It’s 6 p.m. on a Thursday in October, and Bob Wager sits in a wicker chair on his back patio overlooking a sparkling blue swimming pool.
“Believe it or not, it didn’t always look this nice back here,” said Wager, motioning to the wooden pergola and stainless-steel grill behind him.
His cell phone rings and he quickly answers it.
“Hey bud,” he says into the phone. Wager calls everyone bud. “Yeah, I’ll be back up there in a half hour or so.”
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He hangs up and apologizes for the interruption. By “up there,” he’s referring to the Arlington Martin field house. His home away from home. He’s already put it 11 hours and will log two or three more before the night is over. The Warriors play a district game in less than 24 hours and there’s still time to watch the film from today’s practice.
“We spend a lot of time out here as a family,” he says, continuing where he left off. “I imagine it’s like anybody else’s home projects, we worked on it a little bit at a time. Saved a little money, made it a little better over the years. I suppose it never really ends.”
Wager makes his words seem like the most important thing you’ll hear all day. You can’t help but be intrigued.
“I started all this nine years ago,” he says. “The same year I got the job.”
Wager, then 35, and his Warriors had clawed their way into the playoffs with a Week 10 win over cross-town rival Arlington Lamar, giving Martin its first playoff berth in seven years. It was Wager’s first season as head coach and he was eager to prove he belonged.
As the district’s fourth-place finisher, Martin drew powerhouse Euless Trinity in the first round. Trinity welcomed the Warriors to the playoffs with a 41-0 beating.
“It might as well have been 141-0,” said Wager. “They were that much better than us.”
“We had just moved into this house during football season,” he said. “My son, Gage wasn’t even a year old and we’d moved five times in the last year. A lot of things seemed to be happening at one time and when you work 90 hours a week to turn the fortune of your football program and then go out and get hammered by a team that is clearly better than you, it’s about all you can take.”
Following the team’s “longest day,” Wager found himself sitting in the backyard of his newly purchased home, staring at a decade-old, rotting wooden deck.
“I was frustrated,” Wager said. “ It was the culmination of so many things and I took out a season’s worth of frustrations on that deck with a sledgehammer and a crow bar and basically demolished my own backyard.”
He laughs at the memory. The backyard has come a long way since those days.
So has Bob Wager.
Love for the game
Wager, 44, grew up in Johnstown, N.Y., a town of 10,000, nestled in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. The youngest of three, Wager showed a focus and intensity that belied his age.
“He was busy, busy, always busy,” said his mother, Phyllis. “He was a really good boy, very independent, and extremely active. You could tell at a young age he was going to be involved in sports.”
His father, Clarence, or Bud as everyone around town called him, spent his days as a car salesman frequently appearing in local newspaper ads for the company. Well-liked and a bit of a showman, Bud was in his 40s when Bob was born.
“Oh my Lord he just thought Bob was the best thing that ever happened in his life,” said Phyllis. “He was very, very happy when that boy was born.”
In late February 1974, the Wagers and 10 other relatives traveled by train from upstate New York to Florida for a family vacation.
Just days into the trip, Bud became ill. The family rushed him to a hospital in Miami where he later passed away.
“We were at Disney World when we had to take him to the hospital and sadly he died right there, on vacation,” said Phyllis. “We think it was cancer, we aren’t exactly sure. Back then they didn’t know as much as they do today.”
Wager was just 3 years old.
Life would go on for the Wagers. With the oldest children grown and out of the house, Phyllis took on the dual role of mother and father for her young son, ensuring that he never lacked for love or opportunity.
“He was protective of me,” said Phyllis. “And I of him.”
By the time he was in the third grade he was playing club soccer, baseball, basketball; whatever was in season. When Johnstown High School offered the elementary school kids free swimming lessons, Wager jumped at the opportunity.
“There we were all huddled together, waiting for our turn to jump in the pool,” Bob remembers. “And here comes this big hulk of a man who says he’s going to be our swimming instructor and who just so happens to be the varsity football coach.”
That coach was Barry Clawson.
“That was my first time to meet Bobby,” said Clawson. “You could tell even at that age, he was built like a little brick shit house, very much in shape even as a third-grader. Living in the town, I watched him grow all the way through junior high, and eventually got him involved with football and look what happened. It turned out he loved the game as much as I did.”
By the early 1980s, Phyllis had remarried and Wager found himself living a block away from the Johnstown High School football field, a lighted stadium shaped in a half-bowl with a grassy hill leading down to the playing surface.
“Some of my fondest memories are of running to that stadium with my friends and diving down that hill to see who could get to the bottom first,” Wager said. “The best days are when it rained and the grass was nice and wet.”
Without much else in the way of entertainment, the townspeople embraced the school as if it were a college town, turning out in droves to root the team on, cultivating a larger than life persona of the school’s team to the younger boys in attendance.
“Friday nights where phenomenal,” said Clawson. “They were so big that if Halloween fell on a Friday night they’d move it to another night because they wanted everybody to come to the football games. That’s the atmosphere Bobby grew up around.”
By 1987 Bob found himself right smack in the middle of the spotlight as the starting tailback and captain of the football team. In his second to last game of the season he suffered a shoulder injury but kept quiet, deciding to play through the pain. The following morning Clawson heard a knock on his front door.
“I answer the door and Bobby’s standing there wearing a sling,” said Clawson. “I didn’t even know he had hurt himself, that’s the kind of guy he was. He said ‘I went to the doctor and he told me I’m not going to able to play next week but don’t worry Coach, I’m going to play and I’m going to be ready to practice on Tuesday.”
Bob kept his word, willing himself healthy and leading the team to a win in his final game of his high school career.
“He’s just relentless with his attitude,” said Clawson. “Always positive, always upbeat and so focused on the task at hand. He’s been that way ever since I met him.”
When Springfield College came calling with a football scholarship offer, it was Clawson who drove him to the Massachusetts school for a visit.
“It went way beyond being on the field and coaching me for a few hours,” said Wager. “I just became enamored with him, his passion for his players and what he did for a living. I loved him so much I wanted to be him.”
After a neck injury cut his college career short, Wager accepted a role as a student assistant coach, allowing him to keep his scholarship and finish his degree.
Following graduation, he set his sights on a coaching career in the high school ranks, following in the steps of his mentor. Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights was a best-seller at the time and Wager had heard about Texas high school football his whole life. Once he read the book he knew what he had to do.
Wager, 22 at the time, sold his rusty Jeep, bought a motorcycle, and headed to Texas. And while the move didn’t carry much risk for Wager, it meant he’d be leaving his mother behind to chase his dream.
“I cried a lot,” said Phyllis, remembering the day her son told her he was leaving. “My heart ached when he had to leave upstate New York and go to Texas, but then I said follow your dream son, follow your dream and he certainly has.”
It didn’t take him long to land a job, signing on at Carter Junior High in Arlington. Wager would slip away during his lunch hour and head up to the Sam Houston High School, doing whatever odd jobs needed to be done, racking weights, spotting balls, picking up towels, all in an effort to network and make himself valuable. Then-athletic director Ken Ozee took notice of the young man’s work ethic and offered him a position on his staff. Four years later Wager was named offensive coordinator of the varsity squad.
It was during this time that he met his wife, Amy.
“I’d seen her around town and one day I asked her if she’d like to go to lunch,” said Wager. “She said no and I said ‘Hey, it’s no risk, it’s just lunch’ and I guess kind of like my dad probably was as a car salesman, I just kept asking until she said yes and once she did I didn’t let her go.”
Later that year, Wager was offered his first head coaching job, at 1A Tolar.
“Accepting the job meant that I’d be moving from a 5A school of 3,500 students to a school in a town with a population of 508,” Wager said. “Amy knew my dream and my dream had become her dream. I was 27 years old and with her support, if someone was offering me a chance to be a head coach, I was going to take it. It was everything I’d ever wanted.”
Wager spent four years in Tolar, leading them to three playoff appearances and their first playoff win in school history. He spent the next three years at 2A Groveton, followed by a year at 3A Kaufman, winning at each level and acquiring loyal assistant coaches along the way.
Finally, in 2006, he received the call he’d always dreamed of, an offer to become the athletic director and football coach at Arlington Martin.
“We don’t control the time line of opportunities,” Wager said. “It was a chance for me, for my staff and our families to coach at the highest level of high school football in the country.”
Wager has led Martin to 130 wins, eight consecutive playoff berths, including four trips to the regional finals and a state quarterfinal appearance.
He worked tirelessly, networking with businesses to help secure better equipment for his players, putting in an intensive conditioning program that guaranteed his players would be in better shape than their opponents.
He spent hours with his staff, developing an extensive database of email addresses for every football-playing college in the country in an effort to promote his players and give them a chance to play at the next level. The system was so successful that 50 of his players received football scholarships in an eight-year stretch.
Myles Garrett, who signed with Texas A&M last spring, was Wager’s most highly recruited player in his 22 years of coaching.
“He is a father figure to me and he’s always looked out for my best interests,” Garrett said. “If I could only take two people to fight alongside me in a war, knowing we were doomed to defeat, I’d take [Martin assistant] Coach Gonzales and Coach Wager because I know they’d fight all the way to the end.”
As wonderful as life on the playing field had become, the hours away were starting to take a toll on things at home. With 15 hour days stacking one on top of the other, Amy and the kids were starting to suffer.
“Things had to change,” said Amy. “There’s so much that happens with children over a period of seven days, especially when they’re young, and Bob was missing out. He has a tremendous commitment to being here for his kids and our marriage because he didn’t have his father and it’s desperately important to him that he’s around for the kids.”
Things did change. Bob starting making a concerted effort to be home in time to put the kids to bed each night. A mandatory family dinner was inked into the schedule for 6 p.m. every Wednesday. Gage was promoted to ball-boy, giving him the opportunity to be next to his dad on the sidelines at every practice and game. Seven-year-old Mia even added a policy of her own, demanding to be woken up every morning before Bob left the house so she could kiss him goodbye.
“The older I’ve gotten, the more I realize it’s not about winning or losing football games, said Wager. “The greatest driving force is the relationship we’re building with the kids.”
Barry Clawson, 67, is now an assistant coach to his son, Brian at a high school in upstate New York. The team just wrapped an undefeated regular season and are entering the playoffs as the state’s No. 1 seed.
“I help my son, Brian two or three days a week,” said Clawson. “I watch film of the next week’s opponent, basically do whatever he needs me to do. I follow Bobby’s team too. He calls me several times a week and we talk. He’s like a son to me.”
The two had a rare opportunity to see each other this past summer when Bob came back to visit his mother. Amy and the kids came along and listened as the two friends sat and talked, sharing memories.
“If I was a parent and I had a son playing for Bobby I’d think it was one of the greatest things to ever happen to my son,” said Clawson. “If he ever makes it to the state championship he knows I’ll be there routing him on. I wouldn’t miss that for the world.”
The home stretch
Long shadows start to creep across the lawn in the backyard. It’s time for Wager to head back to the school and watch a little more film.
“I really enjoyed the conversation,” he says, smiling. “I had another one of these just the other day.”
“No, I was invited to give the Saturday morning rah-rah sales meeting speech to the truck salesmen over at Vandergriff Toyota. We talked about what I perceived as the similarities between building a football team and building a business team or building a family. All those things are the same. We talked about vision, about organization, about having a plan. It went great.”
A bank of lights flicks on above the treetops beyond the back fence. It’s the football field lights. Just like Johnstown, he’s just a block away.
Phyllis, now 79, laughs when she hears the story over the phone. No, Bob hadn’t told her about the meeting with the car salesman, she says.
“His father wouldn’t have a button left on his shirt,” says Phyllis. “They would all be popped he would be so proud. Bob was too young to really remember his father but I tried keep his vision alive.”
“I love and respect my son so much,” she says as she pauses to collect her thoughts. “I wish I had the words to express the pride I feel in my heart. He’s a great son, a great boy and I just feel he’s the best coach in all the world.”