Coaches bring valuable lessons to Aviano’s youth football players

Coaches Ken McNeely and Andrew Dahlstrom talk to football players during their homecoming game at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. McNeely and Dahlstrom have been the only head coaches since the team’s inception in 1974. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Coaches Ken McNeely and Andrew Dahlstrom talk to football players during their homecoming game at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. McNeely and Dahlstrom have been the only head coaches since the team’s inception in 1974. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Coach Ken McNeely gives advice to Aviano Saints football players during a practice at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. Coach McNeely was the original head coach when the team started in 1974. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Coach Ken McNeely gives advice to Aviano Saints football players during a practice at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. Coach McNeely was the original head coach when the team started in 1974. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Aviano Saints football players perform practice drills at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 4, 2016. The coaches work to improve the player’s football and life skills. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Aviano Saints football players perform practice drills at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 4, 2016. The coaches work to improve the player’s football and life skills. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Coach Ken McNeely gives advice to Aviano Saints football players during a practice at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. The coaches use football to provide Aviano youths life lessons. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

Coach Ken McNeely gives advice to Aviano Saints football players during a practice at Aviano Air Base, Italy on Oct. 1, 2016. The coaches use football to provide Aviano youths life lessons. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Cary Smith/Released)

AVIANO AIR BASE, Italy -- The first football game of the season begins and the crowd cheers from the sidelines as players run out onto the field.

It’s 1974, and while the Miami Dolphins are preparing for Super Bowl VIII, Aviano Middle-High School football head coach and school teacher, Ken McNeely, hopes his lessons and guidance has prepared his team, the Aviano Saints, for a winning season.

Fast forward 42 years, players have come and gone, yet there have only been two head coaches since the team’s inception. Since 1974, these two school teachers have coached their players on football fundamentals and growing up to be team players in the world.

“I was given an opportunity back in 1974 to come here and coach, so I took the job and have enjoyed every moment,” said McNeely. “I was head coach when the team started. Rick joined me in 1999 and took over in ’06. When he took over he asked me to stay on and assist, so I did.”

Today, Aviano Saints Head Coach Richard Dahlstrom and his assistant, McNeely, show players how to execute plays correctly, help them push themselves and how to be successful on and off the field.

“I really feel like winning is how you measure against someone else,” said McNeely. “But success is how well you do against yourself, and overtime your success grows and grows until you hopefully become the best.”

To be successful, the players must put in hard work and train so they can execute the coach’s plans in complex situations.

“To play football, 11 people have to focus and cooperate at the snap of the ball,” McNeely added. “We need to make sure everyone on that field can take care of themselves and then help out those around them.”

McNeely and Dahlstrom work together to make sure the players understand those fundamentals and realize they apply to more than just football.

“We [the coaches] say to the team, ‘It’s going to be hard work. You’re going to get in shape and do things that you never thought you can do, but you will look back and realize you did do it,’” said Dahlstrom. “Football is about bumps and bruises and they need to rise above, push through the pain and work hard so they can see what they can really achieve.”

A former football player for Aviano Middle-High School recalls what he gained as he worked through all the bumps and bruises. Staff Sgt. Kevin Carpenter, 31st Dental Squadron dental technician, remembers the very lessons Dahlstrom speaks of when he started in his junior year back in 2000.

“McNeely stopped me in the hallway my junior year and told me to go to the gym to grab pads because I was playing football,” said Carpenter. “If it wasn’t for Coach Mac, I wouldn’t have the memories of running down the field and catching touchdown passes as a senior.”

Carpenter said he remembers the long bus trips to away games and sleeping on gym floors. He said the coaches kept everyone in line, made sure all the players did their homework and made the best of that experience, giving it their all when it counted.

“To play for them was great because Coach Mac was so passionate and harped on us about executing everything precisely, while Coach Dahlstrom was more laid back but would think of all the trick plays,” said Carpenter. “All the practices and games, they made you work harder and push yourself to your limits.”

Dahlstrom and McNeely have kept their passion as each new season begins and new students move up in the ranks. At the recent homecoming game, Hayden Roers, Aviano Saints team captain, said he did his best to help his team stay focused on what the coaches wanted to execute.

“I have played on the team for four years which is very rare, and through my time here I’ve learned so much from Coach Dahlstrom and McNeely,” said Roers. “They’ve been there for us on and off the field, helping us out with school, the game, or really anything we need help with.”

Guidance doesn’t stop for the coaches once a practice or game is over. With decades of coaching experience, they know what it takes to manage a team, and be a positive influence on each player’s personal growth.

“This season is all for the kids. The other coaches and I know we are a big part of their lives,” said Dahlstrom. “We want to see these players discover strengths they never knew they had, take those strengths with them after high school and be great people, that’s what keeps bringing us back every season.”