Father, son strengthen bonds between JH football teams

By Kelly Breckunitch

With high school football teams trying to lay the groundwork for their systems earlier and earlier, at both the middle school and youth football levels, the Jackson Heights Cobras are going about that by keeping it in the family.

Fathers and sons being on the same coaching staff is not a new concept. That is not to say, though, that it is a common practice. Bill and Sean Snyder are among the select few to carry the torch at the collegiate level and Mike and Kyle Shanahan are some of the few pulling off the same feat in the NFL.

Jackson Heights has its own familial duo roaming the sidelines now. It is a little bit of a different set-up, but one that has worked out for the Cobras and the Nilgeses nonetheless.

Greg Nilges Jr. came to Jackson Heights four years ago and thought at first he would solely be taking a teaching position. After being asked by former coach Ed Ramsey to help out with the football team’s summer camp, though, a spot was made for Nilges on the coaching staff that fall.

Part of the reason the younger Nilges wound up at Jackson Heights in the first place is because Greg Nilges Sr. got back into teaching at the same time and both father and son were up for a position in St. Marys.

Nilges Sr. was chosen for the position and Nilges Jr. was then highly recommended to Jackson Heights. For the elder Nilges, though, coaching football was not part of the equation. He helped out with other coaching duties at St. Marys Middle School, like basketball and track, but he noted there was a desire to get back into coaching football.

That desire to get back into teaching and coaching, Nilges Sr. noted, was spurred by his son completing his degree in education. When Nilges Jr. was graduating and getting ready to start as a teacher, Nilges Sr. was getting ready to start back in after five years of working in water plant maintenance.

It’s funny how things work out, because after being up for the same position at St. Marys, both father and son were approached about coaching the Jackson Heights Middle School football team two years ago.

Nilges Jr. noted the school contacted his father about the position and Nilges Sr. had said he had hesitations about being the head coach. The younger Nilges was then approached and he said he would like to stay on with the high school staff. Eventually, Nilges Sr. did give in and take the head coaching position to make the father and son part of the same football program once again.

Growing up, Nilges Jr. noted his father helped with the Little Trailhands youth football program in Overbrook and he coached seven years at Santa Fe Trail Middle School. Nilges Sr. even opened up the weight room for the athletes in the mornings.

All of that played a factor in the younger Nilges getting into coaching and teaching and he said it continues to influence him to this day.

“Really, I would say my coaching reflects off of him big time because he’s always been there,” Nilges Jr. said. “Through college (at Haskell Indian Nations University), I would call him and tell him what we were doing before the game and stuff like that.”

Now, though, the older Nilges said he is trying to reflect off what his son and head coach Caleb Wick do in the high school program. He is trying to adopt the system in order to better prepare the middle school athletes for high school so they hit the ground running. Nilges Jr. said he and Wick discussed that with his father before he took the job and it has been pretty impressive to see him adapt.

“It’s not what he’s always coached, so him being open to doing that says a lot about him,” Nilges Jr. said.

With his son being on the high school staff, Nilges Sr. said that makes accepting the changes easier. Having a strong fellow coach in Gary Baldridge has helped, too, as both are interested in the synergy, but he noted the family ties have definitely helped with the transition.

“I feel a lot easier about asking them about stuff, asking around for advice,” Nilges Sr. said. “I’m trying to shadow the high school program and get the kids ready for that and I’ve taken a lot more from them than they have from me, I’m sure.”

Yet Nilges Jr. has taken a lot from his father. He’s taken from the example he set as a coach and as a player in college. Nilges Sr. competed at Ottawa University for two years after high school. Then, after a 12-year hiatus from college, he returned to Ottawa to finish his degree in education…and his collegiate eligibility.

That allowed the younger Nilges to watch his father play collegiately when he was very young and get on the fast track to becoming involved in the sport.

Nilges Jr. said he believes he is pretty similar to his father because of that, with both placing an emphasis on toughness and hard work with their players. He noted they are also a pair of strong, silent types when it comes to coaching with a focus on quietly building up kids’ confidence and never getting too vocal.

Even in their discussions away from the football field, at family dinners or other get-togethers, Nilges Jr. said that emphasis is still there as the topics will come back to the coachability and work ethic of athletes more than anything. With a daughter trying to break into the coaching ranks in Lawrence, too, Nilges Sr. joked that the rest of the family must get tired of it.

Those family ties are strong, though, and both father and son feel that the they have been influenced by the other. Nilges Jr. notes it’s by example, while Nilges Sr. said he is influenced in the nuances of the game as he said his son has the more technical mind and is a student of the game.

As strongly as the two are bonded, it may in fact be no surprise that they ended up in a close-knit community such as Jackson Heights. While Nilges Sr. admitted his son was the biggest draw in coming to Jackson Heights, the reception both received is something that has him considering doubling down on his involvement there.

“They took him right in and then I felt like they accepted me my first year. The hard part for me is living an hour away. I wish I could get close to it,” Nilges Sr. said.

According to Nilges Jr., his father has toyed with that idea, too, though he thinks it may be tough for the elder Nilges to get too far away from his hometown and his family in Ottawa.

As it stands, both noted they are pretty happy with the current arrangement and being able to work so closely together.

“Honestly, I never thought that I would get the chance to coach with him or help him or him help me or anything, so it’s pretty cool,” Nilges Jr. said. “Not a whole lot of people I know can say that they ever coached with their dads. You don’t see it very often, but I think it’s pretty cool.”

“It’s kind of unique. It’s kind of nice. We first got our jobs in different places and we’d always compare and stuff like that and now it’s more like we’re working together. It’s definitely been a good experience for me,” Nilges Sr. said.

Both father and son have noted that they are happy to be part of Jackson Heights football and the community and hope to stick around for a while. If the duo continues to help build success and continuity on the field, this football coaching family might just have found themselves another home.

*Note:  The Nilgeses are not technically Jr. and Sr. and the titles have been added for this article solely for identification purposes.