Scott Sobota was back home in familiar surroundings with unfamiliar emotions. Time had come for his father, Frank.
As he sat at the Pawnee Bar with his former high school football coaches, just across the street from where they had enjoyed so many Friday nights of gridiron glory, Scott, a 1994 graduate of Scotus Central Catholic High School and All-State fullback on the Shamrocks’ 1993 state championship team, pondered his father’s life.
Frank’s health was failing. By the end of the night, his 63-year-old body would breathe its last.
Scott couldn’t have guessed it would be that exact night, but he was back in his hometown because he knew it was close.
As he considered the end, he contemplated the defining moments in his father’s life. Specifically, he wondered aloud to his former head coach, Jim Puetz, about a decision made 40 years earlier.
Frank had an offer from Bob Devaney to play for an up-and-coming Husker football program in Lincoln but worried about balancing it with Army ROTC and his love of playing in a polka band.
He chose the Army and gave up on becoming perhaps one of the legends fans now associate with the building blocks of the Big Red back in the early 1960s.
“I looked at Jim and I said, ‘I wonder what my dad would have done if he wouldn’t have done that?’ and Jim said, ‘Well, whatever it is, he followed his heart and it got you where you are,” Scott remembered. “He reminded me that, although it had been a few years since I was in high school, the lesson he was always trying to teach us was, you have to go after it. You have to follow your heart.”
Sobota’s story is one of many that have been shared in the week since Puetz, 77, passed away in Lincoln.
The 31-year head coach of the Shamrock football team, 41-year teacher on the Scotus faculty and pillar of both the Columbus and Nebraska High School athletics communities was honored with a visitation and vigil on Wednesday night then laid to rest with a funeral and burial service on Thursday morning.
They came by the hundreds, laughed about Puetz’s wit and comedic abilities, marveled at his long list of accomplishments and shed tears for the realization it was all now part of the past.
Each one had a story to tell.
Puetz leaves behind no shortage of tales from on the field, off the field, in the classroom, at The Pawnee, in various social settings, or in Sobota’s case, in a genuine moment that maybe helps to best explain the kind of impact he left on those who crossed his path. Puetz’s legacy was one of winning on the football field and enjoying life everywhere else.
During his football career, he earned 235 victories, led two Scotus teams to state championships and was on the staff of another in his first year in town.
Those who coached young men beside him almost always refer to his organization, his desire to involve as many players as possible and his hands off approach to giving his assistants responsibilities then allowing them to do their jobs.
“For us, he was the straw that stirred the drink. He made it happen, but he allowed us all to coach,” said Rick Grubaugh, Puetz’s offensive coordinator starting in 1992. “It was just a tremendous experience coaching with that staff as close of friends as we were and having the same type of philosophy for the game. It was just so much fun to be a part of it.”
When Grubaugh and Puetz went on the road scouting, the trip almost always included side roads through small towns Grubaugh never knew existed.
Puetz knew everyone there, had been there before and could share a story or two about the locals. At the Shamrock Club Steak Fry to kick off every season, tickets were sold well in advance because of Puetz’s storytelling fame.
After spinning a few yarns, he always said something about every senior on that year’s team without any notes in front of him.
“Every day was an experience, and something you just can’t really explain,” Grubaugh said. “He was just a fun, fun guy to coach with.”
His players will tell you no one wanted to win more than Puetz. His intensity, drive and positive attitude was infectious – even if that intensity sometimes boiled over.
There are more than a few stories about helmet tosses during halftime speeches when things either weren’t going well or the team wasn’t performing up to his standard. Two of the most famous took place at rival Lakeview.
One toss resulted in a temporarily lost helmet for a two-way starter. The other toss popped out an ear pad from a member of the special teams unit participating in the first play of the second half. The helmet and the ear pad were eventually located and disaster was avoided.
At Wahoo Neumann, in 1997, down early and frustrated by what seemed like slanted officiating, an unsportsmanlike conduct flag for his brother Gary, then one for himself, earned Jim an ejection.
Before he stormed away from the sidelines, his booming kick sent the nearest yard marker onto the field earning yet another penalty. Jon Brezenski, 1998 Scotus graduate and in the huddle during the episode, recalled being in something like a first-and-51 situation. What happened next was discovered while watching game film the next week.
It became perhaps the most famous story in Puetz's history.
“Our film crew followed Jim off the sideline after he got kicked out of the game. He goes up to the concession stand, buys a hot dog and watches part of the game from there,” Brezenski said. “He’s eating the hot dog, takes a bite and then all of a sudden looks down at his shirt and there’s a mustard stain on his coat. He considered it for a few seconds, flipped it up, licked it then just kept eating the hot dog. We watched that clip and laughed over and over.”
One of Grubaugh’s favorite memories is Puetz always leading jumping jacks at the end of practice, otherwise known as “The Shamrock,” with his short stubby arms providing the direction.
When he was the head coach of the boys’ track team for 26 years, he often entered pole vaulter Rudy Kolachi into the event only to have Rudy no show every time.
Brezenski recalled the end of Thursday pregame preparations. Each offense on the depth chart took its turn running plays as part of the game plan for Friday. The final play was always a quick kick, maybe for those first-and-51 situations, that became a contest to hit Puetz’s van parked not far away on the edge of the practice field.
Sobota, Brandon Drum and Jeff Herdzina were, in PG terms, revealing their backsides on the back of the bus on the way back from Elkhorn in 1993.
In the car, following directly behind them, were Jim and Gary’s wives. The trio of offenders took a verbal lashing from Puetz on Monday morning, but also received some tongue-in-cheek advice about “covering their butts.”
“He’ll always be remembered for having fun while being successful,” Brezenski said.
The stories are too numerous to count. But, while there may be far too many to ever properly document, there is a common thread, a common theme, in every tale that friends and family say reveal his true character.
“He was fully transparent. There was no second guessing or any pretense. You always knew where you stood with Jim Puetz, “said Mark Henggler, quarterback of the 1993 state title team. “If you didn’t like it, then so be it. He was who he was. People recognized that.”
Those who came to honor Jim Puetz’s memory, and those who couldn’t due to the circumstances of life, almost all, in one way or another, said Puetz was “The real article. What you see is what you get,” not unlike John Candy in the 1987 film “Planes, Trains and Automobiles.”
That speech though, would require some editing had Puetz been there to give it himself. Those who came to honor his memory weren’t just his wife and his customers, as the movie says, they were former players, fellow coaches, students, classmates, teachers, trainers and religious leaders.
They didn’t just “like” Jim Puetz. They loved him. They loved his big heart, his belly laugh, his good nature, his positive outlook, his genuine, honest approach to life and how he followed his heart.
“He had opportunities to go coach college football, and he said, ‘You know what? I love being at Scotus. I love being here. I love this community here in Columbus. It’s just where I belong. I could go and make more money elsewhere, but it just ain’t me,’ ” Sobota said about that conversation 13 years ago.
“He told me, ‘You may not always know it at the time, and it may not seem like it at the time, but if you follow your heart, you’re going to have an impact on people’s lives, become a productive person and leave a great legacy.’ ”