‘Like a second father:’ Hockinson coach Rick Steele’s impact goes beyond football field

By Andy Buhler, Columbian staff writer

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HOCKINSON — Rick Steele wants his sleep back.

The 53-year-old sets his alarm clock every night but, without fail, beats it by 10 minutes every morning. 

Thirty-three years in the Vancouver Fire Department will do that to you, he says. He’s on call for 24 hours at a time these days as a battalion chief. He reckons he’s responded to over 20,000 alarms, 400 structure fires and more than 300 scenes where a tragic death has occurred.

“For 33 years, I haven’t slept. My body is conditioned to get up every hour,” said Steele, who retires from the department in January.

He could barely sleep Wednesday morning. He woke up at 1 a.m. and turned on game film. Then he fell back asleep. Then woke again at 5 a.m. and kept watching. He presses himself to watch two to three times as much game film as his players, he says, so he knows exactly what he’s talking about.

This week the Hockinson football coach has something special to fixate on in the middle of the night.

The Hawks play in the 2A state championship game in the Tacoma Dome Saturday morning, a landmark the program has never hit since it started when the high school opened in 2004 with Steele as the head coach.

It’s the single-greatest accomplishment in program history. But Steele’s imprint on Hockinson goes far beyond what happens on the football field.

“He’s like a second father,” lineman Ryan Sleasman said. “You come away from one home and go to another home to learn more lessons. He helps you grow as a person and builds character.”

Teacher of men

Steele opines to a classroom full of football players about an old book.

It’s an old log book for the Vancouver Fire Department from the 19th century that has been preserved. He compares the book’s contents to each of the players. Everyone has a story, he says. For the seniors on the team, one of their chapters will end Saturday in the Tacoma Dome.

He speaks with an authoritative boom. Players sit idly, fixated on his lessons, fully bought into the idea he’s selling.

“He’s got a very commanding voice,” Sleasman said. “When he’s got something to say, everybody stops and listens.”

Steele started the tradition of “man class” in 2016. Every Wednesday after school, he teaches football players (anyone is invited, he says) about “how to be a man.”

It involves how to shake hands properly, how to treat fellow teammates and how to carry yourself.

He teaches about consent, and how to treat women with respect. With the cultural/societal revelations regarding sexual assault and harassment in the national news cycle, those lessons prove particularly timely.

But this week, with the state championship Saturday, the topic was performing in big moments. Union grad Jed Barnett, who was the punter for Oklahoma in the 2014 Sugar Bowl, was the guest speaker.

The gravity of Steele’s words is never lost on the players.

“Sometimes they hit home with me. I take it to heart,” Sleasman said. “When he talked about how to treat your family better, have a better attitude, how to train yourself, train your mind. He’s really taught me how to push myself, and challenge myself.”

Like a conductor, Steele knows exactly when to switch tracks.

“We win a state title, and (I’ll shave) my moustache,” he said.

The players laughed.

Steele is a master at applying life lessons to the football field.

“These aren’t just the football rules,” offensive coordinator Josh Racanelli said, “they’re the rules he lives his life by. That’s hard to find nowadays — somebody who’s that consistent in all aspects of their life.”

Steele’s sons went to Prairie High School, his daughter to Hockinson. His daughter, Steele said, was never asked to a dance in her four years. Having to answer to the school’s football coach?

“They were too scared,” he said, smiling.

He texts daily with quarterback (and de facto co-offensive coordinator) Canon Racanelli.

The senior predicted the Hawks would run the table before the season started.

Now, Steele prepares them for the last chapter — Saturday’s championship game against Tumwater — with a personal anecdote.

“The end of your time as a Hockinson football player is near,” Steele told players during Wednesday’s Man Class. “But it’s just a chapter in your life. Obviously there’s going to be more pages after this.”

He brings up his last high school football game. He remembers the score — a 7-6 loss to Columbia River — vividly. But he looks back on it fondly.

Why?

“It helped mold me into the person I am today,” he told the team. 

Building program

When he played at Hudson’s Bay, current La Center head coach John Lambert recalls a young Steele as a freshman team and offensive line coach.

Though he didn’t report to Steele directly, Lambert spent enough time around the 24-year-old for him to make an impression.

“You can just tell when someone is smart, a great leader, good to be around,” Lambert said.

Steele was all three.

So when Lambert was hired as the head coach at La Center in 1999, Steele was the first person he called. At the time, the Wildcats had received national notoriety for the number of consecutive no-win seasons. Steele, a former undersized lineman, was tasked with coaching up a group of six linemen.

And they did so to the tune of a 5-4 winning season.

“We had no business finishing with a winning record,” Lambert said.

And when Hockinson High School opened in 2004, Steele was chosen to build the program.

The Hawks went 0-7 in their first year, playing a varsity schedule with freshmen and sophomores. By year three, they tied for first in the 2A Greater St. Helens League. They won three league titles in Steele’s first nine seasons before he stepped away from the program for a season after he was promoted to battalion chief at the fire department.

He returned a year later once his schedule became more manageable. Steele says he saves most of his vacation days for football season, anyway. In 2014, Hockinson clinched its first state playoff berth, and its loss in the quarterfinals was the only loss of the season.

He handed the play-calling keys to Josh Racanelli, father of quarterback Canon Racanelli and receiver Sawyer Racanelli.

In the year he was gone, Hockinson went 5-4 and failed to qualify for the postseason.

The team is 42-5 in he four seasons since Steele returned to Hockinson.

Until this year, the program had not gone past the quarterfinals.

Players and coaches will say it’s not just because of the X’s and O’s.

“He’s the kind of coach that you want your kids around, and then, oh by the way, he’s a fantastic football coach too,” offensive coordinator Racanelli said. “He’s the heartbeat of our program. He knows when to be hard on them, when to love them and when to relax and let them have fun.”

Football as a metaphor

The relationship between football and life is an all-too-familiar metaphor for Steele.

He’s been a coach since 1986 — not long after he got his fire science degree from Portland Community College.

A career of fighting fires has supplied its share of life lessons to relay to a football team full of adolescent males. For the Vancouver native who played football at Hudson’s Bay, then served as an assistant coach at Bay, La Center and Prairie before his first head coaching job at Hockinson, the two have almost always been intertwined.

“Rick is a leader of men,” Josh Racanelli said. “It’s a hard quality. You can’t fake that. Everything he says he backs up with his own actions.

“That’s a quality that all the best coaches have. Rick certainly has that.”

And the coach of more than 30 years is not running out of lessons to teach his players. Especially as undefeated Hockinson is on the precipice of program history. Unlike a lot of high school football coaches, Steele doesn’t hold a teaching role at Hockinson. But he lives and works every day in the community.

He can be found at Hockinson basketball games, track meets and weight-training classes. When he retires, he’ll maybe spend some more time at the school, but “I want to retire to retire, too,” he said.

If a teacher at Hockinson is having trouble with a student who is on the football team, they’ll call Steele. Sometimes he’ll come and sit in the back of class.

To many, the name “Rick Steele” and “Hockinson” are synonymous.

“I don’t know who the mayor of Hockinson is, but I’d vote for Rick Steele,” said Lambert.

Steele has 10 more shifts left before retiring from fighting fires. After that he’ll spend more cherished time with his grandchildren, more time in his RV with his wife, touring national parks, and even more time focused on the Hockinson football program.

“I’ll admit, I’m at the end of this 33 years and I’m tired,” he tells his players on a Wednesday afternoon. “But the last time I walk out of the Vancouver Fire Department I’m going to look back and be proud.”

Saturday, he hopes to do the same.

But his work with the Hockinson community is far from over.

“I’m going to have all kinds of freaking energy when I’m retired,” he tells his team.

He smiles.

The players let out a collective groan.