There was a special feeling in the air on Friday night in Albia.
Sure, it was opening night for the Blue Demon football team. Coming off of consecutive playoff appearances, the night also marked the beginning of what many fans feel could be a very special season for the rising football program.
For head coach Jerry Staton, Friday night was the first of two very straight significant days. Just 24 hours before celebrating his 50th wedding anniversary, Staton kicked off his 50th season as a head football coach.
“I love my wife more than I did when we got married. I also love football more today than I did when I got started,” Staton said. “I owe a lot to football, and this is my way of paying back.
“I’m starting to creek a little, the bones don’t work quite right, but I’m hanging in there.”
The number 50 also holds special significance for Albia and their longtime head coach. Hours before kicking off their first game of the season Friday against Fairfield, Staton and the Blue Demons were delivered their game ball from Jim Gabriel, Paul Markowski, Bill Sosnowski and Jim Weides.
The four men who played for Staton at Lea College in Minnesota back in 1969 joined Jeff Staton, Jerry’s son, in bringing a football down for kickoff Friday that was brought from a special location.
“They put a ball on the 50-yard-line up there, got on their bikes and rode all day to bring it down to me before we kicked off the season,” Staton said. “It’s our goal to bring it back up there and put it back on the 50-yard-line in the UNI-Dome before we play up there later this year.
“That’s the kind of thing that’s going to motivate us to work hard every day in practice. We want to get that football back to the dome,” starting quarterback Brett Leshen added.
Leshen and the Blue Demons showed their ability to be a very dangerous team in 2012 in their opening game. The senior accounted for 305 all-purpose yards and three touchdowns in Albia’s 27-20 win over Fairfield.
“We expect to make it to the playoffs every year now. Coach Staton’s got this program really looking good,” Leshen said. “We’re hoping to get back to the playoffs and hopefully go all the way to the dome.”
One area that could make Albia a tough team to shut down for many defenses this season is the passing combination of Leshen and wide receiver Zach Hugen. The two hooked up on eight catches that covered 210 yards, including a pair of difference-making second-quarter touchdowns and several game-clinching first-down receptions in the second half.
“Brett always puts it in the right spot,” Hugen said. “He throws it out there, it’s my job to go out there and get it every time.”
Games like Friday’s are what help keep Staton rejuvenated even after 49 seasons. The atmosphere that surrounded the opening game have helped the Albia players begin to dream of meeting their lofty expectations this season.
“(The community) definitely has come together for football. They’re in the stands every Friday night cheering on our guys,” Staton said. “We’re in the top 10 percent in the state in sportsmanship with our great fans, players and coaches. That’s the way it should be with a lot of people getting excited about football.”
Ultimately for Staton, the thing that continues to bring the long-time head coaching legend back to the sidelines is getting to coach young athletes. Staton sees it as a way to pay back to a game that has given him so much joy over the years.
“I’m lucky to work with the kids and hang out with them. They take me places I like to go, like the playoffs,” Staton said.
On Friday, young men that have spent their formative years learning lessons on the gridiron from Staton traveled by bicycle to hand their former head coach a football and a goal for his current players to meet this season.
“It’s funny. You always see those guys as the young men you coached, no matter how many years it’s been.”
Staton is hopeful that the young men of his current Albia team can get meet that goal and return that football to the UNI-Dome in November.
“We’ll take a mule if we have to,” Staton joked. “We don’t care how we have to get there, we just want to get there.”
There was a special feeling in the air on Friday night in Albia.
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