When Tony Merrell stepped on the field Friday night, there were no visible nerves, even as his father stood watching near the corner of the end zone.
For the first time in more than three decades, Christian Heritage Academy has a different football coach, yet it remains in the family, as Tony is taking over for his father, John.
“I know he’s one of the winningest coaches in Oklahoma, but that’s not where I feel the pressure,” Tony said. “The pressure I feel is how he’s trained all of these young men and helped them grow into men he prays are good fathers, good husbands and who love the Lord.”
Tony has spent the past three years running the offense for the Crusaders, earning more responsibility each season from his father.
It was a grooming process.
“Just gave him more responsibilities,” John said. “It could have happened two years ago, but the Lord never did make it clear.
“I’m so pleased because I know he’s going to do a great job. This is the only school he ever went to, he loves Christian Heritage; he loves what the school stands for.”
For nearly 35 years, John has been roaming the sideline and hallways as the head coach. He will remain the school’s athletic director and the Dean of Men, but will also remain a fixture on the Crusaders’ sideline.
“They want me down on the sidelines,” he said. “I’m just going to be observing. I’m just going to enjoy it. Maybe later I’ll tell them what I think, but I’m not going to be coaching.
“They might change their mind. I can’t imagine sitting in the stands and watching. That would really seem odd.”
FOOTBALL WITH DAD
Tony Merrell oftentimes spent his planning period in his father’s office.
The entire hour was dedicated to football — a dream scenario for Tony — but it was also an hour of getting closer.
It was also John Merrell preparing to turn the football program over to his son this summer.
“I look forward to every single day being able to sit down and talk to him about football,” Tony said. “I don’t think it’s going to change, but it’s a little different now. I’ve just loved being able to spend that time with him.”
Tony, 29, played for his father at CHA before playing briefly at Central Oklahoma and MidAmerica Nazarene in Olathe, Kan.
Then he returned to the Crusaders and is entering his seventh year with the program as a coach. It was nearly four years ago when John began training his son.
The result has been a near seamless transition for the program.
CHA players know their new coach, and he knows them, a fact that was evident Friday night as the players instantly gravitated toward Tony in a scrimmage at Casady.
“He’s also modernized things, and that’s not a bad thing,” senior Creed Hendrickson said. “I think he’s done a great job. As a young coach, he’s shown a lot of confidence as he’s first came in. There’s no second guessing, no it’s confidence and I think that’s massive for the team.”
A HEART BROKEN
The past few years have been tough on John Merrell and his family.
His daughter Jenni Kufahl died earlier this month after a lengthy battle with cancer, leaving behind seven children and her husband Heath.
John said he had made the decision to stop coaching before her death. But it’s obvious her condition played a role in his departure.
“My heart’s broke,” he said while fighting back tears. “My wife’s heart’s broke. It wasn’t the deciding factor, but I didn’t know what my role would be at school. I knew I wanted to do whatever I could to help Jenni and Heath. I wasn’t even sure I’d be back at school because I didn’t know if I could help them or I’d be in the way.
“I don’t know if my heart will ever not be broke. But I do know I get to see her again in eternity.”
John said he has been helping take care of his grandchildren, something that came in handy when one couldn’t make it through the first day of school recently without stopping in his office.
“It’s not supposed to be this way, but God has a purpose and a plan,” John said. “Anyway, I didn’t belong out here. I just couldn’t put my heart into it.”
Added Tony: “It changed his heart. It changed where his passion is a little bit.”
It was John’s ability to handle the situation that stood out most to Tony.
He showed a gentleness rarely seen in coaches, one that Tony hopes he can learn from moving forward.
“If she was hurting, he would just sit there and pray, he’d read scripture to her,” Tony said. “He’s this big, strong, tough man and yet just gentle and loving with her.
“He’s who I look to in what I want to be in a father when I get married and want to have kids.”