper, packaging, real estate and private equity are overshadowed by his most high-profile holding: the New England Patriots.
“I’ve been watching football all my life, so football is like second nature,” Maddie said. “To me it didn’t seem really strange that I would be on the sideline talking to the coaches, talking to the guys. But the officials are like, ‘Wow! Impressive!’ I’ve just never looked at it that way.”
Maddie Wagner’s career in football began her freshman year when she started helping St. Helena’s athletic trainer, Ilona Falvy, look after the team twice a week. At that time, Falvy had a more senior assistant in student Maddie Duckhorn.
“I was the intern to the intern,” Wagner said.
Last year Wagner took over as Falvy’s primary assistant. Her job description: Do whatever is needed. She keeps the box of athletic supplies filled, helps with equipment and runs errands for Farrell.
This year, Wagner was surprised when the coach offered her additional responsibilities. He asked her to be his line of communication to 10 of the 11 offensive players on the field.
“I was flattered,” Wagner said. “I think he knows that I can deal with testosterone and other things like that, that come along with being the only girl on the field at practices.”
Wagner has known the coach for years — her younger sisters are friendly with his daughter — and refers to him as “Farrell,” which is kind of endearing.
When St. Helena is on offense, she is Farrell’s shadow. Unless they are nursing a big lead in the fourth quarter, the Saints almost exclusively work out of a no-huddle offense. After each snap, starting quarterback Dylan Martin will approach the sidelines and look to the coach for the next call. Farrell will alert Martin to the formation, too, but it’s Wagner who provides that information to the other players. She figures she has 17 to 20 different signs, all of which can be run left-handed or right-handed.
It’s a simple but vital job, and Farrell wouldn’t have entrusted it to just anybody.
“She’s absolutely wonderful,” he said of Wagner. “To be in a situation like that — No. 1, you have to give up a lot of time. Because you don’t just do it on Fridays, it’s every practice. So the time commitment is the same as any player on the team. … That sounds good when you sign up, but all of a sudden you realize you’re going to Fort Bragg and you’ll be gone until 1:30 to 2 in the morning. And it’s a Friday night. Sometimes that’s not what high school kids are enthused about.”