Emerson Dennis, a senior at Central Catholic, preps his throw during a summertime practice at the Portland school. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)
Emerson Dennis, a senior at Central Catholic, preps his throw during a summertime practice at the Portland school. (Sarah Wolf/Catholic Sentinel)

The football program at Central Catholic High School has impressive stats — multiple state championships, countless conference championships, nearly 70 players who went on to play in college, five active players in the NFL and a 5-1 record in 2021’s truncated spring season. And that’s all just since Steve Pyne has been at the helm. So when all is said and done, what will the program’s legacy be?

“I like to think we’re giving kids basic life lessons and character values that they take beyond the field and apply to their everyday life,” said Pyne, head coach and teacher at Central.

“Success is measured in a lot of different ways. The lowest common denominator for success to most people is wins and losses. For me, it’s more about, where are these guys in 15 or 20 years? What kind of husbands and fathers and community members are they? If they’re doing well then and using some of the things we emphasize on a daily basis, that to me is success.”

Seeing that success in past players is what brings Pyne fulfillment.

“That’s what I hope our legacy is, well beyond winning games,” said Pyne.

Central has had phenomenal players and phenomenal coaches, he said. “Those things are cool and — don’t get me wrong — I like to win. But it is not the focus of what we do at all. We do not talk about winning and losing. We don’t set goals to win championships or anything like that.”

In fact, that’s not what he wants the program to be about.

“Simply, we’re going to do our best to prepare these kids for the challenges in front of them,” said Pyne.

When the coach took over Central’s football program, he thought it was his job to secure a state championship. So that was the focus. The team had good players and good coaches. They were competitive, winning league championships and making it to the quarterfinals of the state bracket.

“But we couldn’t get past that,” he remembered. So he looked deeply at the team, their values and what they were about. They were about winning. He decided to change that. Instead, he and the coaching staff put the players, their relationships and their experiences first. And the winning would come when it came.

Jordan King, a senior at Central, started playing flag football in first grade. The wide receiver was enrolled at St. Anthony School in Tigard before coming to Central.

At Central, King says, academics and work ethic are engrained in him. But that’s not all he’ll walk away with. He’ll have life skills.

“They make us work out here [on the field] but also in the classroom,” he said.

Zachery Grisham, a senior, also started playing football in first grade.

Grisham loves the people he meets on the field, pointing to his friend and teammate Jordan King.

“That’s my guy,” he said, smiling.

The sport helps keep the teen focused.

“Without football, I don’t know that I’d be the person I am.”

And as he approaches life after high school, Grisham talks about what he’s learned playing at Central.

“Coach Pyne is always telling us to be a better man, to be an asset to people.”

Central’s football legacy extends beyond the players currently in the program.

TJ Salu, who graduated from All Saints School and then Central in 2015, played flag football as a tot. He just wrapped up his football career in 2020 after playing for the U.S. Naval Academy. Salu is now an ensign in the Navy, working as a weather specialist at Naval Base Coronado in California.

Playing football at Central impacted him in many ways.

“Coach Pyne holds everybody to the same standard — the standard of excellence,” said Salu, adding the standard was set not just in the weight room or on the field but in the classroom as well.

Salu told the story of when he didn’t show up for an early morning workout one day and got chewed out by Pyne for missing it.

“The standard he set for the program and all the players has really made that program successful throughout the years.”

It was not only the expectation of excellence that helped Salu succeed. Dedication to team counted just as much. He reflects on the Rams’ players call-and-response greeting when they met and when they parted ways: “How we going to do it? Together! Count on me!”

That’s the first thing you hear when you enter the program and the last thing you hear when you leave, recalled the Central alum.

“If you want to be successful [in football], you’re going to need your brothers to your left and right to help you. It’s not just going to be a ‘you’ thing,” said Salu, adding that that team mentality helps him in his naval career now.

“‘Together, count on me’ is always in the back of my mind. When your chief says you’ve got to be up at 5 a.m. ready to roll, you don’t want to be the guy sleeping in,” he laughed. “It’s just being a reliable, honorable person of integrity.”

Aidan Wilder’s football career, which started when he was in third grade, recently came to a close after he’d played at Portland State University, Linfield College and Bluefield College in Virginia. Wilder, who was a quarterback at Central, graduated from the Portland high school in 2014. He now lives in Bend and works as a project engineer for a general contractor.

Wilder has set a high bar for his life. He says that came from the sense of community he found at Central.

“I think that builds all kinds of skills. When you feel like you’re part of a community, you open up a bit and build all kinds of different relationships with people. That carries over into life, for sure.”

Wilder said Pyne and the whole coaching staff did a good job applying what the players learned in football to life.

Recalling one game in which many of the team’s good players were injured, Wilder talked about how the younger players had to step in.

“If there’s adversity that comes your way, you’re not just going to give up, you’re going to find a way to find success,” he said.

Three years ago, Pyne’s staff established core values in the form of an acronym: CRAFTED. C — Compete, R — Relationships, A— Accountability, F — Finish, T — Toughness, E — Execution and D— Dedication. It’s seen on every player’s practice shirt.

“We want to be crafted individuals,” said Pyne. “If we’re teaching these kids those values, we’re going to have success.”

sarahw@catholicsentinel.org