Optimist football game revs up coaching legends Miller, Volek, even as “drowned rats”

Max Miller, left, of the South team and John Volek of the North, coaches for the 61st Optimist All-Star Football Classic on Saturday, Jan. 19, at Sacramento State, are old pals who have brought glory back to the annual game for area seniors.
Max Miller, left, of the South team and John Volek of the North, coaches for the 61st Optimist All-Star Football Classic on Saturday, Jan. 19, at Sacramento State, are old pals who have brought glory back to the annual game for area seniors.

It rained Tuesday night, violently.

The sideways moisture was punctuated with howling wind that warranted coaches and players to walk in a forward lean.

But funny thing about inclement weather. Those in shoulder pads and helmets don’t seem to notice, which was the case at Sacramento State where the North and South teams squeezed in a workout in preparation for Saturday’s 1 p.m. kickoff for the 61st Optimist All-Star Football Classic featuring area senior stars.

But the coaches? They felt every bit of every drop and grimaced at the wind pelting their faces. So yes, coaches can turn soft beneath their gruff exterior.

Such is the full admission of character from North coach John Volek and South coach Max Miller, two old-salt throwbacks known for their ability to make paint bubble by just shouting and glaring at it.

“All the coaches looked like drowned rats out there in practice, but the players were running round like rabbits,” Volek said with a hearty laugh. “We had our best practice, in that weather, and the kids competed like crazy. We coaches looked like wet sad sacks, and then we were walking on air because of how hard the kids worked.”

Added North assistant coach Scott Brownholtz, son-in-law of Volek, “It was the coldest two hours of my life! But it was totally worth it. We have kids driving an hour and a half from Golden Sierra, or from Del Oro, or from Granite Bay. It’s tough not to appreciate and love these kids.

“It’s the middle of the winter, it’s cold, and the ones that are left were there because it means a lot to them.”

Said Miller of the pounding elements, “I think I’m shrinking. The rain’s getting to me. When I was younger, I could move around faster. Not anymore. But the kids are working hard, and we’re working around the obstacles.

“I just know that coaching against Volek means I have to go to church every day to be ready.”

The Optimist game has recaptured some of its past gloss and glory in large part due to Volek and Miller, names that resonate with the local game for decades. These two are as personable as they are effective when they inspire and lead, and they continue to be goodwill ambassadors to the game.

And their pleas to the heavens for better weather come game day have been answered. It will be cloudy but dry Saturday.

This game matters to Volek and Miller because they are local to the core.

Volek played center at Placer High School and Sierra College. As Sacramento State’s head football coach, his sheer force of will led the program to its last conference championship, in 1995.

Miller grew up in Grass Valley and graduated from UC Davis. He retired as the region’s winningest high school coach with 264 victories, largely from his remarkable two-stint tour at Cordova, where his mix of charm and fury produced some of the best teams and top players in area history.

Miller’s list of Lancer legends includes Troy Taylor, the 1985 Cordova quarterback ace who last month was named Sac State’s football coach. Taylor has long maintained that Miller was instrumental in his football growth and development and that, most of all, “He believed in me.”

Volek and Miller are staples with the local chapter of the National Football Foundation, promoting the game and its stellar scholar athletes. The two jumped at the chance - with very little lift off the ground, mind you - to coach the Optimist last season.

The mentors led their teams to recent visits at the local Shriner’s Hospital for Children, and the student-athletes were an attentive audience while listening to Ross Relles explain the impact of his Camp Ross Relles, to which the Optimist game for decades has contributed.

Football continues to offer real-life lessons beyond blocking and tackling and wins and losses, and what better teachers than Volek and Miller?

Volek coached a Sacramento-area youth all-star team in a Shriner’s event eight years ago, and he has a handful of those players on his North roster now. Miller’s first football experience that really sunk was in 1945, when his father, Max, took him to the East-West Shrine Game at Kezar Stadium in San Francisco.

“When my father died years later, the Shriners visited my mother to comfort her, and that meant so much to her,” Miller said. “I was a Shriner’s football fan even before I was old enough to salute the flag for the national anthem.”

Volek and Miller will stand to attention before Saturday’s kickoff, and then they’ll get after it. A year ago, Miller tied into a referee at the half, and Volek jumped into the mix to offer his point of view.

The old pals even snarled at each other for a moment. A charity game? Absolutely, but these two compete even when looking for a parking spot.

“I was making sure Max didn’t one-up me at the half last year, man!” Volek said with a laugh.

Said Miller, “John and I have developed such a great friendship over the years. That’s what football does for so many people. I love the guy, but I want to beat him.”

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