California Field Named After Payson Retiree

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Dennis Fendler/Roundup

Payson resident Gary Campbell coached California’s Norco High School football team to numerous division and league titles, and was named Coach of the Year six times by the local media during his 34-year career. The school honored him in a ceremony Nov. 23 by renaming the football facility Gary Campbell Field.

While Gary Campbell now spends much of his time hitting the links with his Payson Men’s Golf Association buddies, he once spent most of his day strolling the hash marks and sidelines of high school football fields.

Campbell, 66, retired to Payson in 2005 after working 34 years as head coach at Norco High School in California’s Corona Unified School District.

There, he won 279 games, which ranks seventh in the state.

Under Campbell, Norco won three California Interscholastic Federation-Southern Division titles (1992, 1993 and 1998), and won or shared 11 league titles. He was named Coach of the Year on six occasions by Riverside County’s Press-Enterprise newspapers.

Campbell remains humble about his sterling accomplishments, saying only, “I had a pretty good career.”

Those he coached and taught at Norco must believe the years he spent there were much more meaningful than that, because they spearheaded a move last summer to have the high school football field named after him.

The goal came to fruition Nov. 23 at a Norco home game against Corona Santiago.

That afternoon, Campbell was honored at a barbecue attended by about 300 persons, including school officials, alumni, former players and community leaders.

Traveling to the ceremony with Campbell was Leanne, his wife of 33 years, his children and grandchildren.

In a ceremony just before kickoff, the town’s mayor officially renamed the facility “Gary Campbell Field” in honor of the man who not only coached football, but also taught physical education and math.

“It was awesome, a tremendous honor,” Campbell said.

Later that season, after Norco nailed down the league championship with a 56-20 win over Riverside Poly, Norco’s star running back, Deantre Lewis — who is bound for Arizona State — told a newspaper reporter the league title was especially meaningful because it was the first one won on the field named in honor of Campbell.

The Payson retiree now looks back on his storied career and recalls the most rewarding experiences were coaching the children of players he coached decades earlier.

“I really enjoy having the kids of former players,” he said. “That was great.”

Among those combinations he coached were Todd Gerhart and his two sons, Toby and Garth.

“I had all three of them,” Campbell said.

When Campbell retired, Todd Gerhart — then an assistant coach at Norco — took over the head coaching reins.

After graduating from Corona, Toby accepted a football scholarship to Stanford, and Todd received one from Arizona State University.

Today, Toby is one of the most heralded running backs in the country, a Heisman Trophy hopeful, and a sure bet to be an NFL first-round draft choice.

Garth will be the starting center for the Sun Devils when ASU plays UA tomorrow, Nov. 28.

Campbell says all three Gerharts were special football players, and he’s excited they’ve enjoyed so much success.

“I think Toby is worthy of the Heisman, but he was injured much of his freshman and sophomore years. He got a late start didn’t get the recognition he might need to win it,” Campbell said. “But he will definitely make it in the pros, especially the way the NFL is today with the big, strong running backs.”

While Campbell admits he’s happy to be retired, and about the only thing he misses from teaching and coaching is “working with the kids,” he remains close to the game because his son, Steve, is the head coach at new Williams Field High School in Gilbert.

“If I begin to miss it (football) too much, I just go down there,” he said.

Steve played for his father at Norco and later quarterbacked the ASU Sun Devils, leading the team to a 1997 Sun Bowl win over Iowa.

While watching Steve coach Williams Field, Gary chuckles to himself when he hears fans and boosters in the stands second-guess the players and coaches.

As illustrious as his career was, he knows the bantering is “unfortunately always part of the game.”

The catcalls remind him of an earlier time when he made a decision, like most high school coaches do, to not have his and other coaches’ wives sit in the stands where their ears are often blistered by the nit-picking and verbal blisters.

“I always had our wives sit in the end zone, away from that stuff,” he recalls.

While Campbell has been close-mouthed in Payson about his former school naming the football field after him, the word is spreading, and it won’t be long before fellow members of the PMGA will more than gently needle him about the honor.

“Yes, we will,” said PMGA member and retired Scottsdale Coronado basketball coach Herb Sherman. “Isn’t that what old coaches do to each other?”

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