Tucked away among the keepsakes from Don McGatlin’s 47-year career as a high school football coach lies buried treasure.
A 16-millimeter film — not a video, mind you, but an old-style film that coaches ran through a whirring projector back in the day — shows Bret, his 7-year-old son, racing up and down the sidelines at a Green Mountain football game.
Clipboard in his tiny hands, Bret kept track of the exploits of Lance French, the Rams’ star running back who was the 1986 winner of The Denver Post’s Gold Helmet Award.
“I didn’t even know Bret was charting the game,” the 71-year-old McGatlin recalled. “So I said to him, ‘I bet Lance must have had at least 135 yards.’ And Bret said, ‘No, he had 137.’ It turns out he was exactly right. He’s always had a head for football.”
Saturday at Empower Field at Mile High, Bret McGatlin, 44, will lead Chatfield (10-3) into the Class 4A state championship game against undefeated Erie (13-0).
Standing next to Bret on the sideline will be his father, who helps coach Chatfield’s offensive and defensive lines. Don also has input into just about everything else.
“My dad is my best friend, and he’s also a big pain in the butt,” Bret said, laughing. “He calls me at 6 in the morning with some play or scheme he’s dreamed up overnight. I’ll be like, ‘Dad, I’m still sleeping.’ He just loves football, but I think he wants this more for me than anybody else does.”
The Chargers entered the playoffs as a No. 7 seed but upset No. 2 Dakota Ridge in the quarterfinals and beat No. 3 Pine Creek in last week’s semifinals. Chatfield lost to both teams during the regular season.
Not many expected the Chargers to be chasing a championship, but here they are. And thanks to father and son, football at Chatfield has become a generational thing.
“There is a family sense to our program,” said senior middle linebacker Caden Logan. “My teammates are my brothers. There is unconditional love between (the McGatlins) and you can feel it. And that branches out to us. I’m forever grateful.”
Don won two state football championships at Green Mountain, in 1995 and ’99, as well as state track titles in 1982, ’83 and ’89.
From 2007-2010 he coached at Miami-Yoder, a tiny school in Rush, about 40 miles east of Colorado Springs. He led the Buffaloes to the eight-man playoffs in 2008 with a team that averaged 55 points per game. McGatlin made the 7-mile commute to practice from his 1920s-era ranch via horseback.
Bret has been Chatfield’s head coach since 2006, and although the Chargers have tasted some success, they are attempting to win their first football title since Dave Logan led them to the Class 5A crown in 2001. Logan will coach Cherry Creek in the 5A title game Saturday against Valor Christian.
Years ago, Don set a standard of excellence for his son to follow.
“He’s carried on his legacy with us at Chatfield,” Bret said. “Everybody knows how much my dad loves football. He found ways to win but he always did it the right way. He did it with homegrown kids and built from the bottom up.”
Don looks at his son and sees a good coach. And an even better man.
“For Bret, it’s not about the latest game you won, or how many championships you have,” Don said. “It’s about what those kids are going to be like 10 years from now; 20 years from now. What kind of person will they be? What kind of father?
“I used to make those statements as a coach, too, but my son lives it. And it gives him credibility in his coaching. The kids know that. It’s more than just Xs and Os. I’m the old fundamentals guy. Most of the speeches I give are around the fundamentals of football. Most of Bret’s are about being a good person first.”
Bret’s three brothers all live in California and are involved in the movie industry. Jason McGatlin, formerly of Lucasfilm, was an executive producer of the five most recent “Star Wars” movies.
It’s Bret who’s most like his dad and who followed in his big footprints.
“When I was a kid, I went everywhere that my dad went,” Bret recalled. “There were four boys in the family but I was the one who kind of clung onto him. I was at every game — waterboy, ballboy, carrying the clipboard, I did it all.”
He played for his dad at Green Mountain, graduating in June 1995 and just missing out on his dad’s first title, which came that fall. After graduating from Adams State, where he played wide receiver for the Grizzlies, Bret, at age 23, became an assistant at Columbine High School under legendary coach Andy Lowry.
When Bret became the head coach at Chatfield in 2006, at 28, he was certain of one thing: he was going to create a family atmosphere.
“I have assistant coaches who all love the kids,” he said. “If you come to our practices, you don’t hear yelling, you don’t hear curse words. We try to build relationships.”
The Chargers have a lot of team dinners and make trips to the bowling alley. It was Don who created the tradition of “Tamale Tuesdays.”
“If we win, I bring tamales for all the ‘rhinos’ — our linemen,” Don said. “We get them from Tamale Kitchen. I’ve been doing it for years. The guy there knows me pretty well by now. He can keep track of our record by how many times I come in.”
Two of Chatfield’s assistant coaches won state titles with the elder McGatlin at Green Mountain. Offensive line coach Michael “Gordo” Gordon played on the Rams’ 1995 championship team.
Dan Shaffer, currently the Chargers’ running backs coach, was a star running back on Green Mountains’ 1999 title team. Shaffer went on to the Air Force Academy, where he was the team captain and played fullback for coach Fisher DeBerry.
“My dad had a huge impact on the kids he coached,” Bret recalled. “I still remember this from high school. We had a tough loss to Wheat Ridge, one of our big rivals.
“I was hanging out with my friends after the game and they were saying, ‘Man, I feel like I let your dad down.’ One kid said, ‘I feel worse for letting your dad down than my own dad.’ That’s how much my dad loved them and how much they loved him.”
Shaffer and Gordon recently brought their Green Mountain state championship rings to practice to inspire the Chatfield players. It was a reminder of a decades-long legacy.
But the father is quick to bow to the son.
“We tell the kids stories from back in the day, and that’s a been lot of fun,” Don said. “But Chatfield has its own character and that’s a credit to Bret. He’s the one who built this family.”
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