WALLA WALLA - Jerry Anhorn's football coaching career has come full circle, but that doesn't mean it has stopped turning.
The 72-year-old Walla Walla native - he turns 73 next month - accepted his first coaching assignment during his senior year at Whitman College. An aggravated shoulder injury convinced him that his days as a football player were finished, so he agreed to coach the St. Patrick's Middle School football team in the fall of 1958.
"I hadn't played football as a junior but decided I was going to give it a try again as a senior," Anhorn recalled of his years at Whitman. "But prior to the season, I dislocated my shoulder, the same one I had hurt wrestling at Washington State. So I decided it was time to do something else."
Anhorn was majoring in health and physical education at Whitman, and he had already determined that coaching was going to be his career choice. And his one year with the St. Pat's team only fortified his conviction.
"We had some great athletes on that team," Anhorn recalled. "Steve Gwinn, Bobby Greco, Frank Gaffrey ..."
But not even he could have guessed that more than a half a century later, he would be in the midst of his 10th year as the Assumption Middle School head football coach. And loving every minute of it.
"This is so much fun because the kids are so eager," Anhorn said. "They are so excited, and they want to learn. They don't think they know it all.
"It really is full circle for me," Anhorn added. "I started out with this age group in college, and here I am 50 years later doing the same thing. People keep reminding me of that."
There were, of course, many stops along the way for the 1955 St. Patrick's High School graduate. His journey began that fall in Pullman where he enrolled at WSU hoping to play football.
"My very first year I blew out my knee, and I was not very good after that," recalled Anhorn, who was a top-flight wide receiver during his high school years. "I got discouraged and ended up wrestling at WSU, and I earned my letter. So that was a good experience."
But football was still No. 1, and to that end he transferred to Whitman College the following fall.
"Bob Thomsen was the coach, and I got a scholarship from the 180 Club that was enough to cover tuition," Anhorn said. "And that was great because I was living at home."
But his balky knee sidetracked his sophomore season and he decided to pass on football as a junior, playing baseball for the Missionaries instead. Then, as a senior, Anhorn closed the book on his playing days and turned that first page in his coaching career.
"Bob Burgess was the athletic director at Whitman at the time, and he was a big influence on me," Anhorn said. "And I had also taken an aptitude test at WSU, and the results told me what I already knew: That I loved to be outside, that I loved athletics and that football was definitely my sport."
When Anhorn graduated from Whitman in the spring of 1959, St. Patrick's was in the process of closing its door and DeSales was in line to become Walla Walla's new Catholic high school. And almost immediately, DeSales hired Anhorn as a PE teacher and, of all things, head basketball coach.
"I was the world's worst basketball coach," Anhorn said. "We were 2-18 that year, and the two wins came against Helix, which could hardly get five players together, and Mac-Hi, which had a pretty good team.
"So whenever people start grousing about the basketball program at DeSales, I say, ‘Just a minute, let's go back and look at the record book.'"
Anhorn was also the head track coach at Desales, an experience he enjoyed, and an assistant football coach. The following year he was promoted to head football coach and held the position for three years.
"The year I was an assistant we were 0-9," Anhorn said. "The next year we won three games, the year after that six and in my third year as head coach we were undefeated."
That group of athletes, perhaps not coincidentally, was the same group that Anhorn had coached during his one year at St. Pat's Middle School.
At the end of that school year, however, Anhorn decided to get out of education and went to work as a draftsman at Birdseye. It was a short-lived occupation.
"My boss, the head engineer, called me into his office and said, ‘What are you doing here? You need to get back in school where you belong and teach.'"
That opportunity came up mid-year when a teaching slot came open in nearby Dixie.
"I was out there for a year-and-a-half," Anhorn said. "I taught seventh and eighth grades, and they also had a little basketball team that I coached."
Then, in the fall of 1965, he was asked to return to DeSales where his coaching career took a direct turn.
"I inherited Mike Levens and a group of athletes like that, and we had a great team," Anhorn said. "The second year we lost just one game, 20-14 to Dayton when Mike Levens got hurt, and when we played them later that season with Mike, we won 66-6.
"There were no state playoffs back then, but we wound up ranked third in the state poll."
Levens, a power running back and linebacker, was recruited to play at Whitman College in the fall of 1967. And Burgess, still the Whits' AD, enticed Anhorn to come to Whitman as an assistant coach under first-year head coach Roy Thompson.
"I eagerly accepted," Anhorn recalled. "I wasn't Roy's pick - I didn't know him - but Bob wanted me to be there as a Whitman grad. And once I met Roy, we got along great."
Thompson brought in John Wilcox, a former University of Oregon and NFL star out of Vale, Ore., as another assistant coach and Whitman enjoyed its final hurrah as a football program during the Thompson era.
"I coached defensive backs and receivers, and I probably learned more football from Roy and John then at any other time in my life," Anhorn said. "It was a tremendous learning experience for me."
But two years later Anhorn found himself on the move again, this time joining the fledgling Walla Walla Community College football program under second-year head coach Gene Bates.
"I knew Gene a little bit, and he asked me if I was interested," Anhorn recalled. "I said probably, he invited me over to talk with Pete Dietrich, the president, they made me an offer and basically I accepted it. It was a good move, although I certainly missed Roy and John."
WWCC proved to be Anhorn's home for the remainder of his career in education, which included earning his doctorate in higher education from WSU in 1989. He had previously earned his masters degree from Eastern Washington University in 1968.
On the football side, Anhorn coached under Bates through the 1972 season, then assumed the Warriors' head coaching position for three seasons. WWCC posted back-to-back 6-3 records in 1973-74 before going 4-5 in 1975.
"I'm pretty proud of those three years," Anhorn said. "That was back when the league was really tough, and we beat every team in the league at least once during those three years."
But educational demands - he had moved from the PE department to the science department - forced Anhorn to leave coaching at that point and Gary Knecht was brought in to be the Warriors' head football coach. But in 1979, Knecht coaxed Anhorn back as an assistant coach.
"I helped Gary until he left after the 1983 season," Anhorn said. "I also helped John Volek, the new head coach, for one year, and I was also the athletic director during part of that time."
And then it was over.
Anhorn took a sabbatical during the 1986-87 school year to complete his doctorate, rose to become WWCC vice president in 1990 and retired in 1999. But it's been hardly an idle retirement.
Anhorn is a regular volunteer at St. Vincent DePaul, active in Assumption Church and often involved in special projects at WWCC. He and his wife Janice also enjoy traveling and being involved with their five children and 12 grandchildren.
And then there's this ongoing coaching gig that he was drawn into right after he retired from the college.
"Mike Spiess was the (Assumption) middle school head coach and asked me to help out," Anhorn said. "That was the year T.J. Conley was the quarterback, and it was a really fun year,
"The next year, Mike moved up to the varsity and I inherited the middle school team. And I've done it ever since."
With the help of a strong group of assistant coaches, Anhorn points out, including his son Jerry, Tim Meliah and Matt Stroe, who are this year's assistants.
Anhorn's coaching philosophy at this level isn't so different from any other level at which he's coached.
"Our goal is to win games, of course, but before that it is developing these kids so they are morally sound, good citizens who will do well in school. They all know that if they don't get their work done, they don't play."
Last year's team was undefeated - the third unbeaten team since Anhorn took over - and he estimates that six or seven of the of last year's eighth graders are playing varsity football at DeSales this fall. This year's roster of 29 includes 20 eighth graders, and Anhorn will be surprised if fewer than 15 or 16 of them wind up playing for the Irish high school team.
"Twenty eighth graders is an all-time high," Anhorn said. "And it's a good group, too.
"They're enthusiastic, and they don't have a lot of inflated egos. They are realistic of who they are and what they want to learn. They are willing to do what needs to be done, and we work them hard."
Anhorn isn't sure how much longer he will continue to coach.
"I'm feeling good, and I still enjoy the kids," he said. "Sometimes the mind is willing and the body doesn't follow. I stand around a lot more these days and let the younger coaches do the demonstrating."
"Maybe this will be the last year," the old coach said. "And maybe not."