Every tradition has its origin, and when it comes to North Callaway High School Athletics many of the things that make the Thunderbirds exactly who they are in one way or another originated from longtime Athletic Director Michael Emmons.
For more than three decades Emmons has been a part of helping shape specifically just what it means to be a Thunderbird. While his role has grown tremendously since that first year in 1988 as an Elementary School Physical Education Teacher and Assistant Varsity Football Coach, now he's getting ready to step down and allow 2018-19 be his final year at North Callaway.
"I was hired in late June and I felt like I was very fortunate to get a teaching job. Dr. Tom Gerling hired me. He was the Superintendent at the time," said Emmons. "I played football at Central Methodist University and thought I was going to be a Business Major. It's important to do what you enjoy and coaching is what I enjoyed, so I made the switch to Physical Education realizing teachers aren't going to make as much money as other people. It just felt like it was important for my happiness."
During those initial years Emmons said he relied mainly on his education to get him by and that plan paid off in spades. The greatest challenge was working with second graders. That was tiring to the point that he was in bed early most nights.
"Coaching was in my family blood. My dad coached high school in Iowa then he coached junior high when we moved to Southwest Missouri," Emmons said. "Then he got into high school coaching and went on to Missouri State, SMS at the time, and coached there as a Graduate Assistant. From there he went to Central Methodist to coach. I had already signed to go there and the coach met my dad so the coach hired him so my dad coached there for two years while I played there."
The elder Emmons spent some time working as an Assistant Coach with the Hamilton Tiger Cats of the Canadian Football League, as well, in a way making coaching football the family business. As for how Mike Emmons decided to walk through that door, at one point he was fortunate enough to have his father as his assistant coach for about five years after he took over the T-Bird's varsity in 1990.
"My first coaching job was here as varsity defensive coordinator for two years. When I took over two years later it came natural to me. I'd been around it enough," said Emmons. "The biggest concern for me was, would I have as much fun coaching as when I played. I found it to be very satisfying, although different. The first year we went 6-4. The second year I think we went 9-2. We lost to John Burroughs in the playoffs. They went on to be State Champions. I had four losing seasons in all my years."
In total Emmons was atop the North Callaway varsity football program from 1990-2014. Results include going 8-2 overall in 2004 and '05, 6-4 in 2006 and '08 and 6-5 in 2010 and 2014. During that time period the T-Bird's also went 4-6 in 2007 and '13, 5-5 in 2009, 8-5 in 2011 and 10-3 in 2012 according to www.maxpreps.com.
"My original plan when I first came here was to spend a few years and then go on to somewhere to a bigger school I thought was better," Emmons said. "What I found was what I thought was better wasn't necessarily better. This was a good fit for me. I've always wanted to be a person and a coach who didn't follow talent. I wanted to be someone who went through the ups and downs and stuck with it. That's a life lesson a lot of people don't follow that I really wanted to do."
One aspect of coaching that will always exist, but has changed tremendously over the years because of technology, is how a coach helps an athlete get noticed by college scouts and recruiters. Emmons definitely had his ways of trying to get kids on the radar of various, specific individuals over the course of time and those techniques and abilities are things he's tried to pass down to all the coaches who've worked for him over the years.
"Marketing kids, they're trying to get college scholarships, so we have to get out there and market them. We used to have a dual VHS machine and I'd put the tape in one side and record on the other and we'd send them out to everyone," said Emmons. "Plus we'd make all kinds of calls. Today we're a little more modern. Now you've got the HUDL accounts where you can send videos. Athletics teaches life lessons."
Taking over for Emmons as Athletic Director will be Kevin O'Neal, who was his football assistant and then became head coach when he was promoted and posted a record of 30-15 from 2015-18. This included going 11-2 and winning the Eastern Missouri Conference Championship in 2017. O'Neal was the T-Bird's varsity baseball coach, as well, a position now held by Zeth Lavy. Don Boulware has been hired to take over the football program.
"I'm very proud of Kevin. He played on the 1991 team that was the first to ever make the playoffs here," Emmons said. "He was a linebacker and a lineman. A very good athlete with a never-quit attitude. When he came back and started coaching with me I was thrilled. We're very much our own people, but we have some shared ideas and values. We've become very close. We were when he played. I thought the world of him. It's been a pleasure. I can retire knowing things are in good hands."
One pleasure Emmons didn't wait for retirement to start indulging in was following his daughter Nicole as she competed this year as a true freshman with the Columbia College Track and Field Team. As for what the future holds, he plans on following more Cougars Track and Field over the next three seasons and continuing to live in the area and stopping in at North Callaway every so often to root for the Thunderbirds.