Game days won’t be the same without Coach Vez

Game days won’t be the same without Coach Vez

On the last Saturday of the 2015 college football regular season, Montana Tech played Montana Western with the Frontier Conference title hanging in the balance at Alumni Coliseum, and I was running late.

When the Orediggers and Bulldogs meet, you have to be there early if you want a parking space within a mile of the stadium, and I was sitting at home, staring at my phone.

“C’mon, Vez, where are you?” I said. “C’mon, Vez.”

But I never heard from Vez, so I eventually had to leave without him.

A couple of years earlier, I was lucky enough to find my way onto Steve Vezina’s Game Day phone list. The goofball assistant coach for the Beaverhead County High School Beavers would recite a poem or change the lyrics as he sang along with a popular song, describing the ways his Western Bulldogs were going to completely destroy the competition that day.

He changed the words of songs by Taylor Swift, Meghan Trainor and Jon Bon Jovi. He sang “Rockin’ Rocky” to the beat of the classic song “Rockin’ Robin.” (Here’s some samples)

He even put a twist on a John Denver song, singing “Thank God I’m a Doggie Boy.”

His songs and poems were meant to make everyone laugh while also motivating the football players of his beloved alma mater, and boy could Vez motivate.

At the end of every song or poem, Vez would pause and say, “Game Day. Go Dawgs.”

Once I figured out how to get them from my flip phone to YouTube, I started posting them on Facebook because I thought all the world needed to hear Vez’s Game Days. They were that good. Some were so bad that they were really, really good.

So, I could not wait to hear what Vez had to say about the biggest Tech-Western game in ages. I wanted to get it online before kickoff. But the Game Day never came, and I was nervous.

Vez was already living on borrowed time. For the two years prior, he had been fighting a form of cancer that should have killed him after six months.

Someday, I knew I was going to get a call or a text giving me the really bad news. I was relieved to find out that wasn’t the day.

I saw Vez a few days after the game when I went to St. James Healthcare to hang out with him while he went through a chemotherapy treatment.

“What the heck?” I said. “The biggest game of the year, and you don’t do a Game Day?”

It turns out that Vez did one, and it was great. He just didn’t want me to put it online. He didn’t want to come across as being disrespectful to the players, coaches and fans of the Orediggers.

The Game Day joke was for the Bulldog fans and players. It was never meant to hurt.

So, Vez played me his Game Day parody of Jimmy Dean’s “Big Bad John” for the Tech-Western game, and I laughed so hard that I cried. It was just so Vez.

When I wrote about him coaching the 2014 Montana East-West Shrine Game despite undergoing intense chemo treatments during game week, I joked that Vez is one of the top 10 people to ever live.

He’s “probably No. 5 or 6,” I wrote. “With a bullet.”

The truth is, that was selling Vez short. Simply put, there is nobody ranked ahead of Steve Vezina. There is no way a man or woman has ever been better than him. A tie for first, maybe, but never better.

Vez was animated in life and even more so on the football field.

The first time I covered his Beavers winning a state championship game in Dillon, a Dillon player broke a punt return for a 60- or 70-yard touchdown.

I don’t remember which player it was, but I remember Vez raising his hands to signal touchdown before the player got to the 50-yard line.

Since the returner still needed to make a few nice cuts after Vez called it a score, I figured the coach really knew what he was doing. He saw the field, knew the blocking scheme, and he could tell it was a touchdown.

It turned that was just what Vez always did. He led the world in premature touchdown signals. This was just one of the many times when the Beavers made him look good, even when he was wearing shorts with the temperature well below freezing.

Vez always wore shorts, even in a snowstorm.

During one particularly cold Dillon game, Vez let me in on his secret as I shivered while standing by the sideline heater.

Vez wasn’t wearing the shorts because he was crazy. He was doing it to help give his players a mental edge.

If they saw that the coach was in shorts, Vez figured, then they might not get caught up in how cold it was outside. That way they could just focus on football.

You wonder how Dillon turns out winners year after year. Well, right there is one hint.

During the 2014 seasons, Vezina’s Dawgs found themselves sputtering, despite the great Game Days.

Western had lost five out of six games, falling to 2-5 heading into a home game against Eastern Oregon. Coach B.J. Robertson brought Vezina in to deliver a motivational message in person.

Of course, Vezina had the team laughing and fired up, and his Dawgs started a winning streak that day. They won their final four games to head into the offseason with momentum.

The next fall, Western won its first three, and the Bulldogs took a 7-2 record into the showdown with the Orediggers.

That game came to one play at the end, and Tech made it.

Western was a talented, well-coached team that season. But I can’t help but feel the Bulldogs would have never made the season come down to one play if it wasn’t for that nudge from Vez the year before.

Vez was all about that nudge. Whether it was as a teacher a coach or a friend, Vez made life better for everyone he touched. He did that tenfold when he was making cancer work double overtime.

Four years was a really long time to fight cancer that had long ago spread through his body. It was a long time to smile while he must have been going through hell inside.

So, last Thursday night I got the text message I had been fearing, but I knew was coming. Vez finally gets to rest easy while his many, many friends are left with a broken heart.

The kids of Dillon have lost a teacher who was born to teach them. The coaching fraternity has lost a character. Humanity lost a friend.

From here on out, game days will never be the same.

— Bill Foley writes a column that appears Tuesday on Email him at foley@

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