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High school football: American Fork football program has deeply rooted traditions that give new players a solid foundation

The program focuses on how football transforms lives and so success isn’t always about the scoreboard

SHARE High school football: American Fork football program has deeply rooted traditions that give new players a solid foundation
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American Fork hosts Skyridge in a high school football game at American Fork High School in American Fork on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Skyridge defeated American Fork 45-34.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

AMERICAN FORK — Before every game, the American Fork football players touch a rock that is a symbol of the program they represent.

It is a piece of their past that reminds them every time they take the field that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. It is a reminder of how they need to play to honor the brotherhood to which they belong.

“It goes way back,” said offensive coordinator Micah Hunsaker, who graduated from American Fork in 2001. “That rock was taken off Mount Timpanogos by Bronco Mendenhall and Brock Knight (legendary coach Davis Knight’s son) when they played at American Fork.”

It immediately became a talisman for the program, but it didn’t just bring them good luck. It was a physical reminder of what it means to represent American Fork football — tough, immovable, and strong. When Bob Seger released, “Like a Rock” in 1986, the lyrics gave voice to the idea behind “The Rock.”

“We touched it (the rock) when we went out to play,” Hunsaker said. “It was a big part of our program. It symbolized how we play. We still have it now.”

“We touched it (the rock) when we went out to play. It was a big part of our program. It symbolized how we play. We still have it now.” — American Fork offensive coordinator Micah Hunsaker

The tradition of touching the rock, of believing it is symbolic of who they are and the way they play began in the early ’80s under head coach Davis Knight, but it persists because current head coach Aaron Behm believed in meshing his new ideas with the program’s traditional ways.

“Coach Behm is great in that regard,” Hunsaker said of how he managed to create his own program identity but hold onto critical aspects of Caveman tradition at the same time. “When he came in he asked about traditions and if it made sense, we kept them going.”

When the team lines up for the final time this season on Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium, they will be trying to do what no Caveman team has done since 1962 — win a football championship.

But whether this team wins or loses, they will celebrate because the scoreboard isn’t the only measure of success. Those who participate in and lead the program say it almost has its own energy, its own identity, and that comes from its ability to evolve while retaining deep roots in the past. It is an identity so powerful, it’s the reason nine of the team’s coaches are alumni of the program.

“All the coaches who’ve come through, they’ve had the same attitude that more than being a player, it’s about turning young men into grown men,” said defensive line coach Sam Harward, who graduated from the program in 1989. “Coach Knight always harped on that when I played for them. Better than becoming a great athlete is becoming a great man.”

American Fork is one of the oldest schools in the state, opening its doors in 1902. They began playing football in 1908, and since then, they’ve had 10 coaches. They won their only state championships in 1961 and 1962 under Don Mower, who led the team until 1968. Tom Crittenden took over for two seasons, and then Mower returned for a decade. Legendary Davis Knight led the team from 1983 until Behm took over in 2010.

“It’s really amazing we’ve had so few coaches over the history of the school and the program,” said defensive line coach Sam Harward, noting there have been just four head coaches of the Caveman football program since those championship seasons. “Coach Behm just soft of stepped in and built off the foundation that Davis Knight built, and he built of Don Mower and the others. ... Getting those championships back in the ’60s built a winning attitude, and every coach has just added to it.”

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American Fork hosts Skyridge in a high school football game at American Fork High School in American Fork on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. Skyridge defeated American Fork 45-34.

Colter Peterson, Deseret News

What’s unique is that while these coaches haven’t added to state title count, they have added to the idea that the purpose of the program is changing the lives of young men, not earning hardware for the trophy case.

“I think American Fork is unique because it’s the only high school in the city,” he said. “And American Fork has always had these coaches who’ve had successful runs, and the community is continually behind the team, regardless of whether they win or lose.”

The team’s booster program is more than 50 years old, and Harward said part of the pride comes from the fact that the community sees you as a worthy investment.

“In 1984, we did a fundraiser to put lights on the field,” said Harward, who graduated in 1989 and has coached at American Fork for more than two decades. “The shop teacher welded the poles, and the booster club raised the money. Whether we were a 6-4 team or a championship team, they always viewed it as the boys being the most important part to it all. Maybe that’s why we always view it as successful, whether we win or not.”

Defensive coordinator Nathan Cummings is one of the younger alumni, graduating in 2011, but he offers the same reasons for returning to his alma mater.

“My senior year was coach Behm’s first year here,” Cummings said. “I had a good experience getting to know coach Knight and learning from him. (Adjusting to Behm) was difficult. We had to learn a whole new offense and defense in two months. ...But (Behm) did a good job of keeping some of the old and also adding some new.”

He talks about the rock, and what it means to feel the tether, the support, the connection to the players of the past, even as he tries to mentor the players on this year’s team.

“Coach Behm really loves the process,” Cummings said. “He doesn’t focus on the outcome, he focuses on doing your best every play, every day. One of his biggest things is teaching young men to become leaders after high school. You can feel that spirit. These kids aren’t about themselves. They want to help others at all times.”