SALT LAKE CITY — Who is a fixture on the East High sidelines and, in the words of head coach Brandon Matich, is his most important assistant even though she doesn’t call any plays?
That would be Leigh VandenAkker, a teacher of eight years at the Salt Lake City high school.
But “teacher” only begins to describe the relationship VandenAkker has with Matich’s players.
Johnny Maea was new to East High School at the beginning of the 2014-15 school year when his teammates encouraged him to sign up for a class with VandenAkker. The lineman heeded their suggestion but figured it’d be the same as basically any other course.
But on the first day, he felt something different in VandenAkker’s room. He describes it as “the love and care she has for me.”
Only a few months later, Maea’s mother passed away. His father had died in 2012. Maea didn’t tell VandenAkker of his mother’s passing, but soon after he got a phone call. VandenAkker was on the line.
“Just getting that phone call and hearing her voice saying, ‘we love you, Johnny, and we care about you,’ I just felt it,” he recalled during one of VandenAkker’s classes on Monday morning. “Ever since then, she’s been great to me.”
Other players report similar things about VandenAkker, who they affectionately call “Mrs. V.”
“She’s like our second mom,” said senior Soni Fonua. "She helps us with any situation. Her class is like a home we run to. Whenever we need help with anything, she’s always there for us. Mrs. V. is there 24/7. Whenever you’re down, she’s always there to pick you back up. She’s just that person that keeps a smile on your face.”
Says senior Harrison Van Dyke: “You could say she’s like our team mom in a way. She literally helps everybody out. We know we can come to her with anything. She’s kind of like a coach in that way. I know I can talk to her whenever I want to.”
Pate Langi didn’t like to engage people in conversation before he entered Room B410 at East earlier this fall. In truth, he feels like he didn’t know how to talk to people much at all.
But that’s changed over the last few months as Langi, another lineman on Matich’s squad, has been attending VandenAkker’s class, Techniques for Tough Times. Now, he feels much more comfortable interacting with others.
Improved communication is just one skill players say they’ve learned in VandenAkker’s class, which is taught through a curriculum she co-authored with fellow Utahn Gayle Threet.
“This class helps a lot with giving people a voice and showing respect to everyone,” Langi said. “That’s what this class does for me. When I came to this class, it just helped me to reach out to others. If I need help, I can just ask people around me.”
Through less than three months of the school year, students say VandenAkker has taught about how to trust and respect others, how to say “no” when needed and how to not dwell too much on the past, among other topics.
“I think if you can’t trust, respect or communicate with your team, you can’t be successful or be a team,” said junior lineman Sati Tuuhetaufa. “If you’re worrying about what you don’t have control over, you won’t be as successful as you want to. I think that’s what this class teaches us, and that’s how this class has helped us to be as successful as we have been so far.”
To that final point, VandenAkker uses the visual of a hoop. Those things that are out of someone’s control are said to be out of his or her hoop. The things people can control are in their hoop. The idea is to focus on improving the things in your hoop and to not fret too much over the things out of it.
Van Dyke related a few examples of how this concept has applied to him individually and the Leopards as a team. He realizes he can control how hard he works and how he feels about his team, but he can’t do anything about how his teammates feel, what people on the outside may say about East or injuries that may occur, such as one to Maea a few weeks ago that may keep him out of Friday’s 4A state championship game against Timpview.
Van Dyke’s fellow senior Jordan Anderson explained how that mindset has helped the team overcome challenges.
“Our team, we’ve gone through many struggles this year,” he said. “We’ve had multiple boys quit halfway through the season; we’ve had lots of key injuries, but our team has the mindset that we’re going to keep going. None of that has really affected us. We just keep looking forward, and we know that other kids are going to step up.
"I think Mrs. V. and what she teaches has really helped in that. That’s all out of our hoop. We can’t do anything about that, so why dread on that and look back on the past when we can just keep moving on and keep being successful? That’s why I think Mrs. V. has helped us become successful as a team.”
On Matich’s first day at East back in 2010, he found himself in a mediation meeting with some players. There were serious issues being discussed, and Matich wondered as he sat there what he had gotten himself into.
VandenAkker, who had left Taylorsville High to go to East in 2007 at the urging of then-principal Paul Sagers (he’s now at West High), told Matich to just listen.
He did, and that meeting began the formation of a partnership that both Matich and VandenAkker feel is necessary to help the diverse population of students they teach in all facets of life, whether it be on the field, in the classroom or at home.
“That’s why I require my kids to take the class,” Matich said. “No. 1, it teaches them skills for life, it teaches them leadership skills. I believe it makes our team stronger. It keeps them solid academically.
The proof is in the pudding. When my kids get pulled from her class, their grades drop. It doesn’t matter if you’re white, brown, purple, yellow, green or black, your grades drop. She helps keep those kids’ confidence up so they do better in school.”
Additionally, the duo works together to manage problems that come up with their students, whether they be team-related issues, academic challenges or obstacles in the kids’ personal lives.
“When I say she’s my best assistant coach, when a problem arises, I’m the first person she calls and vice versa,” Matich said. “We put our heads together and problem-solve and we try to figure out how to make the situation better. I couldn’t do this job without her.”
VandenAkker feels similarly about Matich.
“We understand each other,” she said. “We work through the problems that we’ve had to address. We have an understanding and deep respect for each other. I have so much respect for him because he’s come in here and changed the culture. He’s made (the players) believe in themselves, and that’s above and beyond football.”
The way VandenAkker views her profession, it’s her duty to do all she can to give each student the chances to succeed.
“I have the responsibility to treat every student that walks in my door as my most respected customer, and I’m going to fight to make sure they get the opportunities that they deserve, and they deserve those opportunities,” she said. “Not just some of them depending on where their ZIP code is. All of them deserve them, and I want all of them to know they deserve them, but some of them shy away from that and don’t believe it.
"I want them to believe it. I want them to ask the questions so that they feel confident that they can get the assistance they need to be successful, regardless of what it is.”
As they prepare to play for the state championship game Friday evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium, do East players recognize the importance of the teamwork Matich and VandenAkker undertake with one another to see that they have success both on and off the field?
“I just know Matich teaches us the physical part of the game, and Mrs. V. teaches us the mind part of the game, which is a huge part of football,” said sophomore Ben Ford. “We need Mrs. V. to keep our minds right in those tough times during football especially. We need them to work together because we need the physical and the mental part of the game.”
Senior Johnnie Lang took it a step further.
“I think with them working together, they teach us how to have potential in two ways,” he said. “Coach Matich teaches how to have potential on the field and how to make the right reads and the way to block, and Mrs. V. teaches us how to be a person and how to speak up and have a voice with each other. You put that together, you’ll be a full person and an athlete at the same time.”
East players discuss Techniques for Tough Times
East High School football players talk about how class taught by Leigh VandenAkker helps them on and off the field with communication, trust, self-confidence and not dwelling on the past, among other topics.
Ryan McDonald is a sports reporter at DeseretNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @ryanwmcdonald.