Sitting on the sunbaked concrete steps, Rick Byers watches his football players finish their post-practice run. The temperature is in the mid-’90s and the dry, lumpy practice field resembles the surface of the moon.
“Come out tomorrow ready to work,” Pius X’s head football coach calmly reminds them as they file past him toward the locker room. Silently, one player reaches out to slap hands with his coach. Another player does the same, then another.
No rah-rah speech from Byers. No complaining from the players about the heat or the work. Just mutual respect between a coach and his players.
“I can’t think of many other area schools where the players would put up with his regimen,” says Brad Porter, who has covered Byers and Pius for six years as a reporter and sports anchor at Metro Sports. Porter has witnessed some of Byers’ grueling practice sessions that involve sprinting up dirt hills and hopping up and down stadium steps on one leg. “When you see how hard his kids are willing to work day in and day out, that says something about the coach.”
“When I took this job, people told me I was crazy,” recalls Byers. He is black; 413 of the 419 students at Pius X are not. “Everybody told me, ‘The first time you jump on one of those rich white kids and try and discipline them, you’re gonna get it.'” Byers then makes a slashing motion across his throat for emphasis. “But the reaction and response I’ve gotten here have been totally the opposite.”
The broad-shouldered, 41-year-old Byers is very good at his job. Pius X has won five straight district titles and two state championships and has also finished second at state once under Byers.
“Everybody always says that kids today have changed,” Byers says. “I think coaches have changed. I coach like I was coached … except I give the kids more water breaks. Players want to have fun, but they also want to be disciplined. If you work for something and earn it through hard work, you’ll respect it more in the long run.”
He earned his job by putting in eight years as an assistant coach under Pius’ former coach, Dan Griggs, the man who hired Byers. Griggs originally recruited Byers out of Paola High School twenty years ago to play for him at William Jewell College. Byers turned him down and went on to play at Pittsburg State. But Griggs remembered the kid from Paola when he came looking for a coaching job. “[Griggs] taught me everything I know about coaching football,” says Byers.
When he attends church in the inner city, Byers hears from other blacks who think he should be teaching and coaching in the Kansas City, Missouri, School District. “You need to give back to the community,” they tell him. Years ago, after putting in his time as an assistant at Pius, Byers did apply to the city district for a teaching and head-coaching position. “They wouldn’t even give me the time of day,” recalls Byers.
He has a ready answer for young coaches who ask for advice about his profession. “So many young guys want to come out of college and be the head coach at Blue Springs or somewhere like that. The best advice I can give them is to be a good assistant coach and be willing to be the last guy to leave at night. Make yourself indispensable.”
Byers, the youngest of thirteen children, buried his mother in July. He made a point not to mention her death to his players, not wanting the kids to have to adjust their summer routines for the funeral. But as the service was about to begin that warm July day, the students came anyway. “Those doors swung open, and 110 white kids came walking into that little funeral home in Paola,” Byers says. “It’s one of the best things to happen to me.”