The end of the 2020 football season is nearing completion with the final home game being held at historic Al Simpler Stadium this Friday night as the Junction City Blue Jays host the Derby Panthers in the Kansas State High School Activities Association Class 6A football tournament semifinals.
With that what defines success? Is it the wins and losses accumulated over the years by the head coach? Is it the number of players who moved on to college in pursuit of dream jobs and riches beyond their belief? Is it watching a boy become a man and family man who’s kid is now playing football in the youth ranks? Whatever your definition of success is, Junction City High School has had its fair share over the years.
In 1968, the Blue Jays were undefeated in the final year of high school football without a state game played. The team was 9-0 and 5-0 in the Central Kansas League under coach Al Simpler. The following year, the team lost one game and continued on to win the Class 4A state championship — the first of two state victories.
In 2008, the team earned their second state title — this time in Class 6A and under the guidance of current head coach, Randall Zimmerman. During his 25-plus years, Zimmerman has amassed a record of 165-97, including games this year.
Does that make him successful? To his players and the community that answer is easy — yes.
“He is a fantastic coach and I looked up to him (and still do!) and respect him so much for what he taught us,” said Cortez Delaney, member of the 2008 championship team. “He taught consistency, respect, hard work ethic, always looking to improve. The things he instilled us wasn’t just for the football field, but for life. And they are the things I teach my students and players to this day. Coach Z really focused on habits, too. He would say, ‘It’s all about doing the little things right every day.’ I find myself talking about habits and saying stuff like that to my students almost every day.”
Ty Zimmerman also played during that 2008 championship run. For him, it’s “his consistency,” he said.
“It’s the same message that he gives over and over and over about life,” Zimmerman said. “That’s the thing that I think a lot of people don’t understand. He cares, and his is easy for me to say because I see him all the time, he cares so much more about the guys off the field than he does about what happens on Friday nights. And I think a testimony of that is so many guys that come back after college, after military, whatever and they and they write letters and they send messages and there’s guys showing up on Fridays to watch games because they understand how much he cares about them and how much all those messages he was saying at the time has really paid off for them. He has really laid a foundation for me, my time in college and then me as a husband and a father. Those things transcend just Friday night football. I think that’s why he’s been so successful, not just Friday nights, but raising up young men who contribute to society and do good things.”
Ty can be seen helping coach alongside his dad during the season, a spot that has been a second home for him growing up in the Blue Jays organization. For him, growing up with a large bunch of older brothers was “fun” he said. He would watch them on the field and hang out with them when they came over or during the weekly team meals. There was no animosity towards the players who took time away from him to be around his father. That time was spent together at the field during practice, he said.
“Growing up around the game, growing up around the coaches, growing up around the teams - every single year seeing the high school guys, I mean I looked forward to playing and then just sharing something that we both are passionate about together,” Zimmerman said.
Ty said there is a picture of him when he was either four or five years old on his father’s desk of him on the field during practice.
All four of the Zimmerman children hung out on the field, Randall said. This Friday night will be a little tougher walking off that field for the final time after a game.
“Every night they were up here to practice and watch it,” Randall said. “Every game they were here, postgame they were always down on the field as all of these young kids were. It’s gonna be hard to see that not be there.”
Could that tradition be counted as success? Could that feeling of family and togetherness on, and off, the gridiron be deemed worthy of the title?
One thing has been certain, since 1994 — consistency and coach Zimmerman’s demand of being consistent in everything the players do. On and off the field. He hounds the players to wake up every morning, even the weekends, at the same time. He tells them to eat breakfast every day, go to class or work around the house during those hours to avoid sleeping during the day. And when it comes time to go to bed, go to bed at the same time every day. It’s those life lessons — being at the right place at the right time, giving all your effort into things to accomplish the task at hand and remain positive through hard times — that can’t be taught in a classroom that Zimmerman focuses on.
Sure, he wants to see the marks in the win column at the end of the season. But he marks a successful season by the number of students graduating, moving on to secondary education options and or promising jobs. He doesn’t get too caught up in the wins and losses of a particular season, he does invest himself into the players future, he said.
“They talk about wins and losses all the time — are you really successful?” Randall said. “We won’t know whether we’re successful with this group until they’re 30 years old. Yeah, they might have won some games. But really what they’re doing in their adult life, how they’re handled themselves out there, that’s going to tell whether you’re successful with them or not. But, it’s a lot of fun.”
Randall enjoys the time he spends around the players and students in his weightlifting and conditioning classes. He demands a lot of them, but no more than any parent does of their child whom they wish to see succeed.
With that, coach Zimmerman doesn’t really get behind yelling at the players when frustrated. Yes, he is a coach and he does raise his voice to get them refocused. On the sidelines he does not yell and scream at the players like other football coaches have been known to do.
“You don’t have to and I don’t, but it depends on who you talk to,” he said. “I don’t correct kids because I disliked them. That’s the first thing, even as a parent that you get to get through to your kids. You correct kids because you love them, because you want them to do better, because you know they can do better - because you know they’re better than that moment. I love the heck out of these kids.”
Keys to success
There are certain things coach Zimmerman focuses on during the season. Consistency was already mentioned, but he focuses on taking advantage of the opportunities presented each day and to grab on to those and move forward.
“The keys to success when playing for Coach Z were to focus on two things he always said to us,” Delaney said. “Every day he would say, ‘Win each day! What are you going to today to get better?’ That applied to the weight room, practice, life, everything. The second thing was to not worry about making the play, but to ‘do your assignment.’ The more we all focused on doing our specific assignment for a play, that enabled us to be more successful.”
He still preaches those keys every week. During many pregame interviews this season, Zimmerman stated it was important for each player to focus on their assignment as part of the bigger picture. When that happened, the team has been very successful on the field. When that didn’t, they struggled to move the ball 10 or more yards at a time.
Zimmerman is very humble when speaking about himself and his success as a coach. He talked about players past and present that make each play, each touchdown, each win and each season special to him. How this season ends in the record book and if it is deemed successful if for the players, student assistants, coaches and fans to determine. Either way, Friday should prove to be both entertaining and sorrowful for the players and fans when the Blue Jays step off the field for their final home appearance of 2020.