Sometimes things have a way of working out, and sometimes things have a way of working out even if they shouldn’t.
That seems to have been the case with the Wamego football team the past couple years.
The Red Raiders were in a a bad place and brought in a new head coach in retired football coach Dale Burkholder.
It must have felt like the beginning of an inspirational sports movie, as the former Wichita North coach who had Barry Sanders at running back in the 1980s, returned to the sidelines.
The Red Raiders were used to losing and he hadn’t been a head coach since 1989. The team’s quarterback, Marshall Wethington, was diagnosed with a juvenile arthritis condition that many doctors said would take the 6-foot-4 passer away from the game for the rest of his life.
But, once again, sometimes things have a way of working out.
Move forward two years and Burkholder, now 63, took Wamego to a 5-4 season and an undefeated mark in the NCKL. Wethington, who was told he’d never play football again during his sophomore year, accounted for more than 2,300 yards of total offense and 30 touchdowns in his senior campaign.
With all that said, it’s no surprise Wethington has been named The Mercury’s All-Flint Hills Player of the Year and Burkholder is the All-Flint Hills Coach of the Year.
“First of all, anytime you get a recognition like this, there are a lot of kids, assistant coaches and administrators to thank for it,” said Burkholder, who lives in Topeka. “It is a nice reward for your efforts, and it makes getting up at 4:15 every morning so I can open up the weight room at 5:40 in Wamego worth it.
“I feel like I put in the effort, the last couple years, and the results showed, but you have to have the horses, and of course I had some pretty good athletes to make it go.”
Wethington, who was on the team bus back from a Red Raiders basketball game when he told of the honor, said he enjoyed the season and teammates he got to play with.
“It was a really good year,” he said. “I had a lot of good guys to throw it to and I had a lot of protection up front. I came up one short of my goal for passing touchdowns, but my goal for rushing touchdowns was five, and I ended up with 11, so it worked out.
“I think a lot of our success this year was us playing together as a team and it was Coach Burkholder’s second year, and he really knew us from last year.
“We were able to pick up from when we were lifting in the summer and he was ready to go right then. The experience from last year really helped us a lot.”
Before this year, Wamego was a combined 2-16 the previous two seasons. Both of those wins came against Chapman, a team that was coming off multiple winless seasons until this year.
Although Burkholder introduced the West Coast offense to Wamego year ago, it really stuck this season and proved effective.
Wethington, who said he has received attention from several colleges and is still in the visiting process, was 148-of-282 passing for 2,052 yards and 19 TDs, while rushing for another 285 yards and 11 scores. Wethington’s favorite target, fellow senior Dakota Turner, caught a team-high 52 passes for 736 yards and nine touchdowns — making the All-Flint Hills First Team.
“He was a great talent and a great kid to work with,” Burkholder said about his departing quarterback. “I wish I had another year with him.”
He was really a junior, experience-wise, this season because of earlier health setbacks.
“He’s going to go somewhere and play,” Burkholder said. “His better passing days are ahead of him and he works at it really hard. He has the size to be a great quarterback, and he just fits the prototypical passing quarterback the next level is looking for.”
Both Wethington and Burkholder have obviously relied on each other for their successes, and both give each other a lot of credit.
“He teaches us life lessons and just pushes us,” Wethington said. “I compare him to what I know about (Kansas State coach) Bill Snyder. He cares. It’s not just about football, it’s about everything else. He always tells us the most dangerous part of our day is getting in our car and driving around. He always tells us to wear our seat belts, and to just always be safe.
“He just cares about us, and we feel that, too. It makes us go all-out for him.”
Burkholder said players like Wethington make the drive from Topeka always worth it.
“When I get there, and open that weight room door at 5 or 6 in the morning, and there are 40 to 60 boys there every morning ready to work, oh man, that makes the trip worthwhile and it just lights me up,” he said. “Wamego is one great town and the best kept secret in Kansas. This year was a coming together of all the hard work those kids did for me the past two years.”