Cancer has claimed the lives of two loving fathers who obviously relied upon a commitment and passion to athletics to steer their children successfully through the pitfalls of life.
Steven Gunzel died at age 60 on Jan. 2 at his home in Sierra Vista.
Buck Buckner died at the age of 72 on Jan. 7 in Payson.
I had the good fortune to know both fine men through their children.
Steve’s two children, Jon and Julie, were students of mine during my teaching years at Rim Country Middle School.
I also helped coach Jon in football at Payson High School.
Brandon Buckner, Buck’s son, was also one of my students at RCMS, who I helped coach in basketball his senior year at PHS.
All three were academically talented, model students and genuine credits to their family, school and town. The trio’s work ethic, character and passion are a testament, in part, to the way their fathers raised them.
In watching the three pass through adolescence and on into adulthood, it was easy for teachers and coaches to remain confident they would someday become productive and successful citizens.
All three have become just that.
It’s difficult to pinpoint just what it is that fathers, or mothers for that matter, do to steer their children into becoming caring, cooperative, honest and responsible adults.
But whatever the secret ingredients are, both Steve and Buck obviously owned them.
Brandon, a former all-region basketball player at PHS, remembers as a young boy his father entering him in about every sport and recreational opportunity available in Payson.
He also recalls his dad following him around to about every game he ever participated, “I don’t think he ever missed one.”
During Brandon’s high school years, Buck often attended practices to lend support to his son.
Over the seasons, it was obvious he was extremely proud of what Brandon was accomplishing.
Brandon’s decision, after high school, to attend a law enforcement academy and become a Payson police officer, turned into one of Buck’s proudest moments.
For Brandon’s graduation from the academy, Buck — his chest swelling with pride — invited many of his son’s former teachers and coaches to the event offering to host them for lunch at a local restaurant.
Among Brandon’s final acts of love for his father was to give him as a Christmas gift a lever-action .22 rifle he’d always yearned for.
The gift also included a father-son visit to the local rifle range where the pair enjoyed a few hours of plinking and target practice.
Steve Gunzel had an illustrious prep sports career at Tucson Palo Verde High School, etching his name into the state track and field record books in the discus throw.
He continued his career at the University of Arizona where he eventually earned an agriculture degree.
It would have been easy for Steve to turn into the quintessential Little League parent and relive his sports life through Jon and Julie who were two of the finest all-around athletes to ever don PHS uniforms.
Like Steve, Jon and Julie excelled in both the shot-put and discus. Julie eventually continued her sports career at Colorado State University. Jon opted to play football at the University of New Mexico, but an injury cut his career short.
While Steve had plenty of sports and athletic expertise he could give his two children, he watched only from the sidelines preferring to do what Jon calls, “supporting me from a distance and not trying to influence my choices, but offering advice and training.”
Throughout both Jon’s and Julie’s highly successful athletic careers at PHS, Steve supported their coaches, refusing to second-guess or question them as so often occurs in high school sports.
Steve spent 14 years in Payson as the district ranger of the Tonto National Forest. On occasion, eager to watch Jon at practice, he showed up at football or track sessions in his cowboy boots and ranger uniform.
One such appearance is among Jon’s favorite memories of his father.
“We (the team) really wanted to see how far he could still throw the discus,” Jon said. “So, without a warm-up, Dad jumped into the (discus) ring in his cowboy boots.
“He threw the discus about 190 feet which was about 20 feet farther than I ever threw it.
“It was amazing to see after all those years, he could still wing it.”
Although Steve never intervened in Longhorn football practices, he did dish out a few gridiron hints about the reality of the game at home.
On one such occasion, he took the opportunity to show his son he still had a lineman’s ability to throw a forearm from a three-point stance.
Jon remembers lining up against his dad on the living room floor ready to show him what kind of punishment he’d been dealing out all season long.
“It took only a second after I said ‘hut’ to realize Dad still had it,” Jon said. “I landed on the couch six feet away.”
At that time in Jon’s life, he was about a 6-foot-5-inch, 235-pound all-state two-way lineman for Payson High.
Although Steve’s death after battling brain cancer for 2-1/2 years has been hard on the entire family, Jon’s fondest hope today is that he “can be as good a father to my son as he was to me.”
That might someday be Brandon’s goal as well.
In a traditional Gaelic blessing it is prayed:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face;
The rains fall soft upon your fields and until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of His hand.
Maybe that’s the wish all of us should have for fathers who are no longer with us.