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The Emotions of Sports: An acceptance

Athletes and coaches sometimes reach the peak and never get back, but they learn to deal with it

Posted: August 3, 2011 1:55 a.m.
Updated: August 3, 2011 1:55 a.m.

Garett Tujague won a national championship as an assistant coach at College of the Canyons in 2004. A return to that summit has eluded him as an assistant and the head coach for the past five seasons.

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For Orson Welles, it was “Citizen Kane.”

And nothing could ever compare.

Welles’ masterpiece 1941 film is seen by many critics as the greatest American film ever made.

His works afterward were mostly commercial, and in some cases, critical flops.

The legendary filmmaker never lived up to the success of “Citizen Kane.”

There are “Citizen Kane’s” in sports — an athlete or coach reaching the peak of their sport, then never seeing that peak again.

Regret, depression, sadness — they are real feelings that athletes and coaches go through because of the inability to return to previous glory.

But with some, there is acceptance and even a motivation that comes from reaching a peak and never climbing back to it.

It has allowed some of them to channel the energy and the frustration and turn it into something otherwise fulfilling.

College of the Canyons head football coach Garett Tujague reached a peak as an assistant coach for College of the Canyons in 2004, winning a national title.

Since that time, and in five seasons leading the Cougar program, a repeat of that monumental success has eluded him.

Ted Iacenda, arguably the local high school football player of the 1990s, didn’t experience the same adulation and success in college playing for USC and the University of New Mexico.

Ashlee Trebilcock, who might be the first female high school basketball superstar in this valley’s history, also played for two universities, never reaching the heights of her high school career.

But each one of them has found satisfaction in other ways.

***

It can overtake your world.

That’s how it was for Garret Tujague.

In 2004, Tujague was assistant head coach, offensive line coach and athletic counselor for the College of the Canyons football team.

His multiple roles, both coaching kids on the field and keeping their minds focused on academics and time management off the field, were vital in leading the Cougars to a national championship.

In 2007, Tujague took over as Cougars head coach from Chuck Lyon, who had guided the team since 1998.

Though the Cougars have experienced success under Tujague, winning 33 games, competing for a state title and continuing the reputation of being one of the nation’s top community college programs, they haven’t repeated the maybe once-in-a-lifetime success of 2004.

And it got to Tujague.

“You sit back and wonder, ‘Is that as good as it’s going to get? Is that it?’ And you think to yourself, ‘If that’s the case, what am I doing?’” Tujague says.

Tujague says he cornered Lyon a couple of weeks ago and half-jokingly, half-seriously told him that the day he retires and gives his final speech, he better include Tujague in it and give him a little credit for that national title.

“I think he’s done a great job,” Lyon says of his protégé. Lyon has been the athletic director at COC since 2007.

Lyon says of that national championship season that it wasn’t the goal.

If that’s the goal every year, then there will never be any satisfaction in the job because most years, if not every year, you will leave the season disappointed.

And it can have other effects — most importantly on one’s family.

Lyon says the divorce rate in coaches is high because of a lot of factors — time, frustration, obsession.

So he says he’s told Tujague to keep the job in perspective.

“It’s changed a lot, my discussions with Garett,” Lyon says. “It’s not how to get better as a football team, it’s how to protect your family and you from the pitfalls of being a coach and making sure your goals are in line — your professional goals are in line with family goals.”

Tujague says his wife, Cami, and children have been a support system that has kept things in perspective.

But that’s more lately.

In 2008, he says, there was a lot of mental anguish that they couldn’t take away.

That COC team was 10-0 in the regular season and won its first two postseason games leading to the Southern California Championship.

They were the No. 1 team in the state heading into the Southern California championship game.

Then the Cougars lost 51-44 to Mt. San Antonio College.

COC gave up two touchdowns in the game’s final 10 seconds.

“I was like, ‘God, we were right on the doorstep of another ring — four years after.’” Tujague says. “I was in a state of depression for about three, four months. It was like getting up in the morning, put on some sweats, come in, push some papers around and think about what would you change. What would you do? It all stems back to finding that bigger yes. What’s your mission? What’s your goal? If your goal is to win a national championship, there’s only one person who can do that. I’m not saying I’m giving up or settling. Do I want to achieve that? Absolutely. But what I’m saying is that all that matters? I hope not.”

Tujague came to a realization. ...

***

As has Ted Iacenda.

Iacenda remembers his visibility in the Santa Clarita Valley growing to outrageous proportions.

He was a senior in high school, driving a little red car — nothing remotely flashy — in the short alley near Cinema Drive that led to the old Mann Theater’s movie complex — which in the 1990s was one of the most popular hangouts for high school kids.

But an older man was following Iacenda in his Mercedes-Benz, honking his horn.

Iacenda was confused until the man pulled up next to him. 

“He rolls down his window, he starts yelling, ‘Fight on!’” Iacenda recalls — “Fight on” being the rallying cry of USC where the Hart High football star had committed. “For me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’”

Iacenda scored 99 touchdowns for the Indians, including a then-Santa Clarita Valley record 41 in 1994.

After falling short of winning the CIF-Southern Section Division II title against Antelope Valley in 1994, the big, bruising running back tore through Antelope Valley and led the Indians to the 1995 Division II title, beating the Antelopes 35-28 in one of the most memorable football games in this valley’s history.

There was no athlete in the valley bigger than Iacenda, and for him to commit to USC — where Mike Garrett, O.J. Simpson, Charles White and Marcus Allen ran before him and made the school Running Back University, was something giant.

“He was one of the biggest athletes in the whole entire Southland. One of the best running backs, best players,” says 23rd-year Hart head coach Mike Herrington. “He did great things for us. Probably carried us to the CIF championship that year.”

Iacenda remembers being a little uncomfortable with the attention in high school. But at the same time, there was an appeal to it.

“I’ll be honest, I grew up in Houston with my mom. It’s a very polite, respectful upbringing. You don’t grow up in Houston, Texas with a big head on your shoulders,” Iacenda says. “But of course there’s that little piece inside, I don’t know if it’s your id, that enjoys that praise. I’m a human being.”

Iacenda arrived on the USC campus in the fall of 1996.

He played Sept. 7 against Illinois and rushed three times for six yards and caught one pass for 24 yards.

But a right shoulder injury cost him the rest of the season.

In 1997, he started four games, then he dislocated his left shoulder.

In 1998, he started six games at fullback, but split time with two other fullbacks.

Iacenda looks back and says injuries and a carousel of offensive coordinators at USC affected his term there.

USC might have not been the best choice, he says now.

“SC kind of broke my heart,” he says. “But I battled, and battled and played.”

Iacenda eventually finished his collegiate career at the University of New Mexico, rushing for 201 yards and catching 28 passes in 2000.

His numbers never measured up to what he accomplished at Hart.

It took some time, but Iacenda came to a realization. ...

***

Ashlee Trebilcock came to the realization while she was in college.

The fall from the peak is only as long as you allow it to be.

She was such a big star in high school that she earned the respect of high school boys basketball players.

She remembers playing a game at Burroughs High in Burbank.

Then she stuck around for the boys game, which immediately followed.

The Hart boys were getting hammered.

Then a chant arose from the Burroughs side.

“You need Trebilcock,” it went.

“Oh my gosh. That’s embarrassing for them,” she thought at the time. “Usually a group of dudes don’t give girls respect like that.”

Trebilcock led her Hart teams to three straight CIF title games. She was a high school All-American, is Hart’s all-time leading scorer and tried out for the USA Basketball Junior National Team.

“I told everybody this — she is the best player I ever coached,” says her coach at Hart, Dave Munroe. “I’m a firm believer that she could have started on the boys basketball team at Hart.”

She was so good that she verbally committed to UCLA as a high school sophomore.

She played four games at UCLA, then transferred to Ohio State.

Her best individual season at Ohio State was 2007-08 when she was an Honorable Mention All-Big Ten selection. She averaged 9.6 points per game.

“Yeah, it’s different going from high school to college,” Trebilcock says. “Going from college, other than playing overseas possibly, there wasn’t really a next step I wanted to take. Even though it was frustrating. There wasn’t the next level I was preparing for.”

Because she didn’t have the desire to take her career further, as in the WNBA, she became comfortable with not duplicating the success of her high school career in college.

But injuries had a lot to do with that.

Ankle, knee and back problems affected Trebilcock her entire college career.

She says her back was so bad that she would have to crawl around on her hands in knees inside her college apartment.
That pain sucked away more desire.

“There was a lot more going on than just basketball,” Trebilcock says of college. “There was a lot of outside going on — the injuries are the most pertinent. I had a lot of stuff going on between transferring and personal stuff. I’m not going to look back and go, ‘Oh man.’ There were times in practice where I was the best player in the gym (at Ohio State). There were times in games where I reverted to my old high school ways.”

Trebilcock says there were times in college when she wishes she could have been more like the take-charge player she was in high school.

Yet high school success doesn’t necessarily lead to college success.

“That’s very tough. When you play in high school, you don’t play against that many people of your caliber,” Munroe says. “When you go to college, you’re not necessarily the big dog on campus anymore.”

In high school, she says there were times she didn’t necessarily need the spotlight.

“I wanted to win, but a lot of times I was kind of playing for people other than myself,” she says.

But she accepted what happened in her career.

Her realizations are a lot like those of Tujague’s and Iacenda’s.

***

“I definitely have regrets,” Trebilcock says. “I’ve made a ton of mistakes. All you can do is in 2011 I’ve got to take what I’ve learned and become a better coach.”

Trebilcock is 24 years old.

She has a bachelor’s degree from Ohio State in strategic communications.

She’s an assistant coach on the Denison University women’s basketball team in Granville, Ohio.

Trebilcock knew that was her calling.

While she was playing, Trebilcock says she used to ask Ohio State head coach Jim Foster when he was going to hire her as a coach.

“I’m happy as a clam right now,” she says. “I’m starting my first career move, I’m surrounded by good people, my head coach is awesome, I’m learning the recruiting ropes, coach Foster is a mentor down the road.”

For Iacenda, 33, coaching was also the path.

He is currently the assistant head coach at Bishop Alemany High in Mission Hills.

He says he wants to teach kids how his life choices and circumstances affected him and how they can learn from them.

But it wasn’t until he reached his later 20s that he accepted how his college career didn’t measure up to his high school career.

“There’s disappointment, resentment. You fight all those emotions in your early 20s. You feel wronged,” Iacenda says. “You make peace with it. There’s nothing you can do. You just help kids not make the same mistake.

“It doesn’t happen all at once. The years passed and the pain and disappointment stayed; then there are the good memories and you don’t think about the woulda, coulda, shoulda as much.”

Tujague came to the understanding that the ring wasn’t the measure of success.

There are other successes.

For example, COC finished 6-5 last season.

But 15 players from the team received NCAA Division I scholarships.

That’s a different kind of victory.

And there will be others.

“Do I want to do this the rest of my life? I love football and I can’t imagine a day without it. And my wife and girls couldn’t imagine a day without it. But are there other things in life I want to accomplish? This is not my end all,” Tujague says. “And it took me 20 years of being involved in football to figure that out. Always, as long as I’ve played, it’s always been about chasing that ring.”

Or, in some cases, chasing the past.

So like Tujague, Iacenda and Trebilcock and countless athletes, coaches and sports figures like them, they accept the past and look to the future.

It’s a chase that in many cases proves to be futile.

Welles didn’t chase it.

He was said to have not been bitter.

His friend Peter Bogdanovich, a filmmaker and historian, commented on the documentary “The Battle over Citizen Kane” that Welles was content in his final years.

After all, the peak is a place not many people ever reach in any walk of life.

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