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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.”

Wagner is enthused because it gives her a chance to stay close to the team, and to learn more about how a sports organization is run. She wants to study kinesiology in college, and hopes eventually to work as a certified athletic trainer for a collegiate program.

The coaching job is extracurricular. And make no mistake, Farrell considers Wagner an assistant coach — which comes as news to some people.

Just before the St. Helena varsity team took the field for the season opener at Winters, a game official told Wagner, “Injured cheerleaders are not allowed to be on the sidelines.” He apparently hadn’t noticed how her fingertips are taped like a baseball catcher’s for greater visibility when flashing signs.

“That was sexist,” Wagner said. “I was a little thrown off, but I have tough skin. I’ve been on the field with these boys. They’ve said plenty of things. I did tell the coaches, just because it was rude.”

It hasn’t happened since, though. Most people can see Wagner is there to do a job.

And she is learning a lot of football. She sits in on the Saints’ film study, and is there for every play in practice. Wagner will shout a correction at Martin if she feels the quarterback missed a signal. And when the St. Helena defense is on the field, she tends to stand at the periphery of the sideline cluster, which means she sometimes spots something Farrell and his coordinators hadn’t noticed.

“I do make comments, but I don’t feel like it’s my place to say too much,” Wagner offered. “They honestly know what they’re doing.”

Maddie might have gotten her combination of confidence, capability and deference from her father.

Craig Wagner, 52, grew up rooting for the Steelers in Western Pennsylvania. He joined the Marine Corps right out of college and learned to fly transport helicopters and turboprops. Wagner spent 23 years in the Corps, including eight flying active duty — in the first Gulf War; in Somalia (“I left about two weeks before Black Hawk Down,” he said); in Riga, Latvia, after 9/11; and one last tour in Iraq in 2004-05.

When Wagner got out, he moved the family from Georgia to St. Helena and found less perilous jobs in the cockpit. He worked for Bridgeford Flying Services in Napa, then for XOJET, a private company that can be hired to fly anyone — celebrities, wealthy families, CEOs — anywhere.

Wagner has worked for the Kraft Group for two years. He’s one of three pilots employed full time by the company. All of them are based in Bedford, Mass., the site of Boston’s corporate airport. Wagner owns a home in Everett, Mass., and tends to work shifts of 20 days on the job back East, 10 days at home in California.

He flies anywhere and everywhere Robert Kraft needs him to. That might mean a quick jaunt to Manhattan with a corporate vice president, or a visitation to a Midwest paper plant, or taking Kraft himself to a Patriots road game. In the latter case, Wagner usually gets to watch the first half before taking off for another destination.

Most of his runs are perfectly ordinary. But because of his employer, some stand out.

“I do have to say, of all the flights I’ve done — and I have over 10,000 flight hours — coming home after the Super Bowl victory (last February) was absolutely just an amazing flight,” Wagner said. “That was a tricky one. There was a snowstorm back in the Northeast. Logan (International Airport) was pretty much closed. The folks at Massport (the Massachusetts Port Authority) swept the runway for us and made sure we’d get in safely.”

Wagner seems wary of gossip, but he acknowledges flying quarterback Tom Brady to his Deflategate hearings in New York.

The pilot describes the planes he flies now — primarily 10-seat Challenger 300s — as “a flying office.” They are equipped with onboard WiFi and some satellite phone capability. Such modern amenities are necessary when you are transporting someone as obsessive and detail-oriented as Patriots head coach Bill Belichick.

“He’s an amazing man,” Wagner said. “He pops open his computer, and he’ll work most flights pretty much from takeoff to landing.”

Belichick, Brady and the rest of the Patriots have been involved in some of the NFL’s juicier tabloid scandals of the past 15 years. They are the team everyone loves to hate (everyone outside of New England, anyway), but you won’t get any disparaging words from Wagner. Especially when it comes to the Krafts.

“The whole family, from top to bottom, is pretty amazing,” Wagner said. “I’m around a lot of folks in the corporate environment, and just to see their dedication and their work ethic and tenacity — they’re a very focused group.”

The funny thing is, Wagner doesn’t own his own plane these days. He rarely pilots when he’s here in St. Helena.

“I think when he’s home he just wants to be at ground level,” Maddie Wagner said of her dad.

Ground level. That’s where Maddie is beginning her sports career. And like Craig, she seems destined for higher altitude.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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