WALLA WALLA — Joe Levens remembers that game in the spring of 1997 as if it were yesterday.
“That was my favorite game in high school of any sport,” Levens said, the memory of it still burning brightly in his eyes.
It was a warm, late-May morning in Spokane and Levens, a DeSales High junior, was hooked up in a duel of left-handed pitchers with Northwest Christian senior Jeremy Affeldt in the Class B state baseball semifinals.
DeSales was in pursuit of a fifth straight state title and its seventh in nine years. But Affeldt, a high-profile hurler with a mid-90s heater that had all the pro scouts drooling, stood in the way.
And for most of the day the powerful lefty lived up to his reputation with eight scoreless innings. Levens, however, matched him zero for zero.
Then, in the top of the ninth inning, the Irish erupted for five runs and drove Affeldt from the mound. Levens responded with a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth to seal the victory and DeSales went on to defeat rival Touchet 3-2 the next day in the state finals.
For the record, Affeldt was drafted a few days later by the Royals in the third round of baseball’s amateur draft and is still pitching in the big leagues. Now in his 13th season and pitching mainly out of the bullpen, Affeldt has played in three World Series and won it all with the Giants in 2010.
“I remember watching Jeremy pitch in that World Series,” Levens said. “And Tim McCarver (FOX television analyst) thought Affeldt was instrumental in the Giants’ World Series run, that he was the perfect setup guy.
“That brought back a lot of memories.”
Also for the record, there were a lot of folks around here who believed Joe Levens had the talent to be successful in professional baseball. But that was never going to happen.
Football was, is and will always be Levens’ first love when it comes to athletics.
As a swift, sure-handed wide receiver, he was a three-year starter at DeSales and led the Irish to a state championship his senior year. By the time he graduated, Levens held nearly every state receiving record: career (4,017) and single season (1,694) receiving yards, career (221) and single season (94) receptions and single season (24) touchdowns. His 45 career TDs ranked third behind another former Irish standout, Chad Averill (49), and Mark Rickard of Republic (46).
Records, of course, are made to be broken.
“I don’t think I have a single record still standing,” Levens mused during a recent hometown visit with his parents, Mike and Alane Levens, and his sister Sarah and her family.
“Nick Conley broke one of them,” he said of yet another former Irish wideout. “And I think Cody Bruns, who played with Kellen Moore at Prosser, might have the rest.”
Levens’ dream was to play football in the Pacific 10 Conference. But at 5-foot-8 and 180 pounds, he didn’t quite fit the Division I profile coming out of high school.
In a perfect world he would have played a season or two for his dad, who was the head football coach at Walla Walla Community College, and proven himself Pac-10 worthy. But the world is not perfect, and when WWCC decided to drop its football program in December of 1997, that option went away.
“I never had the chance to play for my dad,” Levens said. “I certainly would have had to ponder it, and it would have been great. I grew up on his sideline and was able to soak in a lot of football at an early age.”
Instead, Levens accepted a scholarship offer to play wide receiver at Eastern Washington University in Cheney, where he started for four seasons.
“Boise State went on me late,” Levens remembered. “But I had already committed to Eastern. Looking back, that was right when Boise moved to Division I and had some tremendous success. But I wouldn’t have changed my experience at Eastern.”
There were also some baseball offers, Levens admitted. Washington State showed some interest, and NAIA powerhouse Lewis-Clark State wanted him to come to Lewiston.
“I liked pitching,” he said. “But I really wanted to play football in college. It was always a goal of mine.”
During his career at EWU, a game at Oregon State University in 2000 and another at Connecticut the following year stand out.
“We played an Oregon State team that went on to beat Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl,” he said. “They had a bunch of (future) NFL guys playing for them and we ended up losing by a field goal in Corvallis.
“We really banded together. A lot of us felt like we could have played in the Pac-10, and that was fodder to prepare us for our senior year when we went back to Connecticut and beat UConn 35-14.”
Levens played slot back in an EWU offense that relied heavily on its ground game.
In his senior year, Levens caught 48 passes for 619 yards and two touchdowns. He finished his collegiate career — 43 games — with 139 receptions, 1,862 yards and 11 TDs.
After a failed tryout with the Canadian Football League’s British Columbia Lions, Levens returned to Walla Walla, took a year off and then landed a coaching job at Rocky Mountain College, an NAIA school in Billings, Mont.
“I was the receiver coach,” he said. “I also did strength and conditioning and ran a study hall for incoming freshman.”
Levens coached at Rocky Mountain for four years. But when David Reeves, the Battlin’ Bears head coach, departed Montana to take an assistant coaching position at Northern Arizona, Levens left the coaching ranks as well, although he remained in Billings and went to work for Yellowstone County.
“I am a counselor at the youth services center in Billings,” he explained. “Half of it is a detention center, a holding facility for juveniles, and the other half is a group home setting for at-risk kids who are in need of family stabilization. Runaways, basically.”
It’s a rewarding job, Levens said, and should serve him well in the next stage of his life.
“It’s very much fulfilling, just being a positive influence on a kid who has no guidance growing up,” Levens said. “To be able to reach even one out of 10 kids is a challenge, but also very rewarding.
“But eventually I am going to get back into teaching and coaching,” he added. “And I think what I am doing now will help me in teaching and coaching, especially in a public school system where you get these types of kids who are on probation or who are heading down the wrong road.”
First things first, however. And for Levens that means earning the degree he fell short of at EWU.
“I’m finishing up my degree at Montana State Billings,” Levens said. “I’m taking classes now, and I plan to be done with my student teaching this year, or by the fall semester of 2014 at the latest.”
Although the idea of returning to the Pacific Northwest, either in a college coaching setting or at a high school, appeals to Levens, it might not be in the cards for years to come. Call it his personal Catch-22.
Levens is the single father of two young children — Weston, who is 4, and 2-year-old Brylee — and he is dedicated to being a part of their lives. He and the children’s mother, Jennifer Slivka of Billings, share custody.
“I have them half the week,” Levens said of his children. “My job with the county is four 10-hour shifts, so I have three days off and I get them the night before. It’s a full time job.”
The demands of being a parent were a big part of his decision to leave the coaching ranks in the first place, he said.
“I decided I wanted to be around my kids,” he said. “We were going from 6 in the morning until 10 at night at Rocky Mountain, and I wanted to be at home more.”
However, Levens envisions the day when both of his children are in school and he’ll have the freedom to coach again.
“Ideally, I like the competitiveness of college football,” he said. “But as far as being around my family, coaching at the high school level is the better situation.”
And at least in the foreseeable future, Levens’ search for a coaching position will be limited to in and around Billings.
“I will have been in Billings for 10 years in January,” Levens said. “And I do like it. It’s a friendly place and it reminds me a lot of Walla Walla. You walk down the street and people are waving to you.
“I can see myself staying there, getting a job in the district, especially if I was coaching high school football. Small-college football also appeals to me, and Rocky Mountain is there.”
Next to Weston and Brylee, the desire to coach football remains at the top of Levens’ priority list.
“I can relate just about anything in life to football,” he said. “And there will be a time when I will be calling the plays and putting points on the board.
“Ever since I can remember, I wanted to play football. And when I couldn’t play anymore, I wanted to coach.
“To be just like my dad.”