RUMFORD — Mountain Valley High School’s newest assistant football coach never misses a practice.
He also never goes more than five minutes at any team function without getting, or giving, a hug, handshake or back slap.
“I started off trying to be with those high school seniors that have been hanging around my house since third or fourth grade,” Jeff Garneau said. “Now I’ve fallen in love with the juniors, sophomores and freshmen. They all grew on me. I’ve got a big family.”
Nobody meeting Garneau, 54, for the first time, greeted by the welcoming smile and the ever-present sparkle in his eyes, would see a tragic figure.
He is, however, the walking, talking, unspoken reminder in this tightly woven community that football is not life.
Right now, it’s therapy.
The Falcons stand in an unspeakable gap for Garneau, and in many ways, he for them. Players and a mentor gain a strength from one another that each side has trouble putting into words.
“I just look at him and the way he’s handled everything that has happened,” said Mountain Valley senior Ben Higley, “and I realize I can go on. We get to see him smile and know that we’re bringing some joy to his life.”
Garneau’s younger son, Danny, died in April, less than a year after being diagnosed with an acute form of leukemia.
That loss came just over a year after Jeff Garneau’s father-in-law was killed in a forestry accident.
“We’re hoping the Good Lord is going to take it easy on us for a while,” Garneau said. “I’m not a big soapbox guy, but we have strong faith. We know we’ll be together again.”
Presence still felt
Even as Mountain Valley feverishly prepared for its almost customary appearance in Saturday’s Western Class B championship game against Wells, nobody needed look far for reminders that the game is little more than a simple diversion.
“What he went through, you wouldn’t wish on anybody,” said Mountain Valley coach Jim Aylward. “Jeff brings perspective. There’s some days I leave here and I realize that I don‘t have any problems. If the worst thing that happens to me is that we don’t win on Saturday, you know, I’m going to be OK.”
The invitation to coach followed a summer conversation between Aylward and Matt Kaubris, father of Mountain Valley senior quarterback and defensive back Cam Kaubris.
Danny Garneau was projected as a starting lineman his junior year prior to his illness. Jeff coached his son and fellow seniors Kaubris, Higley, Taylor Bradley and Christian Durland, among others, in the Area Youth Football program throughout elementary school.
“I’ve been with them for a long time. We won championships when they were just peewees,” Garneau said. “After Danny got to middle school and was able to tell me to get lost, I got lost. If Danny was here right now, there is no way I would be here. I’d be home right now trying to pump answers out of him. And he wouldn’t answer.”
Of course, to a man, everyone affiliated with the Falcons will tell you the younger Garneau is here.
The unseen guest in every huddle. The voice that only they can hear, exhorting them through drills at the practice field now bearing his name.
“Sometimes I feel him right next to me,” Cam Kaubris said. “Too many things have worked out for us this year. We know he’s with us.”
Mountain Valley can point to its first encounter with Wells in September at Bulger Field.
The Falcons’ closest game of the year was tied 6-6 in the third quarter when an errant snap sailed over the head of punter Rashad Lavoie.
Lavoie raced back, recovered the ball, then somehow zigzagged through the maze of 21 scattered bodies for a 75-yard, game-winning touchdown.
But the team’s success has been far more than a gift from heaven. Six of the Falcons’ 10 wins have been shutouts.
“We’re peaking, I tell you,” Garneau said.
Strength in numbers
Garneau mostly works with Mountain Valley’s linemen, but he contributes wherever Aylward asks.
While his coaching background qualified him for the gig, his life story made him a natural fit. One of his roles, probably the one that has done the most mutual good, is sounding board.
“Hugging them when they fall down and get hurt. That’s really my job,” Garneau said. “Ben (Higley) was my son’s best friend. We’re still close. He comes over. I make him do my lawn. Pick up the dog (crap). I’m keeping a close eye on these kids. I intend to as they go on to college, too.
“They’ve been great therapy. They’re really helping with the healing process. I’m getting as much as I give. In fact, I’m getting more than I’m giving.”
The pain remains apparent among Danny Garneau’s would-be senior classmates.
Higley, thoughtful and well-spoken, lapses into short, hushed answers when talking about his friend.
Kaubris wrote Garneau’s uniform number, 56, on the armband that charts Mountain Valley’s offensive plays. Bradley bears those digits on his cleats.
“Every sports team that Cam Kaubris was on since third grade, Danny Garneau was on that team with him,” Aylward said. “These were his best friends. Then to have him out of school for a year and to hear the reports that he was doing well, only to show up at school one day and find out he was gone, it’s like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ So this has been good for all of us.”
Mountain Valley recently christened a new practice field — on donated land adjacent to the high school — in the late player’s honor.
His father is comforted by the knowledge that future students will know the family name long after he and his wife, Kim, are gone.
“They’ll say, ‘Who was that kid?’ And somebody will know. Somebody will know,” Garneau said. “This town is special. You wouldn’t get this kind of compassion in a bigger city. Everybody here knows you and knows what you need.”
In what Danny Garneau’s friends and family consider another otherworldly sign, Saturday’s championship game will be played on what would have been his 18th birthday.
All the win-one-for-Danny talk you might expect has turned into win-it-for-Jeff.
“His son was a very popular boy among these seniors,” Aylward said. “He wants to go (to next week’s state final) at Fitzpatrick Stadium. If we don’t make it there, I’ll only be sad for him, not for myself.”