By Richard Smith
West Valley Preps
Chuck Esquivel was born, grew up, met and married his wife Jeanne in the small town of Kearny, a couple of hours east of the Valley.
After Chuck played on the offensive line at Glendale Community College and the University of New Mexico, he and Jeanne moved to the West Valley, eventually settling in Peoria. They raised three children, Terra, Tori and Ryan.
But in the ensuing 30 years, Ironwood High School became the Esquivels’ home. And after a moving tribute and ceremony Dec. 14, Chuck Esquivel’s name will always be synonymous with the home of Ironwood football.
Last fall, Esquivel was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Ironwood inducted him into its sports hall of fame Feb. 17 and he died Feb. 19.
The Peoria Unified School District board approved naming the stadium in Esquivel’s honor this fall. Ironwood first planned to have the ceremony before an October home game, but the school moved it to this date since it signified the 15th anniversary of Esquivel’s final game as the Eagles head coach.
“Coach’s accomplishments speak for themselves — his win-loss record and his two trips to the state championship game,” 1997 graduate Eli Wnek said during the ceremony. “But you don’t just stadiums after great coaches. You name stadiums after great men.”
Wnek played on Ironwood’s 1995 and 1996 4A state runner ups. Mark Matheson coached the 1995 team and Esquivel was his lead assistant. Matheson retired and Esquivel stepped up to lead his first team back to the finals.
As Wnek alluded, though, the man’s impact on campus reached far beyond the football field, and his concern and involvement with former players and students stretched well beyond their years on campus.
Ironwood Principal Vance Setka repeated the school’s motto “It’s Just Better Here,” in his speech. He said Esquivel epitomizes those words with his deeds.
“In my opinion, there are two people that helped create this belief in all of us. First, is Ironwood High School’s first principal, Mr. Bob Johnson. He laid the foundation for what Ironwood is about to this day,” Setka said. “And the second person is our teacher, coach and friend Chuck Esquivel. As a teacher and coach for almost 30 years, he was larger than life — a superhero that was always there to support Ironwood. Ironwood has have more than 10,000 graduates during Chuck’s years. And I’m willing to bet that every one of them knew who Chuck was. Not all of these graduates played for Chuck, or had him as a teacher. But they all knew Chuck Esquivel. Leaders are not measured just by what they achieved personally, but also what the people they mentor go on to do as leaders. Chuck was successful as a football coach, but what is equally impressive is what the young men he coached have accomplished in their lives and who they have become. This is his legacy as Ironwood.”
Following the speakers, longtime athletic director Mark Borkowski and Jeanne Esquivel unveiled a plaque on the field side of the press box inscribed with Chuck Esquivel’s likeness and his motto: “Be grateful for what you have, and always tell your loved ones how much they mean to you.”
They the unveiled the side of the press box facing the parking lot, now emblazoned with the simple black lettering declaring it is Chuck Esquivel Stadium.
Both the school and the Esquivel family lost a large piece of their foundation, and have spent the last year bonding through grief and gratitude.
“Ironwood is amazing. I don’t know how well we would have gotten through this year, if they had not been there every step of the way for us. They have done so many neat things and he would be so honored by this,” Jeanne Esquivel said.
For most of the past 30 years, he coached and taught Spanish at the Glendale campus. Esquivel had a short-lived stint as a top administrator at Kellis High School when it opened in late 2004, but quickly returned to Ironwood.
He was an assistant on the school’s first football team. As head coach he bookended his career with trips to the state title game — Dec. 14, 2002 was the date of the 5A state final against Mesa Mountain View.
Current Ironwood coach Ian Curtis was a graduate assistant just out of college in 1995 and 1996, and a full-time assistant in 2002. When Curtis was named head coach, Esquivel returned the service as the Eagles freshman coach — where he served until his health began to falter.
“Chuck Esquivel is, to a large degree, everything I think about when I think about Ironwood High School — his goodness, love and competitiveness. His love for his family, his colleagues and his students was so infectious. One of the things he said at the beginning of every football season — and I try to retain this as best I can — was, he would gather all the coaches together and tell us, ‘Listen, football is important, absolutely. That’s why we’re here. But family comes first. Never let coaching get in the way of what is truly important.’ I’m happy to be part of this. He’s a wonderful human being and I’m glad his name is now that of this stadium.”
Curtis said Esquivel taught him more than anyone about how to coach, and more importantly, how to care about young people.
That lifelong bond with his players was reflected in the ceremony, as at least one former Eagle from every team from 1987 to 2002 was there.
Wnek went on top play at Arizona and is not the campus director for Athletes in Action at the university. He said Esquivel knew the name of his kids long after he hung up your cleats.
As a redshirt in 1997, Wnek traveled with the Wildcats as they played New Mexico Esquivel went to watch his player and alma mater. In 1998, Wnek was playing and was shocked to see how far his coach’s influence extended.
“We’re playing at Stanford and the cameraman said, ‘Hey Eli, coach Esqui said play your heart out.’ He knew everyone,” Wnek said.
Esquivel went to Wnek’s first game with the Arizona Rattlers, and was there for much of Wnek’s moments of prayer and personal triumph.
Robbie Trent played for the 2002 team. Five years later, he said, Esquivel flew halfway across the country to watch Trent play his final home game at Doane College in Nebraska. Today, Trent is the Lincoln representative for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.
Both former players remember the special 1996 season, from different points of view.
“When I was an elementary student at Marshall Ranch and watched guys like Wnek and Yancy and Ernster make a run at the state championship game, I saw a coach fight for a culture that was built with unity and passion. I couldn’t wait to be a part of that culture,” Trent said.
After going 12-2 and falling to Scottsdale Saguaro in the 4A final in 1995, the 1996 squad made it all the way back to the title game.
That 11-2-1 Ironwood team came the closest to claiming the championship, falling to Tempe 201-7 in overtime.
“I remember my senior season being such an incredible year — the most fun I ever had playing this game. Esqui created an environment where you could play free and play your best,” Wnek said.
Then a growing school, Ironwood face a tough adjustment to 5A, as one of the smallest schools in the big school division.
The 2002 team finished 8-2, but had to forfeit a game after its played a transfer student who had filled out his form incorrectly. That dropped the Eagles to No. 11 and set the stage as Ironwood won road playoff games against Phoenix Desert Vista, Tuscon Salpointe Catholic and Mountain Ridge to earn a stunning finals berth.
By 2002, Ironwood and its coach in football and life were inexorably linked.
“He cared about every one of these students. He would tell them to go home and hug their parents and tell them you love them … because you never know,” Jeanne Esquivel said. “He has been like that since he was in high school. We’re both from close-knit families and that’s how we’ve always been. It’s that way at Ironwood too. Everybody cares about everybody.”