Greg Hansen: Honk for Ollie, a coach who cared

2013-01-09T00:00:00Z 2013-01-09T11:41:35Z Greg Hansen: Honk for Ollie, a coach who caredGreg Hansen Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
January 09, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Long after Ollie Mayfield coached his last state championship team at Tucson High, a decade after he rescued Sabino from an 0-23 streak and built the Sabercats into a first-rank football program, he quietly agreed to coach the Middle Park High School Panthers, aptly named for their location in the middle of nowhere.

Mayfield was 62 then, working the summers as a forest ranger at the tip of Rocky Mountain National Park. But his cover was blown, and someone soon told the local school district in tiny Granby, Colo., that Mayfield used to coach some football in Arizona.

That's like saying Linda Ronstadt used to sing a little here.

People in and around beautiful Grand Lake, Colo., thought Ollie Mayfield was a retired math teacher. That's what he would tell them. But word leaked out, and pretty soon, in Act IV of his coaching career, Mayfield had the Middle Park Panthers winning big.

Ollie virtually coached for free at Middle Park; the school district was so grateful that it discreetly held a fund-raising campaign so that it could send Ollie and his wife Opal on a fabulous vacation on the Mexican Riviera.

He coached until he was 65 and walked off into the sunset the same way he had at tiny Ralston, Neb., in 1956 and in Tucson in 1980. The hay was finally in the barn.

Last July, I drove Highway 34 from Grandy to Grand Lake, the road Ollie Mayfield used to travel, and was led to the cabin he and Opal built overlooking Shadow Mountain. Opal had died two years earlier, in Tucson, and Ollie was back in Tucson, in an assisted living facility.

Their son, Todd Mayfield, who coached Palo Verde High School to the 2005 state football championship, gave me a tour of the cabin and let me linger on the deck, absorbing the gorgeous view.

"When dad coached at Middle Park, and for years after, the kids on the team would drive up the highway and honk their horn, a signal to dad that they were OK," Todd said. "They all knew where we lived, they had all been in the cabin, and dad always reminded them to honk. It was their bond, something that held them together.

"Even now, almost 20 years after dad last coached, I'll be sitting on the deck and hear a honk down on the highway. It tells me how much he meant to those kids."

Ollie Mayfield died Friday, at 83, and the son of a farmer from Cedar Creek, Neb., was reunited with his beloved Opal, 60 years after they met at church in Weeping Water, Neb.

His public legacy in Tucson is that he was a remarkable football coach, winning back-to-back state titles at Tucson High in 1970-71, and that his undefeated '70 squad is viewed by some as the most powerful prep football team in Arizona history. When he coached his last Tucson game, at Sabino in 1980, his 103 victories were the most in Tucson history.

But that's only part of it.

When Ollie wasn't coaching football, or track, as he did at Tucson High for 20 years, he was a lot more than coach. He liked people. He once told me he got more of a kick out of teaching a geometry class than anything else.

There were no scoreboards in Ollie's math classes at Tucson High and at Sabino, but he was just as diligent, as if preparing for a playoff game against Salpointe or Sunnyside. He could influence more kids teaching quadratic equations than he could designing plays from his famed full-T offense.

"When I was a sophomore at Sabino, 28 years ago, I lost a friend to suicide and was feeling lost and bewildered," remembers Melissa Griebel, a behavioral health counselor and social worker in Tucson. That year, on Valentine's Day, in memoriam of her friend, Griebel placed an ad in the school newspaper.

Ollie read the ad, and when he walked into the geometry class, put his hand on Melissa's shoulder and looked her in the eyes. He wanted to help.

"He told the students to put their books away," Melissa says now. Ollie Mayfield spent the day talking about life, not math.

A few years ago, Melissa wrote to her old teacher, reminding him how important he had been during her teenage years. A day later, Ollie called his long-ago math student. They talked about life.

And more recently, when Melissa learned that Ollie was struggling, fighting against dementia, she spent the afternoon with him.

"He still remembered all the sayings he used to tell us," she says. "'Whether you think you can, or think you can't, you're right.' … Coaching was the vehicle he used, but deep down he was the best kind of teacher there is: the kind that make a difference."

Honk a horn for Oliver T. Mayfield today. I suspect he'll be listening.

Mayfield memorial set

A memorial service for Ollie Mayfield will be held Jan. 26 at 2 p.m. at El Camino Baptist Church, 7777 E. Speedway.

Contact Greg Hansen at 573-4362 or ghansen@azstarnet.com

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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