TIM GALLAGHER May 2, 2013
SIOUX CITY | Ten years ago this Halloween, Walt Fiegel coached his final football game. Try as they might, the East High Black Raiders fell to rival Bishop Heelan 27-0, ending the season with a 3-6 mark.
Down and out? That wasn’t Fiegel, the legend who piloted East to a Class 4A state championship in 1984.
Fiegel credited Heelan on that October night a decade ago, then focused on the future. “I thank Roger Jansen (Heelan’s head coach) for letting us play to a tie in the second half,” Fiegel said. “He’s a first-class coach. Heelan has a fine team and I congratulate them for winning the conference and reaching the playoffs.
“We’re going to put it all (equipment) away Monday, have our team banquet and sit down as a staff and prepare for next season,” he concluded.
Next season never came for Fiegel, who died of a heart attack 12 days later. He was 69.
I smiled while reading the faded game story. Wrapping up an inglorious 3-6 season, Fiegel lauded his rival before training his focus on next year.
A decade after his passing, Fiegel’s charges surely have him smiling. Three East High seniors, three West High seniors, two Bishop Heelan seniors and one each from Dakota Valley and North High will stand at the microphone May 10, introducing themselves to 300 people at the 10th Annual Walt Fiegel Foundation dinner and auction at the Sergeant Bluff Community Center.
They’ll say who they are, where they’re going and what they’ll study. They’ll each walk away with a $1,000 scholarship, bringing the number of high school seniors the Walt Fiegel Foundation has aided to 56.
“This is not an athletic scholarship,” says Jeff Croston, a 1985 East High grad and president of the Walt Fiegel Foundation. “The focus when we began this was to find that individual out there, a person Coach Fiegel would always embrace, the person who had challenges or obstacles to overcome.”
Michael Haight was one of those students. He didn’t star for Fiegel’s grid teams. Fiegel died after Haight’s sophomore year, a year in which Haight suited varsity, but didn’t play. Haight was sidelined from football with a foot injury his junior season, and a brain tumor, of all things, as a senior.
“Health-wise, I wasn’t getting stuff to go my way,” Haight told me in 2007, his freshman year at the University of Iowa. “I remembered Coach Fiegel’s saying about how tough times don’t last, but tough people do. That saying stayed with me.”
Catching up with Haight this week, I learned he’s a certified public accountant with Roth & Co. in Des Moines. He earned his master’s degree in 2011 and travels the state working with banks.
The 25-year-old sees the fruits of labor that dotted a trying prep football career. After missing nearly all of his junior football season with a broken foot, he looked forward to his senior campaign. It ended before it began, really, as Haight suffered two seizures on the first day of football practice. An MRI later that day revealed the brain tumor, which was benign. Haight never played football again.
A tough person like his old coach, Haight tackled tough times.
Haight’s tumor wasn’t expected to grow, so doctors signed-off on his plan to play basketball that winter. The Black Raiders finished third in Iowa’s class 4A ranks. Haight, a reserve on the squad, served as a captain.
“I learned a lot about myself that year,” Haight said. “I learned to be resilient and optimistic.”
Fiegel himself battled back from prostate cancer in 1996 to coach again. Besides the state title team, there were conference champs and teams that struggled.
“I won a state championship and I’m proud of that,” Fiegel said. “But don’t forget, I’m the only guy, too, to go 0-8.
“Tough times, I’ll tell you, is 0-8.”
Fiegel didn’t lose like that often. And the players, businesses, friends and former football foes who support the Walt Fiegel Foundation have fielded a winner in the decade since his passing.
The goal every year, according to Croston, is to use the dinner, auction and related golf tournament to pump $28,000 into an endowment while helping 10 “tough” young people begin their academic journey with scholarships.
“This is all about the kids and honoring coach Fiegel and making sure some of the characteristics he focused on are passed on,” Croston says. “We see kids who are hardworking, leaders in their class and, hopefully, someday in their community.”