Scripps Ranch High football coach Marlon Gardinera is flanked by (left) son Nicholas Gardinera and (right) quarterback Luke Durkin. (photo by Ralph LoVuolo)
THE STRONGEST MAN
A winning head football coach in any American community brings up images of a strutting, self-absorbed, brash man wielding influence beyond duties on the field. But Scripps Ranch High School head football coach Marlon Gardinera is the opposite, despite coming off an incredible 12-1 season that thrilled fans and filled the community with pride.
Gardinera looks forward to next season, but his story is much deeper. His positive outlook and inspirational messages are powerful beyond belief.
Gardinera is a reluctant head coach who simply coaches because he loves his sons and wants to spend more time with them while he fights ongoing medical conditions. Through all this, he brought Scripps Ranch High football an unprecedented record of victories, raised his players’ GPAs and taught valuable life lessons. These accomplishments are historic on a local level and enormous on a human level.
Gardinera coached his son Nicholas in Pop Warner from flag football through the eighth grade. They have never played without each other.
“When I applied for the job at the high school, I really just wanted the freshman job because I wanted that team one more year to help them transition into high school,” Gardinera said. “I mapped out what I thought a football program should be and I remember the last thing I said was, ‘Please don’t accept anything less.'”
About two weeks later, the high school called and offered him the varsity job, he said.
“My first response was no thank you. There was never a day in my life when I wanted to be the head coach of a high school football program. But they said, ‘You’re the person we think who can execute your plan the best,’” Gardinera said.
Under his direction, the team had its best season in history in only his third season. The secret to his success as a coach was to “raise the bar,” he said.
“This is a wonderful, wonderful public school. Why don’t we have that same expectation of our football team? I came in knowing there needed to be a culture change,” Gardinera said.
His quest for excellence was highlighted by a commitment to academics. Gardinera added study hall as a requirement. He implemented the School First Plan, grade checks and tactics to create plans to raise grades of struggling players.
“If you have a C, you don’t need to practice football, you need to practice school,” he said.
Gardinera goes on and on about building winners in life through academics.
“Xs and Os are nice, but I’m here to teach hard work, dedication, commitment, dealing with adversity, competition. Those are the lessons,” he explained. “The greatest takeaway I have from this year is that they heard us, they paid attention to the details and they did the work. So, naturally they’re going to be successful in the classroom. And the football field is no different. If we really did our job, what will last forever for me is that this team knows that if you do these things, they’re capable of anything and that will apply to every aspect of life.”
Assembling an experienced coaching staff and leading teenagers to work together as a team in a very physical sport is not for the weak of heart. Gardinera has been successful even though he is afflicted with ailments that would crush a normal person.
“I have what’s called amyloidosis. The amyloid protein in my body mutates. Wherever it mutated, it destroyed,” Gardinera explained. “The first place it went was my hands and feet, so I have peripheral neuropathy.”
Peripheral neuropathy is pain from nerve damage, which Gardinera has in his hands and feet every moment of every day.
Then, doctors found he had stage 2 chronic kidney disease. In December 2007 he was told he had a year or two to live because the amyloid protein would destroy his heart. At the time, his sons were 2 and 4.
In June 2009, he had a liver transplant to “simply reset the clock,” Gardinera said.
“So, obviously, when you find out you have a year or two to live, you want to be close to your children because you cherish the fact that you can be (close to them),” he said.
In 2013, because he was amino suppressed to stop his liver from rejecting, he caught a “bug,” which turned to pneumonia, which turned to sepsis. His heart stopped and he was legally dead for a few minutes, he said. Then he had total organ failure. He was in a coma for eight days before finally pulling through.
“When you go through that, when you’ve been told you have a year or two to live and then you actually die, you cherish the time you get to spend with your kids,” Gardinera said. “I did not want to be a high school head coach. What I wanted was to be around my sons as long and as often as possible. So, I took the responsibility because I know what it takes, and I know what type of culture I want my sons to experience in their high school years. …
“So, I’m here to give my sons that experience. But you have a real difficult time not falling in love with the other 90 boys (in the football program). So, I treat them all the same as if they’re my own. I love them. It matters to me if they’re drinking. It matters to me if they’re vaping. It matters to me what they do throughout this community.
“Once they wear our gear, what they do is a reflection upon all of us. We are a brotherhood and a family. We are our brother’s keeper. We are responsible for each other. So, all I’m doing is what all of us want to do for our sons. I just have an extra 90 of them.”
Gardinera easily recited his litany of standards and philosophies he constantly directs toward his players. His message is unwavering. To hold his team to such high standards both on and off the field, and to achieve such success at both, takes an enormous amount of inner strength and stamina. It’s nothing short of amazing when considering what he has had to endure while keeping the football program on track.
He explained his situation in a calm, confident manner. He expressed determination to carry on with his life in as normal a manner as possible.
Gardinera said that the drugs he must take to keep his body from rejecting his liver will eventually cause cancer. He gets a body scan every three months to see if he has cancer. He was told cancer would normally start after five years; he is at the 10-year mark and is clear so far. But, he said, it’s just a matter of time.
“I will likely be on dialysis and need a transplant at some point,” he said.
Still, he won’t let his diagnosis get in his way. He continues to coach, lead and provide guidance for young men. He has faced all adversity and guided the Falcons football program to its greatest season ever. He said he has used his time as a coach to spread important messages to his son through football.
“How many men get an opportunity to spend three to four hours a day with their 16-year-old son – talking to an entire team about things like not doing drugs, not drinking, and what is appropriate and inappropriate with girls and the respect they need to have, and what to do in the classroom?” Gardinera said. “They don’t know it, but I’m leaving my son as many messages as possible – and the rest of the team just gets to hear them.”
Gardinera said it’s often more effective to teach his own son through teaching an entire team. Sometimes a message passed through a football team is better than a message passed one-on-one, he said. Keeping a room clean is a simple example. Gardinera said he demands that his players keep their locker room spotless.
“I don’t allow them to disrespect their common space,” he said, adding that if a person doesn’t care about their personal space, they don’t care about someone else’s.
He has had the strength to see one of his sons through most of high school and looks forward to doing the same with his younger son – through coaching.
Gardinera also stated that his son, Nicholas – the team’s star running back – has been contacted by Columbia University about a possible scholarship. Gardinera expressed his immense pride, knowing that an Ivy League school is interested in providing an education for his son – and that his son earned the opportunity.
“What father doesn’t want to see his son also get that message of hard work equals success. He’s seeing it. He’s living it. He’s dreaming it. He’s doing it,” Gardinera said. “I’ve got an eighth grader that will be here next year. God willing, so will I. He’ll get what my older boy got: years of me telling him what’s important.”
Coaching is not the only method he uses to teach youth. Gardinera said that he visits about 40 high schools a year to speak with students about the importance of organ donation. He explained that high school is about the only time anyone tells them about organ donations because that’s the time they are preparing to get their licenses for the first time.
Gardinera emphasized his appreciation of the Scripps Ranch community.
“They have no idea – they breathe life into me every day,” he said. “This community and their support of this football team, it makes me pause and just remember where you live is a pretty important factor in how you turn out. I don’t know if there’s a better place I could have raised my children or been a part of.”
Gardinera was open about his conditions. He said some of his players know he is expecting cancer at some point, but he doesn’t want to dwell on that.
“I don’t feel like I’m buying time. When it’s your time, it’s your time,” he said. “This experience is a great example of living and giving all I’ve got to these boys.”
He made it clear he doesn’t want anyone’s pity.
“I’m alive and I’m living to the fullest,” he said. “I don’t want that (his afflictions) to get in the way of things, but that certainly is what makes time mean so much to me.”
To accept the burden of impending health issues, and to carry on in spite of them, takes incredible courage and faith.
“I don’t fear death. I happen to be a Christian. I happen to believe. … My faith comforts me today,” he said. “But I’m living – and I’m having the time of my life.”
This is why Marlon Gardinera is the strongest man.