THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
So, you want to be here, Lenny? Around me? OK, fine, said his mom, Joann. Joann owned a bar, The Locker Room in Placentia, a Los Angeles suburb. Son, be useful. Clean the bar. Wipe it perfect. Open the joint in the morning. The bar was a dive, Lenny says now, a real dive. No windows. No ventilation. Smelled exotic, you might say. But what did Lenny know? He was only in the fifth grade at the time.
“If somebody got too drunk,” Lenny Wagner said, “my mom wouldn’t let them drive. She’d tell them to crash in one of the booths inside the bar. I’d come in the morning to open the place up. It was totally dark. I’d walk toward the light switch when I’d hear a roar. It was someone snoring, someone who had passed out in the booth. Scared me witless.”
And this is how Lenny Wagner began preparing to be Santa Rosa JC’s new head football coach and interim athletic director.
For some, the journey of a million miles might begin with a single step. For Wagner, it began with a dry cloth and a mandate from his mother.
“Go say hello to everyone that comes into the bar,” Joann told young Lenny. “Be very social.”
Joann knew that a little kid has a way of disarming people. Joann also knew she didn’t have to tell Lenny how to be very social. Her son took to having conversations with strangers the way ham takes to an egg in an omelette. It didn’t matter to Lenny if someone was tall or short, fat or skinny, white, black, pink or polka-dot. Lenny talked to them all and as he grew older, he became very comfortable in his own skin, to where he could move smoothly in and out of delicate situations.
Wagner, 43, has worked as a bouncer, bartender, private investigator, repossessor of cars. He’s worked rock-concert security. Wagner has his bachelor’s and master’s in kinesiology, he may have wedded himself to higher education, but it wasn’t as if he always buried his head in a book while doing it.
“Fake it ’til you make it,’” Wagner said. “That’s what my mom always said.”
That’s what Wagner did, for a while. He played the piano for 12 years and thought that’s what he wanted to do.
Until he became a painter. No, not the kind of guy who dips his brush into a Sherwin-Williams blend. The kind of guy who paints scenes, pictures. Even sold a couple of paintings. Yep, Wagner knew he was going to be a commercial artist.
Until he got to Sonoma State in the late ’90s and became attracted to physical therapy. An honorable, meaningful profession. He could take pride in that. Yep, Wagner was going to be a PT.
Until he saw the SSU athletic trainers work on the ankles and legs and arms and whatever of his fellow football teammates. He could reduce the chance of injury. Help keep people healthy. Yep, Wagner knew he was going to be an athletic trainer. Was even set up to be a student trainer.
Until someone offered him a chance to coach football.
That’s when Wagner stopped faking it.
Over the last 14 years, he worked at SSU, Mendocino College and SRJC. The kid who was told to talk to everyone at The Locker Room found it as easy as taking a breath to talk to coaches about football. Didn’t matter college, high school, Pop Warner or at a Fourth of July picnic. Wagner loved football, loved people. He had been SSU’s team captain for two years, is a member of that school’s Hall of Fame. He was named Coach of the Year at Mendo. He was a starting linebacker in a national junior college championship game.
But Wagner didn’t walk around with attitude, like he had The Book of Secrets and you had to beg for its contents. Casa’s coach, Trent Herzog, asked Wagner to spend a little time this past summer with the Gaucho coaching staff. Talk about organization, discipline, Xs and Os, the right way to play the game. Wagner did. No problem.
“Relationships are important to me,” Wagner said. “I want to reach out to the community around here.”
Wagner already has. In fact, one can’t throw a football in the Redwood Empire without hitting someone who knows Wagner. The connections aren’t dubious, like I bumped into Jason Franci at the Safeway and I know him really well. For example, Wagner offered recently retired Petaluma head coach Steve Ellison a job to work with the Bear Cubs’ offensive line and running game. After taking some time to decide, Ellison declined, retirement suiting him just fine.
In 10 minutes Wagner named 15 area coaches who he either played with or coached, among them: Cardinal Newman’s Paul Cronin, Sonoma Valley’s Bob Midgley, Windsor’s Vic Amick, Cloverdale’s Jason Fayter, Analy’s Dan Bourdon, Montgomery’s Ken Hawkins, Bao Anderson and Marcello Batista. Maria Carrillo vice principal Randy Burbank played for Wagner at SSU and was his defensive backs coach at Mendo. Wagner would run football camps for Gary Galloway at St. Vincent’s.
A connection made is a connection remembered. Marcus Ezeff and Scott Ware will help coach his defensive backs; both played for Wagner, Ezeff going onto Cal, Ware to USC. Brad Muster, the ex-Stanford Cardinal and ex-Chicago Bear, will be his assistant head coach. Muster (running backs) and Wagner (linebackers) coached together at SRJC for five years. Defensive lineman Martin Tevaseu, who Wagner coached at SRJC, will join Wagner’s staff as a volunteer once Tevaseu’s season with the Indianapolis Colts is completed.
On Fridays during football season, Wagner would meet high school coaches at Hank’s Creekside in Santa Rosa for breakfast. They’d talk ball. Players. Problems. Whatever. Wagner was networking, that maybe one day he’d be the head coach at the JC, and his personality and integrity would have reached every school, hill and dale, and parents and kids would feel safe and comfortable sending their kid over to Lenny. It was never a grand plan with him, never a strategy he was working. It was just him.
“I love bumping into people I know,” Wagner said. “I do love the small-town environment. I know that’s not for everybody. But I like feeling part of a community, reaching out to people.”
And two years ago, the community reached out to him. Nate, his 3-year old, was diagnosed with pineoblastoma, a rare form of brain cancer. As the news spread throughout the region, Wagner found those relationships he so sincerely developed become a source of comfort for him and his wife, Catrina.
So Wagner would like to tell all his friends that Nate is doing fine. The end of February will mark the two-year anniversary of Nate’s last chemotherapy treatment. The three-month MRI schedule now become a six-month MRI schedule that will last two years. If those four MRIs come back clean, then it’s one MRI a year for two years. If those two MRIs are returned clean, Nate will be judged cured. He’ll be good to go.
To play linebacker one day like his father?
“Nah, he’s a chatty little dude,” Lenny Wagner said. “He’ll be organizing something, I bet.”
Yeah, Nate, please, go say hello to everyone. Look what it did for your dad.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.