Super Bowl column flashback: on NAU’s strong ties to the NFL coaching fraternity

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Feb. 6, 2005

NAU has strong ties to today’s Super Bowl

By Ed Odeven

Our fine city, a picturesque college town with two interstate freeways passing through it and dozens of tourist destinations in close proximity, is a place with a young, shifting population. You know your neighbors today, but tomorrow they might load up the U-Haul and say adios.

But you might be surprised to learn Flagstaff has another distinct characteristic: It’s a steppingstone for NFL-bound coaches.

Five ex-Lumberjack assistants will be working today at Super Bowl XXXIX: Philadelphia Eagles head coach Andy Reid, Eagle assistants Brad Childress (offensive coordinator), Tom Melvin (tight ends) and Marty Mornhinweg (senior assistant) and Dante Scarnecchia, the assistant head/offensive line coach of New England Patriots.

“(NAU) is just a place where a lot of good, young coaches go through,” Scarnecchia told a Daily Sun correspondent earlier this week in Jacksonville, Fla. “There are a number of places like that. Some might refer to them as steppingstones. As a result, a lot of names go through places like that.”

This was especially evident during the heyday of “Cheers” and “The Cosby Show.” As the NAU head coach from 1985-89, Larry Kentera proved to be an astute judge of coaching talent.

He hired Reid in 1986 (he moved on to Texas-El Paso the next year), Brad Childress the same year (he took a job at Utah in 1990), Melvin the same year (he went to California-Santa Barbara in 1988) and Mornhinweg in 1988 (he went to Southwest Missouri State in 1989, but after three seasons there and three more at Missouri he returned in 1994 for another one-year stint and then joined the Green Bay Packers in ’95).

Another ex-Kentera assistant, Bill Callahan, who was a Lumberjack in 1987-88, was the head coach of the Oakland Raiders when they went to Super Bowl XXXVII in 2003 against Tampa Bay Buccaneers. (And don’t forget about ex-Jacks assistant Mike Shanahan, who was here in 1977, who led the Denver Broncos to back-to-back Super Bowl triumphs in 1997 and ’98 as John Elway capped off a great career.)

“Coach Kentera hired great coaches,” Childress said. “He was able to assemble (a staff of) guys who were motivated. Maybe it was the altitude.”

The Lumberjacks went 26-29 during Kentera’s five years at the helm, but wins and losses aren’t what Kentera’s ex-assistants now talk about when the topic is discussed.

“It’s a great school and it was a privilege to work with Larry Kentera,” said Reid, who still keeps in touch with his ex-boss. “There were a number of great coaches there.”

Even in those days, Reid, a former offensive lineman at BYU who played in three Holiday Bowls, was recognized as a bright mentor.

“Andy was a very good offensive line coach,” Childress said. “He was able to teach pass protection. We (played) in the Big Sky and we needed offense in that league. It was important to protect the quarterback, and he did a great job motivating the offensive line. The offensive line was not very good the year before Andy got here, and it congealed when he got here.

“You could tell he was committed to the coaching profession.”

No one should argue with that statement, especially in Philadelphia, where Eagles fans are rejoicing that their team made the Super Bowl – the team’s first since a 27-10 loss to the Raiders in the 1981 game — after three straight losses in the NFC Championship Game.

On the other sideline, Scarnecchia will be returning today to place that’s become quite familiar: the Super Bowl.

In fact, Scarnecchia is the answer to a super-tough trivia question: Who is the only coach to be with the Patriots for all five of their Super Bowl appearances?

After leaving Flagstaff following a one-year stint as an assistant, he returned to Southern Methodist University, where he worked in the mid-1970s, in ’80 for two years. And then he joined the Patriots’ coaching staff in 1982. Except for a two-year stint with the Indianapolis Colts (1989-90), Scarnecchia has been with the Patriots ever since.

And he’s had a remarkable career, reaching The Big Game while working for Raymond Berry (Super Bowl XX in 1986), Bill Parcells (Super Bowl XXXI in 1997) and Bill Belichick (Super Bowl XXXVI in 2002, XXXVIII in ’04 and XXXIX today).

So what does this year’s Super Bowl mean for Scarnecchia?

“Just to get here ain’t enough,” said Scarnecchia, who enjoyed swimming at Oak Creek Canyon when he lived amongst the cool pines. “When they shoot off confetti at the end of the game, if it’s not red, white and blue, it doesn’t count. Winning this game is all that matters, all that counts.”

But in a profession where it’s common to move every few years, a profession where stability is often not attained, Scarnecchia, 56, is a fortunate fellow.

“We’re very lucky, very blessed to be here this long,” said Scarnecchia, referring to his family, his wife Susan and their two children, Steve and Lisa. “It’s something you never think will happen, and it has happened. It’s home. Hopefully we will retire here.

“So many great coaches have never been to a Super Bowl, and to be a small part of New England’s Super Bowl, it’s very special.”


Lopez Lomong’s great escape

This article on future Olympian Lopez Lomong appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 26, 2006


Kidnapped by the Sudanese army as a child, Lopez Lomong escaped the life of a child soldier the best way he knew how — with his feet

By Ed Odeven

Lopez Lomong runs because he’s a good runner. In tough times, he ran as a means of survival.

As a 6-year-old in Sudan, Lomong, the second-oldest child of five, was attending a church service with his parents in their small African village. The, as quickly as he now runs an 800-meter race, his life completely changed.

Lomong was abducted by Sudanese soldiers. He didn’t know what happened to his parents.

Years later he found out.

“They told me that we were taken away and they (the soldiers) actually left them alone because they needed child soldiers like us,” said Lomong, an NAU freshman who competes in the 800 at the NCAA West Region Outdoor Track and Field Championships this weekend (qualifying is this afternoon, the final round is Saturday).

“I was taken with the other kids somewhere in Sudan,” he recalled.

But he didn’t become a child soldier in the civil war that has devastated his country.

“Me and two of my friends, we escaped from that camp and we ended up in Kenya,” he said.


“Running … and running and running,” Lomong said.


Lomong, now 21, started living in a refugee camp in Kakuma, Kenya, when he was 6.

He became one of the Lost Boys of Sudan, one of thousands who were displaced by the war in Sudan.

His family didn’t know of his whereabouts, and he didn’t know where his brothers, sisters and parents were or if they were alive.

When he was 16, Lomong arrived in the United States thanks to the efforts of Catholic Charities, an organization which has helped thousands of Lost Boys resettle in the United States.

Lomong settled in the small town of Tully, N.Y., which is located in the Syracuse metropolitan  area.

“I was a minor when I came,” Lomong said. “So (Catholic Services) actually helped me out to find foster parents.”

Robert and Barbara Rogers, who had one child already grown up, were eager to have another youngster in the family.

“They are awesome people,” Lopez said, flashing a smile.

“They were giving me everything and teaching me everything, like switching on the lights and all those things. I didn’t know how to do ’em. … All the time, they helped me out (and to) adapt to a new culture.”

The Rogers’ outpouring of love and devotion included their support of his athletic pursuits.

“They were going to all my track meets in high school,” he said.

So they saw Lopez earn nine varsity letters in cross country and track and field. They saw him set several school records in cross country. They saw Lopez, a three-time team captain, win a New York state crown in the mile. And they saw him lead Tully High School to state titles in the 4×400-meter and 4×800-meter relays.

He also exhibited his running talents on the national stage, placing 20th at a Footlocker Nationals competition.

“Lopez was a dominant figure in all his races during his high-school career in the small town in upstate N.Y. where he went to school,” recalled Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance running coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training who saw Lomong compete in high school when he was the cross country/track coach at SUNY-Cortland, a small school near Tully.

“What always set Lopez apart from many runners was his ‘go-for-broke’ attitude which is typical of the good distance runners in Africa. I have others tell me they just go as hard as they can hang on for the win, great; if not, they will try again next time.”


Since enrolling at NAU last fall, Lomong has had a successful freshman season as a student-athlete. He placed 19th at the NCAA Pre-National Championships race in Indiana last October.

He captured Big Sky Conference indoor titles in the 800 and 1,500 in February and replicated that feat two weeks ago at the Big Sky outdoor meet, crossing the finish line in 1 minute, 48.86 seconds and 3:48.64.

This, of course, put a smile on Robert and Barbara Rogers’ faces.

They routinely monitor Lomong’s track career via the Internet.

Said Lomong: “They are so happy about that and they are calling me (on the phone): ‘Keep going.’ ”

Lumberjacks head coach J.W. Hardy expresses the same optimism about Lomong’s racing, but does so in a more detailed manner.

“I don’t really think he fully understands what he’s capable of doing,” Hardy said, “and I think that’s really been the progression for him throughout the season. As the season has gone on, I think he’s getting a better understanding of what it takes to be a top-level athlete.

“(Distance running) coach (John) Hayes is doing a great job of bringing him along and getting him to understand what it really takes to be a force at the national level. I think he’s got amazing talent, and there’s so much more that he has to offer.

“We’ve just got to kind of wait and see how far his training will take him this season.”

Lomong is confident he’ll win the 800 Saturday.

His strategy?

“Run smart, relaxed,” he said. “I’ve got more speed than anyone else in the Big Sky Conference …. and a lot of endurance. (With) about 300 or 200 (meters) to go, it’s my race.”

To prepare for regionals, Hayes has guided Lomong through a series of challenging speed-related workouts, focused on lots of drills for 300s and 600s.

It’s paid off.

“I think it’s working really, really well. I’m ready,” he said.

And if there’s one thing Hardy has learned about Lomong in the past season, it’s that he’s not afraid of hard work.

“He cane in and had to battle through learning English, getting through learning another language, dealing with the academics and this and that in an American high school and then to be able to move on,” Hardy said. “…It’s been a joy to see him go out and improve, academically and athletically. I think there’s a lot left in Lopez. We’ve seen a lot in one year, but there’s so much more that we could see out of this young man out of the next three years.”

And, remember, this season’s not over yet.

Lomong has plenty of motivation for today’s 800, a race in which he’s seeded No. 3 (1:48.86; USC’s Duane Solomon is first in 1:47.74).

“If I make it to nationals, they’ll be there at nationals,” he said of the Rogerses, his American family.

Three years ago, Lomong was adjusting to his new life in the United States. He was struggling to learn American English. Before coming here, he had a limited knowledge of British English.

“It’s been kind of a challenge, studying. … Yeah, I came a long way,” he said.

Sudan. Kenya. Upstate New York. Flagstaff.

These are all destinations on Lomong’s life map. And throughout his unforgettable journeys from East Africa to the Western U.S., Lomong has grown into a bona fide running standout — “I think his ability is limitless in the 1,500,” said Hayes, citing his exceptional combination of speed and endurance — he never stopped thinking about his roots: his beloved parents.

Three years ago, Lopez learned his parents, Rita Namana Lomong and Lomong Lomong were alive. A U.S. organization had located them, he said.

“Some friends in Africa called me up and said, ‘You mom’s around here.’ I was like, ‘Wow, what a thrill,’ ” he said. “And I just called them and we talked. And she was crying. And I was crying. There was a lot of things going on, and trying to figure it out was very hard.”

His family now resides in Thika, Kenya, a small town near the nation’s capital city, Nairobi. His four siblings are there, too.

This has given him some peace of mind. But this much is clear: They are always on his mind.

In every race, Lomong demonstrates this.

“When I step on the track, I’m doing it for the school and also representing them back home,” Lomong said. “Every time I come to that lap, something flies through my (mind) and I can see their picture and I go and do work, you know.”

Lomong plans to visit Kenya in the summer of 2007, the first time he’ll see his family in 16 years.

He’ll run into their arms.

College football feature flashback: Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

This feature on two Montana-born linebackers appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Oct. 27, 2004.

Montana’s loss, NAU’s gain

By Ed Odeven

People said they were too small and too slow to play Division I football. Boy, were they wrong.

Northern Arizona seniors Vince Henman and John Perrigo have had a great impact on the Lumberjack defense — this season more than ever. An impact, one could equate, to the grand distance from their hometown of Laurel, Mont., to Flagstaff: 1,045 miles.

Injuries have reduced NAU’s depth and experience on defense. Henman and Perrigo are the lone returning senior starters save for safety Jeremy Thornburg. Even so, the Laurel natives have produced snap after snap, game after game.

Both seniors had exceptional outings last Saturday against the Portland State Vikings, a must-win game for the Jacks in their quest to remain a factor in the Big Sky Conference race. Henman finished with game highs of 12 tackles and three sacks and was graded out at 96 percent for the contest, while Perrigo had six tackles and two sacks. The duo combined for 4 1/2 tackles for a loss.

“You’ll find bigger bodies, you’ll find all the measurables that are faster and stronger, but I don’t know if are going to be able to find kids that are tougher than these two,” NAU coach Jerome Souers said.

But more than anything, both of them have an uncanny knowledge about what the other guy will do, how he’ll play. That comes from being buddies since elementary school, teammates since junior high.

“I think that that’s an example of synergy,” Lumberjack linebackers coach Greg Lees said of their playing style. “One plus one equals three. That’s John Perrigo and Vince Henman. That’s not two guys, that’s three guys.”

Well, those three guys, err, two, won’t need any fiery speeches to motivate them for NAU’s next two foes: Montana State and Montana.

“This is it for us,” Perrigo said. “It’s always nice to play the Montana schools. It’s a little extra added emotion.”

Especially after what occurred last season in Bozeman. The Jacks fell 21-17 to MSU, a game in which the Bobcats scored 14 points in the final 67 seconds.

“That was a hard game,” Perrigo said. “We’ve got to have some payback for that one.”

Payback is a driving force for what’ll happen in the next two weeks. Leadership and productivity, however, are the key ingredients for the Montana pals’ success.

“There’s just a presence about him,” NAU defensive line coach Bill Smith said of Perrigo. “He’s not a big rah-rah guy, but it’s still by example and the players really look to him to set the pace.”

Henman’s signature traits on the football field are strength and maturity.

“You can’t block him,” Souers said. “He doesn’t make mental mistakes.”

Long before they ever thought about what it’d be like to experience the rivalry with the Montana schools from afar, Henman and Perrigo had etched their names into the annals of sports history in the Treasure State. In 1999, they helped lead Laurel to the Class A state title, a 21-10 triumph over Hamilton. Perrigo was the defensive MVP of the championship game.

Henman rushed for a Montana prep record 4,669 yards, including 1,889 as a senior. He was a three-time all-state and all-conference selection at fullback and a two-time state champion wrestler. Yet the Henman name was not at the top of recruiting lists for the Montana schools.

Coming out of high school, Perrigo and Henman both wanted to play for either MSU or Montana, but neither received full-ride scholarship offers.

That’s when they took different paths: Perrigo to Flagstaff in 2000, Henman to the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

Perrigo’s brother-in-law, Josh Branen, happened to be a graduate assistant coach at NAU at the time. So he sent game film to the Lumberjacks. Then Souers’ staff contacted Perrigo, and he’s been a Lumberjack ever since.

“I thought this was my best opportunity to show what I had,” Perrigo said, adding that offers from NAIA schools were the best ones he received before coming to Flagstaff.

“It’s been great. I have no regrets,” Perrigo said of his days at NAU. “It’s something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.”

Perrigo earned All-Big Sky honorable mention honors as a junior in 2003, starting every game for the second straight year and finishing with 7 1/2 sacks.

“I’ll tell you what, people missed the boat on him,” Smith said. “We were fortunate that he came our way. You’re looking at a guy that is one heck of a football player.”

Henman, meanwhile, spent two years at Air Force and played on the junior varsity football squad.

“I wasn’t ready for the military in my life at the time,” Henman admitted. “I think if you are going to be in the academy you’ve got to be all for the military and want to be in it and make it your life. At that time in my life, I wanted to play football and kind of enjoy college.

“I was better than I think they thought I was,” he said. “I kind of let Johnny know that I was going to transfer out.”

Which is precisely what happened. Henman arrived in Flagstaff as a walk-on in 2002.

“I don’t care where you come from, you’ve got to earn it,” Souers said, referring to scholarships.

Indeed, they’ve both earned them — and then some.

It could be first-and-10, on a game-opening drive, or fourth-and-goal from the 1, with 10 seconds to go. Either play, and all those in between, you know what you’ll get from Henman and Perrigo.

“We play with a lot of heart, good ol’ Montana boys. It’s what you gotta do,” Henman said. “You’re not necessarily the biggest, fastest and strongest, but we play with everything we’ve got.”

Indeed, they’ve come a long way since their days as energetic lads growing up in small-town Laurel.

“We didn’t have Pop Warner (teams). We had flag football,” Perrigo recalled.

“The first tackle football was in seventh grade,” Henman remembered.

Now, more than a thousand miles from home, Henman and Perrigo have strengthened the unbreakable bond that is their friendship. What does the future hold for them? They don’t know yet.

Perrigo plans to become a physical education teacher. Henman wants to become a private pilot and own a hunting/fishing lodge in Alaska.

In the meantime, they can reflect on their good times on and off the gridiron.

“It’s a great time. Me and Vince have been buddies since elementary school,” Perrigo said. “It’s just nice to have him around. We hang out all the time, go fishing, camping. Our girlfriends are really good friends and our families (too). There’s nothing more than I can ask for.”

Except for victories over Montana State and Montana the next two weeks.

Drug-free message in sports

This story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun in November 2005.

NAU athletes share drug-free message with youth

By Ed Odeven

On the playing field, athletes want to excel and help their teams win games, tournaments and championships. Off the field, they also know they have a responsibility to be role models.

Events like Flagstaff’s 16th annual Red Ribbon Week serve as clear-cut reminder of this.

All week, NAU student-athletes and coaches visited local elementary schools and middle schools to spread the drug-free message.

This year’s theme: “The future depends on you and me to be drug-free.”

“Red Ribbon Week is an opportunity for our student-athletes to be a visible part of the Flagstaff community,” said Jim Fallis, NAU’s athletics director. “It is an event we look forward to as an athletic department each year.”

At Cromer Elementary School Wednesday afternoon, a group of 40, comprised of Lumberjack athletes and NAU assistant volleyball coaches Megan Greene and Jennifer McCurdy, split up into small groups and visited each classroom to remind the young students about the dangers of drugs.

In one group, NAU soccer players Andrea Berra and Liz Winkelbech and track and field athletes Jacob Foyston and Joe Thomas visited several classrooms to speak to students.

These were informal gatherings. Athletes introduced themselves to each group of students and teachers, told them what sport they play and why they were visiting their school.

At Rebecca Cardon’s third-grade class, Berra, a goalkeeper, gave a strong message to all students who are offered drugs:

“All you have to say is no and walk away.”

Moments later, the quartet visited Susan Williams’ second-grade class.

“Today, we are here to tell you to be drug- and alcohol-free,” Thomas said.

Students asked several questions about the dangers of drugs.

This Lumberjack foursome, one at a time, explained why they cannot be successful athletes and take drugs.

In Williams’ classroom, Thomas addressed the topic by first asking a question.

“Anybody like doing sports in here?” Thomas asked.

Nearly every hand was raised.

“We’ll get kicked off the team if we do drugs,” Berra chimed in.

Down the Cromer Elementary School hall in Diane Immethun’s third-grade class, Foyston told students that “drugs is a losing equation.”

Perhaps one question-and-answer segment best summed up the day’s activities.

“You are going to get offered to do drugs your whole life. What do you say?” Berra asked one group of students.

“Noooooooo!” the students said.

Cromer Elementary School Principal Chris Fonoti said college athletes are ideal speakers for events like this.

“It helps. Kids look up to athletes,” said Fonoti, whose school has some 600 students. “Everybody wants to be a star, the girls, the boys. … The kids relate to them.”

And even though each group spoke for only 5-10 minutes in each of Cromer’s 30-plus classrooms, Thomas said the Lumberjacks’ visit was a productive one.

“It was good. … It will have an impact on them,” said Thomas, echoing what his fellow junior-college track transfer Cardell Glover stated moments later.

Red Ribbon Week was first established in October 1988 to honor Enrique “Kiki” Camarena, a federal drug enforcement officer, who was killed by drug traffickers in Mexico in 1985. To symbolize their goal of a drug-free country, parents across the nation began wearing red ribbons, and Red Ribbon Week was officially recognized by Congress in 1988.

Blue Cross Blue Shield of Arizona, NAU athletics, the Flagstaff Unified School District and Citizens Against Substance Abuse are presenting the Red Ribbon Week activities.

(Column flashback) Remembering the late Johanna Nilsson and one of her finest hours as an athlete

This column appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on Dec. 3, 2005.

Note: Johanna Nilsson was one of the most supremely talented athletes I’ve ever seen. She passed away at age 30 in June 2013 in an apparent suicide.

Nilsson’s run-away cross country championship was no small feat

By Ed Odeven

Winning should be enjoyable for any athlete. Sometimes, though, it’s even more enjoyable for a coach.

Such was the case for NAU cross country coach John Hayes on Nov. 21 at the NCAA Cross Country Championships in Terre Haute, Ind.

While at nationals, Hayes witnessed history being made in the women’s 6-kilometer race. Lumberjacks standout Johanna Nilsson took first in a field of 253 runners, setting a course-record of 19 minutes, 34 seconds in the process. Nilsson shared or held the lead for the entire race.

“As a coach, you may or may not ever have another NCAA cross-country champion,” Hayes said, flashing a million-dollar smile a week later. “It’s different than track, where there’s all the events. These are all the best distance runners. So I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to coach her this year, and if it works out that she’s able to repeat or come close to a repeat, I’ll be more than happy to be there.”

What’s more, Nilsson, a junior, obliterated the competition, winning by an astounding 12.1 seconds.

Is this really a big deal? You betcha.

Let Dr. Jack Daniels, the head distance coach at NAU’s Center for High Altitude Training and one of the world’s foremost running experts, explain why.

“It is not often that a runner can run with the pack, including some very talented runners, for 5,000 meters and in the final 1,000 run away from second place by (almost) 13 seconds,” Daniels said. “You just don’t beat that many good runners by that much in that short a distance.”

It was the fastest time on the course since the 2002 NCAA Championship Race, when North Carolina’s Shalane Flanagan crossed the finish line in 19:36.

In other words, it was an exceptional performance.

Or as Hayes put it: “It’s the best race I’ve seen from her. It was so dominant. It was hard to say she could’ve done better.”

During the race, Hayes ran back and forth on the course’s big loop to observe how the seven Lumberjack runners were doing.

It didn’t take Hayes long to realize Nilsson was having an exceptional day. His eyes and ears told him as much.

“With about 800 (or) 1,000 meters to go, I had heard the announcer say she had gapped the field by 15 meters,” he recalled. “I was like, ‘Wow, that happened pretty quickly.’ About two minutes later, that 15 meters had become 80 meters. So I knew she was in pretty good shape.”

A week after her extraordinary triumph, Nilsson didn’t appear to be in a state of glee. In fact, when she spoke to reporters about winning her second national title — she won the indoor mile at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Meet — Nilsson downplayed her win.

“I don’t think I’ve been thinking about it that much,” she said. “I mean you notice it because people come up and (and say) congratulations and all that. It’s fun, I guess, but other than that it’s just school and normal life again.”

Nilsson’s response didn’t surprise her coach.

“She’s got so much ability and she’s worked so hard that she tries not to overemphasize one thing,” said Hayes, a former Russian linguist in the Army. For her, she enjoys winning, but it’s not the end-all, be-all of life. It was nice to win. And so we try not to put too much importance on one race.”

Nilsson competed in five races during the fall season, taking first at the Aztec Invitational, Big Sky Championships, NCAA Mountain Region Championships and nationals. At the Pre-National meet, she placed seventh.

Something was special, though, about Nilsson’s performance Nov. 21. And she knew it as soon as the race began.

“In the race I felt really good all the time,” she says now. “I was, like, positive, of course. .. It was a nice feeling. I was like, ‘Maybe this is going to turn out really good.'”

“I guess I’m pretty either/or, up or down with everything I do, maybe that reflects in racing, too,” she added. “I either have good races or (bad) races. When I’m on, I’m on, and when I’m off, it’s bad.”

And how big a deal was Nilsson’s victory back home? Three Swedish newspapers interviewed her within two hours after her title-winning race.

Nilsson’s older sister, Ida, closed out her collegiate career by winning the 5,000-meter race at the 2005 NCAA Indoor Championships. She also won the 3,000 steeplechase at the 2004 NCAA Outdoor Championships. And she set more than 25 Big Sky Conference records during her days at NAU. (She’s now in South Africa at a training camp while rehabbing from an injury.)

Does that means Johanna’s success in running has something to do with genetics?

“It’s so hard to figure,” Hayes said. “There’s always the question with great athlete: Is it because they work so hard? Or) is it because they have natural talent? I think you’ve got to have the combination of both, and she’s someone that’s stayed around. She does the extra drills. She does extra stretching where the team is long gone.

“Johanna is doing all the little things to allow her to win in such a dominant fashion.”

Naturally, when she first began participating in running events in her hometown of Kalmar, Sweden, Nilsson enjoyed these activities like other kids enjoy an adventurous game of hide-and-seek.

“It was like you ran (a kilometer) you got an ice cream and candy and you were all happy,” she said. “It wasn’t that competitive.

“You run the 800, you do the 16 (1,600), you do the shot put, and you’re just rushing around. … But then I ended up not being very good at anything else,” she said, laughing.

So she decided to stick with distance running.

It’s unclear, however, if Nilsson’s future will involve competitive running. She did place second at the 2002 Swedish National Cross Country Championship and could probably earn a spot on the 2008 Swedish Olympic team.

“I don’t really have long-term goals,” she said, “because I don’t really function that way too good I guess. So we’ll see what happens.

“I don’t know. I’ve never been, ‘Oh, that’s what I want to do,’ like some of the kids have that dream when they are young.”

Is she a future Olympian? I asked Hayes.

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“She’s just trying to figure out what she wants to do in her life, and over the next few years I’m sure it’s going to become more clear,” Hayes said.

Then, he added, “If she wants to be (an Olympian), she will be.”

It’s hard to argue with that conclusion.

High-altitude training, physiotherapy and more

This featured appeared in the May 8, 2004, edition of the Arizona Daily Sun.

Training in all phases

By Ed Odeven

Nobody ever accused Babe Ruth of being in tip-top shape — he was notorious for eating a dozen or more hot dogs in one sitting. Once, the portly, famous home-run hitter consumed 24 frankfurters between games of a doubleheader.

The Sultan of Swat may have done pretty well for himself with his eating habits, but in today’s society it’s common knowledge that high-caliber athletes perform better when they keep in excellent shape.

“I’ve learned that the key to having a good season is staying healthy,” Canadian middle-distance runner Diane Cummins, who recently did a stint at Northern Arizona University’s High Altitude Sports Training Complex, told the Edmonton Sun in a 2001 interview.

“… Being more concerned about my health allowed me to train effectively and consistently.

“There are lots of everyday things I do or don’t do to make sure I am on top of my game.”

A handful of running coaches’ training doctrine is quite unsophisticated — what they tell their pupils can be summed up in two words: run faster.

Others, like Cummins’ coach, Wynn Gmitroski of the Pacific Sport Victoria Endurance Centre in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, develop a more complex fitness regimen.

While running fast is certainly objective No. 1, Gmitroski expects his runners to do more than run wind sprints.

The Pacific Sport team, which completed a month-long training camp at HASTC last week, does yoga, massage therapy and medicine-ball exercises.

A holistic approach to training, the 46-year-old Gmitroski said, is an important part of his coaching. He is a registered physiotherapist who has been coaching for a quarter century.

“He certainly seems to be ahead of the game,” said Pacific Sport’s Andy Brown, a 26-year-old-Scot who runs the 800 and is vying to make the United Kingdom’s Olympic team. “He’s always trying to find out the latest research and the most advanced techniques to make sure we benefit.”

“He tries different things,” Brown continued. “A lot of coaches run the same programs every year, whereas Wynn’s training always seems to progress. It changes as he finds out the latest techniques and finds out more about different things that he can use.”

Teammate Aimee Tetevis concurred.

“I would say Wynn is definitely the most knowledgeable coach I’ve ever worked with,” said Tetevis, who previously starred at Rice University. ” He really actively pursues keeping up to date on new training methods and ideas.”

“He went to a conference in Colorado Springs a few months ago on altitude training,” Tetevis said. “This was before we came here and in preparation for us coming here, so we would have the latest ideas on what the best way to train at altitude is.”


In simple terms, the key to Gmitroski’s training program focuses on rest and recovery, both psychological and physical. He said without proper R&R, athletes cannot maximize their potential.

“I know to try to get fit towards even the best in the world, you’ve got to have support,” said Gmitroski, who owns a sports therapy clinic in Victoria. “You can’t do it yourself. It’s not just a matter of hard physical training, but it’s also what you do in between your training sessions that count. Having the right support makes a big difference.”

The Pacific Sport team, comprised of 10 runners and a support staff of four, utilized six-day training cycles during its recent training camp.

In Flagstaff, the team ran at Lumberjack Stadium, did yoga sessions at the Rolle Activity Center and used saunas and hot tubs at the Flagstaff Athletic Club. The hot tubs and pool, Gmitroski explained, are used for hydrotherapy and contrast therapy. Say what? “They’ll get into the hot tub and then they’ll hop into the pool,” he said. “It’s good to have that contrast, and that improves circulation.”

Two of the six days were spent running at lower altitudes, one day in Camp Verde, the other in Beaver Creek on the trails east of Sedona. On the sixth day, the team rested.

So what are the key aspects of rest and recovery?

Gmitroski broke it down into three primary building blocks:

* Rest (this includes naps and passive rest, during which you are “not doing much” between training sessions).

* Proper hydration (some Pacific Sport athletes drank 10 liters, or 2.6 gallons, of water a day while training in Flagstaff).

* Nutrition (Gmitroski’s athletes are well-versed in the importance of body-weight optimization).

“The lighter you are, the more powerful you are, the better you perform,” Gmitroski said.

Pacific Sport’s top performers who trained here are: Cummins, who is ranked seventh in the world in the women’s 800 and finished sixth at the 2003 IAAF World Outdoor Track and Field Championships in Paris; and up-and-coming Gary Reed, who broke the Canadian indoor record last year in the 800.

The aforementioned standouts and the rest of Pacific Sport’s athletes are gearing up for the Canadian Olympic Trails, which will be held July 9-11 in Victoria, B.C. In the meantime, they are competing all over.

For instance, Pacific Sport runners are competing at the Jamaica International Invitational, a Modesto, Calif., meet; and a low-key meet in British Columbia this weekend. In mid-July they will travel to Arles, France to begin final preparations for the 2004 Athens Games, which will be in August in Athens.

Asked last Sunday, two days before the team’s departure, how the training camp had gone, Gmitroski said, “Every time we come back, we get a little smarter at how we do things. “I’m quite happy with how the camp has gone.”

Added Tetevis, “(This was) the best training of my life I would say, the most intense.”


When he’s not devoting countless hours to his sports therapy clinic or Pacific Sport, Gmitroski has developed another passion: serving as a consultant for Cirque du Soleil.

Gmitroski picked up this intriguing diversion last year after participating in a recovery and regeneration summit in Montreal.

“We spent a week with them brainstorming and looking over their program and making suggestions (about) how they could enhance the (tenure) of the performers in their shows,” he recalled.

For Gmitroski, one of the advantages of being a consultant is that he gets to see many Cirque du Soleil shows. In the past year, he’s seen three of the circus’ nine traveling acts in Las Vegas, another one in Belgium, and one last week: the Varekai show, in Scottsdale.

“It’s just something that’s fun and something on the side that adds a little interest to life,” Gmitroski said.

During Gmitroski’s travels, he’d “spend a day or two with the staff, go out to dinner and they’d pick my brain. They’d just like an outsider’s point of view a lot of times.”


Such things as “(we) look at patterns of injuries … and is it happening because they are not getting enough recovery? Or is it because the stunts they are trying to pull are too dangerous?” Gmitroski revealed.

As much as he said he’s fascinated by seeing time and again the fantasy world of Cirque du Soleil, Gmitroski said these experiences have been beneficial to Pacific Sport.

His staff helped Cirque du Soleil build a special orthotic (foot padding) for a Cirque du Soleil star tumbler who kept having foot problems. It worked so well that they then devised a specialized, lighter orthotic for a runner’s spikes. “As a result, you are going to see faster times,” he said.

“There’s a spin-off between these things and learning to be done,” the coach added.

By all accounts, Gmitroski has learned how to run a productive, well-organized training camp.

“The hard work for the season’s been done,” Gmitroski said. “For 90 percent of them, it’s gone really, really well.”

Credit the coach for steering them in the right direction.

And keeping them away from those hot dogs.

“It is fun to see a country start American football”

This feature story appeared in the Arizona Daily Sun on May 31, 2005.

NAU’s international outreach

By Ed Odeven

Before the widespread use of radios and automobiles, televisions and airplanes, Americans watched and played football on grassy fields in small towns and large cities.

Overseas, the sport took longer to gain a respectable following.

But Larry Kentera has seen firsthand how football has grown in Europe. He coached German club teams during the 1993-95 seasons. He worked for an Italian club in ’97.

“American football in Europe is big, in Germany, in Spain, in Sweden,” Kentera, Northern Arizona’s head coach from 1985-89, said in a phone interview. “I’m talking about the people playing it. I’m talking about how the people are interested in it.”

This is especially evident in Germany, he said, noting that four of NFL Europe’s six teams are based there.

Though football is now well-established in Germany, it is still in its infancy in other countries, including Serbia and Montenegro.

Kentera left Phoenix Monday for a trip to the Eastern European nation, where he’ll accompany ex-Arizona State football assistant Gene Felker to teach the game to high school and college-age students. Both are volunteer coaches.

ACDI/VOCA, a private, non-profit organization which works to promote broad-based economic growth and the development of civil society in emerging democracies and developing countries, is paying the coaches’ expenses and sponsoring the trip.

Starting today through June 19, Kentera and Felker will visit several cities, including the capital Belgrade, for a series of practices, clinics and meetings.

“The biggest part of our trip there is going to teach them fundamentals,” Kentera said, “and then more technical parts of the game, like different techniques for offensive linemen, linebackers and running backs.”

In Serbia, the ex-Yugoslav republic that now forms a confederation with Montenegro, American football is just beginning. The Serbian American Football Federation, a five-team league comprised of the Wild Boars, Belgrade, Legionaries, Panthers and Steeds, completed its first official season in 2004.

“It is fun to see a country start American football,” Kentera said. “It’s going to be interesting.”

And Kentera, who is of Serbian descent, is eager to lend a helping hand.

“These people want to get a program started. They want to know more about American football,” said the 80-year-old who grew up in Globe and later worked for 13 years as the Sun Devils defensive coordinator under legendary coach Frank Kush.

“We are going to help them on some techniques and schemes, offensively and defensively.”

NAU is also playing a role in this trip. The university has donated approximately 500 pairs of athletic shoes — some shoes that remain in their original boxes, many of which date back to 1981 — and an assortment of used shoulder pads, practice shirts and pants to ACDI/VOCA.

Equipment is scarce overseas, Kentera said.

NAU’s equipment, meanwhile, has been collecting dust in the Skydome for years, according to Lumberjacks equipment manager George Fox.

So why couldn’t the school divvy it up among local schools? NCAA rules prohibit university athletic departments from giving equipment to high schools because it’s considered illegal recruiting.

That said, this isn’t the first time NAU planned to donate the equipment. Fox, a retired Air Force major, wanted to send a shipment of athletic shoes to Iraq.

“I’d see some TV clips of young kids playing soccer there and they are barefoot,” Fox said. “And that’s when I got the idea, ‘Hey, maybe we can … send them over there.’

“We had worked it out last year (that) we were going to try to send it to Iraq because there was a program going on that FedEx would ship them free. But that program shut down in a hurry before we could get it together.”

Fast forward to 2005. Recently, Kentera called NAU athletics director Jim Fallis to inform him of his summer trip. Then Fallis called Fox to ask him, ‘Hey, is there anything we can do to help these guys out?'” Fox recalled.

So the equipment was rounded up at the Skydome and put on wood pallets. Swift Trucking Company made the recent pickup. The supplies were taken to New York, where other equipment had been stored before it was sent overseas.

“It’s an opportunity to do something good, so we were glad to be a part of it,” Fox said.

Said Kentera: “NAU was very nice to provide assistance. We appreciate the equipment to help this program out.”

Kentera, who was 26-29 during his tenure with the Lumberjacks, is semi-retired and lives in the Valley.

He runs 2 miles or plays golf every day. He’s also a consultant to a sports agent, offering evaluations of potential clients.

When you speak to him, his love of football and NAU is evident immediately.

“I tell you what,” he said, “some of my greatest memories are being at NAU. We just loved it up there, the wife and I.”

“Just the other day, a group of our players when I was up there called me and said we’ve got to get together.”

A group of ex-Jacks visits with Kentera three to four times a year.

But before he returns home, Kentera has plenty of fun activities planned. He’ll visit some of his former German players in Kiel, Germany, a coastal town on the Baltic Sea. He’ll hang out with cousins in Budva, a Montenegran city on the Adriatic Sea.

“When I’m there, I might as well enjoy myself,” he said with a good-natured chuckle, revealing he won’t be back in Arizona until July 6.

All in all, Kentera sees nothing but good things coming from the grassroots development of football in Serbia.

“(Through sports), people get together and congregate and express their ideas and express their culture, express their personal life,” he said. “You get a lot from being in sports, playing against each other, with each other.

“I think that’s a good thing about sports.”

Even far away from home.