For Derek Zellner, the past nine years have given him an opportunity that he and his dad never got to experience together.
He has been able to watch his sons, Wyatt and Cooper, on the Gilbert sidelines as a father and coach.
“I value this opportunity more than anyone knows because I never got to make that strong connection with my dad through football,” Zellner said.
When Zellner was 9 years old, his family moved from Colorado to Arizona. Shortly after, his father fell ill and passed away at the age of 31.
He emphasized the bond that football creates with his family.
“I use football to connect with Wyatt and Cooper,” Zellner said. “Football has been what has brought our whole family together. Football is embedded at the center of our family and it is what we love.”
Both Wyatt and Cooper feel the connection that has been created through football.
“Football is what brought me closer to my dad and brother,” Wyatt said. “We spend every day together, on and off the field.”
“Football is what glues us together,” Cooper added. “All the talks and lectures we have had in the car and at home have shaped us and made us close.”
This connection has funneled into the atmosphere around the Tigers football team.
“Coach Z emphasizes the family outlook throughout the team,” linebacker Daniel Fulton said. “He pushes us hard at practice and will get on us, but he is always there for us and treats us like his own sons.”
However, Wyatt and Cooper almost didn't follow their father to Gilbert four years ago. They were given the choice of where to attend high school.
It was either following their mother to Williams Field, where she teaches, or following their dad to Gilbert and continuing to play for him.
“The decision was pretty simple,” Cooper said. “We knew what we were going into as we had played for the coach and knew the culture. Also knowing that our dad will be at every game each week was a big factor in favor of Gilbert.”
The Tigers sit at a 3-4 record this season, and with only one game left, the Zellner family is watching Wyatt play his final game for his dad and with Cooper.
As Senior Night approaches, there is a mix of emotions.
“I am dreading Senior Night,” Zellner said. “I don’t want to stop coaching and being around Wyatt every day, but I am excited to soak in every moment throughout the rest of the season.”
“I don’t want this season to end,” Wyatt said. “This year was the first season that I got to play with Cooper and it has been awesome to see him progress and get better. I wouldn’t trade the past nine years with my dad for anything.”
With the clock winding down on Wyatt’s senior season, Zellner said he will always cherish the memories that he has from the past nine years.
“I have the best job in America and being able to spend it with these two is so special,” Zellner said. “Time goes by so fast and there are people who would kill to be in my position and have the opportunity I have. It is truly a blessing to be able to be with them every day, teaching them about the game and helping them build their character. I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”
Ryan Blank is a sports journalism major at Arizona State University covering Gilbert High School.