Kayla Singleton is a sports journalism student at Arizona State University covering Tolleson Union High School athletics.
A year ago Tolleson Union High School lost an entire football season to COVID-19, now the Wolverines are six games into the season and the subject of a documentary series.
Tolleson’s return to football is being documented by The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com in a series called “Beyond the Gridiron: Tolleson.” The process of creating this series started in June 2020 and filming started in July. There are now three episodes out showing the behind the scenes of Tolleson’s time on the field during Friday night lights.
In the summer of 2020, while other schools in the state were preparing for in-person classes and the upcoming sports season, the Tolleson Union High School District remained firm in its decision to keep fall sports shut down.
“Being not able to play last season was hard especially when other schools were playing,” senior linebacker Nick Sheiha said about missing his junior season. “I missed out on one of my biggest years of football, it sucked not being able to do the thing you love for a year and have to sit at home and hear about these other schools play and have fun while we had to protest and fight for it all back and at the end not being able to.”
Even after their 2020 football season was sacrificed over COVID concerns, this season was still not assured.
“The scrimmages you name it, they were canceled,” said head coach Rich Wellbrock. “So we were just excited to get to Game 1 because it was kind of always hanging over our head.”
However, even when Game 1 came and the season was underway it was not a smooth journey for the football team. The first episode of the Beyond the Gridiron series shows the Wolverines lose their first game to their rival Agua Fria for the prized “River Rock.”
The challenging start to the season was in part due to the tough schedule but also because of the entire missed year of football.
“During the pandemic, [Tolleson’s] kids were getting jobs while other kids were getting home gyms,” said Wellbrock.
The team remained hopeful amidst the adversity and the season is looking up for them. The fourth game of the season was Tolleson’s homecoming game, the festive week celebrating the 92-year-old school consisted of student assemblies, homecoming court, parades and culminated with the team winning their first game of the season.
The pandemic took a toll on the small, close-knit city of Tolleson. Not having a football season for a city that rallies around its high school on Friday nights was disappointing for the whole community. But even more importantly COVID complications took the life of a beloved coach on campus, Ash Friederich.
As the community heals from loss, this series has been exciting for not only the football team but the whole school and the city.
“They get to highlight what a special place this is for our kids and our community,” said athletic director, Ray Perkins.
With camera crews filming during practice and games along with the new media attention the team has not been distracted, it has even given them motivation to work harder.
“It is such a cool highlight to this season, we’ve been through a lot the last couple of years, and having them document our journey back and the way we have bounced back from adversity is great,” said Sheiha. “It will show other schools and whoever else to always keep going and not giving up on the school or yourself, it gives the team a chance to prove everyone wrong and see what we do on daily and the work we’ve put in.”