Hometown Report

Why old coaches can bring new energy to an all-star football game that’s taken a hit

South coach Max Miller, left, insists he won’t kiss up to North coach John Volek. The 60th Optimist All-Star Football Classic is set for Jan. 27 at Sacramento State.
South coach Max Miller, left, insists he won’t kiss up to North coach John Volek. The 60th Optimist All-Star Football Classic is set for Jan. 27 at Sacramento State. jdavidson@sacbee.com

They don’t move nearly as well as they used to, each lumbering along in more of a walk and waddle than a brisk pace.

But the old-salt coaches can still talk up a good game.

The 60th Optimist All-Star Football Classic is set for Jan. 27 at Sacramento State, and after a two-year hiatus to regroup, recharge and rethink matters, it has new blood in charge with two throwback coaches who could promote the benefits of a deep freezer to Eskimos.

Max Miller and John Volek are synonymous with football in this area. Their names have resonated for decades, first as players, then as coaches – and forever as goodwill ambassadors to the game that has given them so much and allowed them the platform to shape countless souls.

Volek played at Placer High School and Sierra College and coached with all manner of passion and pride at Sac State, delivering the Hornets some of their greatest moments. He heads the South Team, including leading the charge Sunday, when athletes visited the local Shirners Hospitals for Children.

Miller played at Nevada Union, attended UC Davis and won championships at a number of area schools, most notably at Cordova, where he led with a mix of charm and fury. He was delighted to escort his North Team at Shriners, reminding his troops that they can be role models to those in the hospital wards who would do anything to run and play.

So imagine the glee of these coaches when they squeezed on their green Optimist shirts and how they bounce around practice.

“I’m giving back to the community,” Volek said, explaining why he’s coaching this event. “For me, football was a great thing in my life. Knowing Max is alongside me, it’s an honor.”

Said Miller, “I miss the coaching. It’s going to be fun. I hope people realize that this should be the biggest all-star game in Northern California, It used to be.

“I hesitated at first when told I’d be coaching against Volek, but that’s OK. John’s from Placer and I’m from Grass Valley, and there’s never been much love lost.”

The coaches laughed when Miller dropped that line, the Sac State goalposts serving as a backdrop. Volek countered with, “I can’t wait to kick Max and NU’s ass!”

For years, elite athletes and large crowds epitomized the spirit of the Optimist game. It was a true event, and money poured into local charities, including Camp Ross Relles. But over the last 10 years of the game, about the only butt-kicking was the game’s image.

Fewer top-level players wanted to take part, some having committed to colleges with letters of intent. Players who didn’t even make their all-league teams were invited to fill out rosters and, in some games, players brawling sullied everything the event was supposed to stand for.

Jay Erhart jumped to the rescue last year. The energetic and highly regarded Erhart is the commissioner of Sacramento Youth Football, so he can speak of experience of chaos (particularly out-of-tune parents and, sometimes, coaches).

Erhart reached out to Mark Orr, Sac State athletic director. The game will follow the annual Pig Bowl between local law enforcement and firefighters.

“The Optimist game has been around forever, and it used to be so big here, so it’s welcomed here,” Orr said. “We have such a great area for football. This is a nice way to showcase that. But I’m worried about the coaches. Max Miller and John Volek? That’s the best we could come up with?”

The North includes Bee All-Metro stars in defensive back Luke Baggett and linebacker Austin Baze of Bear River, Christian Brothers quarterback Gunnor Faulk and lineman Trey Price, Jesuit receiver/defensive back Josh Farr, Bee Defensive Player of the Year Tanner Ward of Folsom (a safety) and Placer all-purpose player Anthony Kerrigan.

The South includes All-Metro players in receivers Anthony Bradley and Juwan Tanner and linebackers Jamie Cousey and EJ Larry of Sacramento; quarterback Tyler Dimino and his Del Campo teammates running back Greg Cabral, linebacker Marshaun Hunter, lineman Jordan Ford and receiver Trevour Brouhns; and Elk Grove leaders Da’Von Frazier, a defensive back, and linebacker George Spithorst.

Miller and Volek, ever the competitors, joke about pulling off player trades, insisting it would be in the best interest of all (read: themselves).

It never ends with these two.

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD