Seattle Lutheran’s football team lost two beloved coaches within a month of each other, but the Saints from West Seattle have responded with a historic season.
“Before every game, we say ‘Play for our brothers above.’ I know they’re looking down on us and are proud of what we’re doing.”
— Jacob Fay, Seattle Lutheran lineman
When their football coach called an impromptu team meeting last January, everyone assumed bad news. But none of the kids at Seattle Lutheran High guessed it would be this grim.
For months, the players had been bracing themselves for the death of beloved assistant coach Bob Dowding, who at 67 years old was losing his bout with cancer.
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Dowding started the Seattle Lutheran football program and mentored current coach Anthony Stordahl. He served under Stordahl last year as the Saints transitioned from 11-man to 8-man. He made it through the season despite frequent rounds of chemo, but it was clear his play-calling days were through.
“He was fading,” Stordahl said. “By the end of the year, he was just so tired and done.”
But that team meeting last January had nothing to do with Dowding. Stordahl had some news about another assistant coach, 25-year-old J.B. Lusher.
The night before, Lusher was outside of a West Seattle bowling alley when he started toying with a gun in his car with a friend. He accidentally shot himself and died on the spot.
When the Seattle Lutheran players heard this, they embraced one another and wept. At least the ones not overcome by shock did.
J.B.? Dead? At 25?
“Even today, I can’t believe it’s real,” senior Brandon Lulow said.
Feelings among players ranged from anguish to anger. They grieved for a loved one while chiding his recklessness. Then, a month later, just as they were starting to process the ordeal, Dowding died as well.
That was the emotional TKO.
Suddenly, Stordahl was coaching a football team sans his top two assistants. A pair of the most cherished men in the SeaLu community were no longer on earth. The sequence of events was, in a word, unthinkable.
Just like what this team has done since.
“If my dad could see this, he would use his favorite word — awesome.”
— Mandy Park, Bob Dowding’s daughter
Two coaches. Two paths. Two very different personalities.
Dowding was a Nebraska native who coached and taught in Southern California for 24 years before moving to the Northwest. In 2004, he started Seattle Lutheran’s football program while serving as the school’s athletic director.
Stordahl said the three years he spent coaching with Bob did more for his faith than his entire Christian education. Dowding took everything the church taught and actually put it into action.
When an autoimmune disease hospitalized Waunda Norgaard — the cashier at the football games’ admissions gate — for three months, Dowding visited her every Sunday to watch the Seahawks. And when a student named Emily Woods joined the football team several years back, he demanded that everyone treat her as an equal if they wanted a shred of playing time.
Last month, SeaLu senior Jacob Fay was asked to describe Dowding, and without blinking said, “He was probably the best guy I knew.”
What about J.B.?
This time Fay grinned.
“He was an (expletive),” he said, and you can probably guess the seven-letter word. “But he was a funny (expletive), so everyone liked him.”
Don’t worry, anyone who knew J.B. just burst out laughing reading that quote. But only because the lifelong Seattleite was the most loving, caring (expletive) in the Emerald City. He would yell at players. He would scream at refs. He would spend every Christmas morning cooking meals for the homeless.
This was actually J.B.’s senior charity project when he was a student at Seattle Lutheran, but he so enjoyed it that he continued to prepare meals for the less fortunate every Christmas. And if the food happened to outlast the customers, he would take the leftovers and search Seattle for empty stomachs.
Perhaps this image contradicts the one of a man playing with a firearm in front of a friend (it was legally owned, but reportedly, J.B. didn’t think it was loaded). It is, however, the image everyone chooses to remember.
That’s why each player on the Seattle Lutheran football team has the initials “J.B.” emblazoned on their helmets. They also have the initials “BD” etched into their jerseys. These are a couple of small ways the Saints have chosen to honor their former coaches.
Although they pale in comparison to the big ones.
“After the last game, a guy that used to help out with the team came up to me, gave me a hug and was just like ‘Where did this come from?!’ ”
— Eric Bauman, Seattle Lutheran lineman
The SeaLu football team was terrible last year. The Saints finished with a 1-6 record and were outscored 302-102. This was partly due to a lack of seniors on the team, but anyone familiar with the West Seattle school knows that basketball reigns supreme.
Two Junes ago, just five players showed up for the first day of football camp. The summer weightlifting program was nonexistent.
But this year? Twenty-three showed up. And they all pumped iron every afternoon.
Stordahl said that, on that opening day of camp, the first question a player asked was, “What are we going to do for Coach Dowding and J.B.?” The consensus: anything possible to win.
“I remember when it first happened, the biggest thing lingering in my mind was that we never won for them — we never got to show them what we could do,” said Bauman, a senior. “So we used that as motivation to prepare for this year in their honor.”
The result was a Kafkaesque metamorphosis. These guys are unrecognizable.
Seattle Lutheran won its first game this season, 60-8. It won its second game, 52-0. Its third game came against 2014 state runner-up Lummi, which beat the Saints 60-12 last year. This year, the game was called due to darkness after three quarters with Lummi up 72-64.
Stordahl insisted that with all the conditioning his team did over the summer, they would have won it in the fourth quarter. Regardless, the Saints’ only official defeat this year was to Evergreen Lutheran, giving them a record of 6-1 heading into the playoff game against the Washington School for the Deaf (1 p.m., Saturday at King’s School in Shoreline).
Yep, all of a sudden, Seattle Lutheran is a football school. Just like that, the Saints are on the cusp of their first postseason victory in program history. Impossibly, this team has outscored opponents 415-198 and lured everyone in the SeaLu community out to watch.
Well, almost everyone.
J.B.’s grandparents, Jerry and Gail Lusher, haven’t been able to bring themselves to attend. They raised J.B. from the week he was born, and the SeaLu football atmosphere would just be too painful.
They did get a phone call a couple months ago, though. It was from Fay. He wanted to let them know that he, Lulow and Bauman had decided to continue J.B.’s Christmas homeless feedings as their senior charity project.
Gail still gets choked up talking about the gesture.
“It’s a little bit like getting your heart back again.”
Some SeaLu players say they need to make a run at the state title to properly honor Dowding and J.B. That likely isn’t necessary, though.
As Fay said, his brothers above would be proud of what they’re doing.
They’ll stay proud no matter what happens next.