Padecky: SRJC football coach's plea to his players

If time should pass and the phone doesn’t ring late at night and the night merges without interruption into the morning, Lenny Wagner can find himself slipping into the comfort most of us consider peace.

“If it doesn’t happen for a long time,” said SRJC’s head football coach, “you sleep well.”

But if a call comes without advance notice, if it’s the police, Wagner would like to kid himself it’s a friend. “Most of the cops in this town,” he said, “played for me.” Ah, but usually those are the kind of calls that throw a stink eye into sleep. Those are the calls that come for one and only one reason.

A teenager found out he wasn’t bulletproof after all. A teenager who carelessly pushed the outside of the envelope and the envelope pushed back.

“Don’t think it can’t happen to you!” Wagner was standing ?in Room 2004 of Lark Hall on Thursday. It was the first player meeting of SRJC’s football season and 125 guys were sitting in front of him. Wagner was asking them to throw away that bulletproof cape so common to teenage boys. “Consequences are different for you now than ever before. You’re not at home. You’re on your own. And the consequences for you are different than for anybody else on this campus.”

Wagner decided not to go into a deeper “getting-to-know-me” conversation. The time wasn’t right. Not now. The topic to be detailed was too complex, too emotional. He was just laying the foundation for the discussions that will most definitely include the ultimate consequence.

It’s one that has saddled Wagner with too many sleepless nights.

“This is the first time I had an ex-player kill somebody,” Wagner said.

Six days ago, Logologoa Tevaseu was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison for the second-degree murder of Sonoma State student Paulette Geronimo Quiba, 21, in a November 2017 DUI crash. Before that, he will serve an additional three years for causing injuries to five others in the crash. The jury returned a verdict within six hours.

A part-time SRJC football coach and full-time college liaison to financially strapped students, Tevaseu is not a teenager. He’s 37. But he drove while drunk. If there is ever a target audience in which a word of caution need to be applied toward drunken driving, it’s the group of football players sitting in front of Wagner.

On an average weekend, a car crash is responsible for the death of a teen every hour, according to the website “Los Angeles DUI Experts.” In 45% of those crashes, alcohol is involved. Drivers under the age of 21 are 17 times more likely to experience a fatal car crash when their blood alcohol level is at least .08% than with no alcohol in their system.

“You guys are under a microscope,” Wagner told his team. That microscope will narrow its focus considerably when the season begins. Every Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Wagner will talk to his team about drinking and partying.

“On Thursday I will tell them not to go out late and hoot like an owl,” Wagner said. “On Friday I will tell them we got a good team coming the next day and we need to get a good amount of sleep with a clear head. On Saturday I will tell them to relax but to do it responsibly.”

Some weeks, Wagner said, drinking will come up each day for the six days each week he has his players. Each week - each day, in fact - the coach knows too well he is facing a developmental roadblock.

“The male brain is not fully developed in decision-making,” Wagner said. “In some ways, you already are programmed to make bad decisions.”

Lot of coaches spin the same sonnet - I love all you guys. I care about you guys. I am here to listen to you.

Players know too many times this is hogwash. A coach says he’s around but he isn’t. Sounds good on the recruiting tape.

Wagner is not one of those guys.

“My coaches get on me all the time about keeping players on the team who probably won’t help,” Wagner said. “I tell them they need us more than we need them.”

Meaning not every kid comes to SRJC cleanly fresh and polished, the product of a secure buttoned-down home life. Wagner has seen too many kids without money, with no home life, with no parental guidance, with no place to stay, with the inner city screaming for them to come back.

You might call Wagner a soft touch. You would be missing the point. He’s not seeing a football player as much as he’s seeing a human being. He remembers when he was a teenage knucklehead “and thought it was cool hanging on the surfboard rack while the car was going 40 miles an hour.”

Wagner found maturity with the adult coaches who paid attention to him. He’s trying to pay it forward, lending a hand now as it was once extended to him. He doesn’t ever want one of his players to bring him to tears the way Logo Tevaseu brings him to tears now. Wagner was at Logo’s wedding, at the birth of both his daughters.

“Logo’s a son to me,” the coach said.

His son is going away for at least 18 years. Wagner grieves even more for Quiba, the SSU student killed in the crash - for everything she was and for everything she will never will be.

So when Wagner spoke Thursday of the crash, his eyes filled with tears. His voice was halting. His words sparse when he spat them out. Even though it’s been almost two years since the crash, Wagner said he still has never asked Tevaseu exactly what was going through his mind at the time. He already knows what he must know.

That it’s pain. It’s everywhere for everyone. Pain shattering dreams and hopes and futures. So when Wagner spoke to his 2019 team for the first time Thursday, he musta said it 10 times if he said it once - “You can talk to me and my coaches. We’re family.”

Listen up, Bulletproof Boys. The man’s as serious as a head-on collision. The man is for real. The man is putting it out there. Grab it. Take it. Embrace it. Go to him and his staff. Don’t hide. Don’t be afraid. The man knows pain. Oh, hell yeah, the man knows pain. The man has seen it. He’s feeling it now.

“When you go to sleep at night,” I asked, “do you cross your fingers and hope nothing happens?”

“Always,” Lenny Wagner said without pausing.

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