Ten high school football players gather for a non-padded practice on a grass field behind the gym at Notre Dame Preparatory.
They joke and laugh with each other until Head Coach George Prelock arrives. That’s when they line up and start running drills.
Coach Prelock stands several inches shy of six feet. He has a salt-and-pepper trimmed beard with inch-long hair of the same color. He looks every bit the prep-school coach, donning a gray Notre Dame polo shirt tucked into black dress pants.
He watches his wide receivers run routes and the quarterbacks throw the ball. Some receivers make the catch; others miss.
Through it all, his eyes stay focused on his players. Sometimes, he offers them correction. Other times, he compliments and praises them.
The players seem to relax as they run their drills. The pre-practice laughter resumes. And it’s not just the players: Coach Prelock also has a big smile on his face.
He teases the players about how their uncles he’s never met ran certain routes, a joke he uses to lighten the mood when players need to give a bit more of themselves. Sometimes, he tells a player who doesn’t typically play receiver that he can almost pass off as one. It’s the typical on-field banter of a coach who is more than a coach, but also mentor, role model and friend.
“It is important to joke with the kids and make sure that they are still having fun while working hard,” he said.
Coach Prelock is about to start his second year as the varsity coach at Notre Dame Prep, but he grew up with the school’s football program. It was the school’s former head coach and the program’s founder, Scot Bemis, who hired Coach Prelock when the program began in 2004.
For eight years, Coach Prelock worked closely with Mr. Bemis, learning the tricks of the trade and emulating his loving and larger-than-life style on and off the field. Through it all, they became close friends. Mr. Bemis was an older uncle of sorts, guiding Prelock as he moved from a junior varsity coach to the head freshman coach.
These are all memories now. Mr. Bemis died in 2012 of lung cancer at the age of 45. But they are memories Coach Prelock applies to his everyday interactions with his football players and seemingly everyone else he comes across.
When practice comes to an end, the players circle around Prelock as he gives his final words. The players tower over him. They listen intently to his coaching.
“Let’s end in prayer,” Coach Prelock says after giving his final instructions. The players bow their heads — “Hail Mary, full of grace …” Once the prayer is concluded, Prelock fist-bumps every one of his kids.
The players walk off the field taking off their gloves or carrying a football. One of them, Brock Locnikar, hangs behind. He wants to talk to Coach Prelock about football matters. But then Prelock asks, “So you have a wrestling tournament this weekend?”
Locnikar’s eyes brighten. He smiles broadly as he talks about the upcoming tournament and how excited he is for it.
“I feel like Coach Prelock really cares about what’s going on in our lives,” Locnikar says afterward. “Not just on the surface, but what’s really going on. I feel like that makes me feel so much more welcome at football.”
His interest appears genuine. Coach Prelock cares about how one of his players is doing in a class and if he turned in a certain assignment.
“When you do that, they just don’t see you as a coach or as this authoritative figure. They see you as a person,” Coach Prelock said. “They know that if there’s an issue or a problem, I would think any of them would say ‘hey we can go talk to Coach Prelock and he’ll talk us through that.’”
I’m standing several yards away, watching the pre- and post-practice rituals and taking notes. When the players head to the side of the field to take off their cleats, Coach Prelock approaches me. We exchange pleasantries and work out the details of my next visit to practice.
Then, the conversation shifts to more personal questions. It was something Mr. Bemis used to do regularly and now it’s a distinctive attribute of Coach Prelock, a way to probe a little deeper, check in on the players or whoever is around him.
“How’s your wife?” he asks me. “Is the baby good?”
At the time, my wife is four months pregnant, something I told Coach Prelock a couple weeks earlier during an interview. I’ve been covering his team since he became head coach.
I find myself talking to him for several minutes about my wife, my future career ambitions and religion. I am a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and we discuss the similarities of Catholic and Mormon communities.
The players are still around, talking with one another about school, life and whatever else crosses their minds. Coach Prelock walks over to the group and stands in the huddle like he was one of them.
Other practices go similarly if not the same way every day for him. That’s how it used to be when Bemis was leading the team.
Memories of Bemis
A framed picture of Mr. Bemis sits on a dorm room desk in Tucson. The desk belongs to Parker Zellers, a former defensive lineman at the University of Arizona who played for Mr. Bemis at Notre Dame Prep.
Mr. Zellers says that’s not his only photo of Mr. Bemis. He also keeps one on the dashboard of his white 2011 Chevrolet Malibu and another in his locker.
“I think he was good at developing (football players) into good young men,” Mr. Zeller said. “He definitely kept them in line and I give him a lot of credit for helping me become the man I am today and the man I will be down the road.”
Mr. Bemis was a man who knew how to laugh and joke. He also cared about his players on and off the football field.
He seemed to know what was going on in everyone’s life — the football players, but also the theater students, the music students and many others. Mr. Bemis also taught freshman science at Notre Dame Prep, a requirement for every student. Coach Prelock said that’s how Mr. Bemis got to meet so many of them early on and follow them through the next four years.
But it wasn’t just the students he cared about. Coach Prelock said many coaches stuck around the program for years because of the kindness and caring attitude Bemis would show them.
Coach Prelock remembers the many pranks Mr. Bemis played on him when he first joined the staff because he was the new guy. Mr. Zellers also remembers him sending new players to fetch “left-handed footballs,” which really don’t exist.
Mr. Bemis left such a mark in the school community that the football stadium carries his name and the school hosts an annual flag football tournament to raise money for cancer research.
For Coach Prelock, he was way more than a boss. He was a trusted friend. When Coach Prelock’s wife was pregnant with the couple’s first child, Coach Prelock confided in Mr. Bemis that he was worried because the baby hadn’t moved in a while. Mr. Bemis told him not to worry about his school responsibilities, but to go home and take his wife to the doctor.
Two years after Mr. Bemis’s death, Coach Prelock moved from junior varsity coach to freshman head coach. In 2017, he became varsity head coach and led the team to the 5A state championship game, where it lost 42–21 to Centennial High School.
After the loss, many players left Arizona Stadium in Tucson in tears. Many were seniors who had just played their last game and missed out on the opportunity of having an undefeated season. Coach Prelock tried to cheer them up by telling them how proud he was of their performance.
As the team began its two-hour trip back to Scottsdale, the bus got a flat tire, stranding Prelock, the coaches and the players at a shopping plaza on a crisp December night. They hung out at a Chinese restaurant for three hours. Eventually, the mood began to lighten.
“God works in mysterious ways,” Coach Prelock said. “I think it was the guys’ last chance to be, like, ‘You know what? This last time as a team, we’re actually going to be hanging out so let’s hang out and reminisce.’ There was a lot of laughter that night.”
Prior to Coach Prelock’s hiring as varsity coach, the football program ran into some trouble. It was banned from the 2016 playoffs after violating two Arizona Interscholastic Association bylaws, about recruiting and an out-of-season football class in pads. The school worked to repair its image afterward. It fired former head coach Mark Nolan and its president, James Gmelich, resigned.
Mr. Zellers believes Coach Prelock played a big part in that revival, saying, “There’s definitely a little bit of coach Bemis in Prelock.” He said he’s seen Coach Prelock keep small team traditions, such as the recital prior to the start of the fourth quarter.
Between the third and fourth quarters, the team kneels and Coach Prelock leads his players in reciting several commitments such as “I will work hard,” or “I will hustle.”
Coach Prelock may be the new coach, but, Mr. Zellers said, “it feels like the old Notre Dame.”
Prelock’s personal touch
On a warm, spring afternoon, a group of bulky and strong football players called linemen enter the school’s weight room.
Coach Prelock arrives wearing a long sleeve buttoned-up shirt tucked into grayish pants and a pair of black dress shoes. He looks more like the English teacher that he is that day, which is not his only other job at Notre Dame Prep. Coach Prelock works in admissions and is a director in the school’s new “house” system, or small communities that students are broken up into, to create deeper bonds.
The players warm up with some jump-roping and sprinting before positioning themselves in front of a squat rack equipped with a long 45-pound metal bar.
“How was school today, Sean?” Coach Prelock asks one of the players. “You learn anything?”
“Yeah…” the player says with a smile, and then runs through some highlights of the past school day.
“You spend more time with these kids than you do your own family,” Coach Prelock says afterward.
The team is preparing for the upcoming 2018 season, hoping to return to the state championship game.
This will be Coach Prelock’s second year as varsity coach, but he sees his work as extending far beyond the football field.
He wants his players to grow their faith in God, society and each other, he said. He wants them to grow academically and athletically. He also hopes they will eventually look back at their time with him at Notre Dame Prep and say, “I had one great experience and if I could, I’d do it all over again.”
News Services Reporter Josh Martinez can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 623-445-2738