Sonny Fulks
Sonny Fulks
Managing Editor

Sonny Fulks is a graduate of Ohio State University where he pitched four varsity seasons for the Buckeyes from 1971 through 1974. He furthered his baseball experience as a minor league umpire for seven seasons, working for the Florida State League (A), the Southern League (AA), and the American Association (AAA). He has written for numerous websites, and for the past fourteen years has served as columnist and photo editor for The Gettysburg Magazine, published by the University of Nebraska Press, in Lincoln Nebraska. His interests include history, support for amateur baseball, the outdoors, and he has an arts degree (music) from Ohio State University.

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His legacy is awe-inspiring to Versailles football fans, and his influence, 13 years after retiring, is still legendary.  Al Hetrick created ‘Tigerball’ as a cornerstone of the Midwest Athletic Conference.  And the blue bloods still claim…there’s never been anyone like him since.

In his thirty eight seasons as head coach of the Versailles Tigers…many say that Al Hetrick put that community on the map.

He won 334 games.  His overall record was 334-95-4.

He won eighteen conference championships.

He appeared in nine state title games and won six of them, including three in a row between 1993 and 1995.

He coached 433 games over those years and had 33 winning seasons, including 15 in a row.

Versailles had won 569 football games by the time he retired in 2005, and Hetrick had won 55% of them.

So dominant was the image of Versailles football at its zenith that some of the locals dubbed the community as “Titletown”, borrowing from the legacy of Green Bay, Wisconsin, and the Packers.

And the championship legacy of Versailles sports lives on, of course…in sports like cross country, track and field, and women’s basketball.  But since 2003, when the Tigers beat Villa-Angela St. Joseph in the Division IV title game, 26-0, there have been no more championships in football, a fact that makes the most ardent faithful in orange black remember, and talk about, the influence of Al Hetrick.

How great was it?  Well mention his name among contemporary coaches in the area to this day and they talk about him with awe and quiet reverence.  Because, you see, he never talked about himself or his record.  Someone once said that you could ride in a car to California with Al Hetrick and never know he was a football coach.

Modest to a fault, it was suggested to him recently that in his day he, Tim Boeckman (St. Henry), and Todd Schulte (Delphos St. John) put MAC football on the map.  They own sixteen state titles between them.

It has been suggested that in his era he, Tim Boeckman (St. Henry), and Todd Schulte (Delphos St. John) put MAC football on the map. “If that’s the case, then Tim Goodwin put MAC football on the globe,” says Hetrick.

“Well,”  chuckled Hetrick.  “if that’s so Tim Goodwin put MAC football on the globe.”

But to the point of being influential, he downplays the impact of his record and football itself, choosing instead to appreciate the countless kids he’s coached that have gone on to life success, and have given at least some credit to their time with “Coach Hetrick”.

“There have been a lot of kids that have told me,”  as he smiled last week.  “But I always tell them, too, that they were an influence on my life, too.  And when they ask how, I tell them about the things they did and the way they conducted themselves – the things they went on to do with their lives.  When you think about kids like Kyle Gehle, and Jason Turner…those kids have had an influence on my life.”

His life, like his coaching style, is hardly complex.  A writer who covered the 1995 double-overtime title game between Versailles and Bellaire once described Hetrick’s style this way.  “I think they ran six plays from four formations,”  he said of the Versailles attack.  “And they still couldn’t stop them.”

And lots of area coaches would commiserate, and say…you knew what was coming and it didn’t matter.  Al’s teams executed that well.

“I can still remember that game, and how we ran off tackle a lot,”  says Hetrick.  “We had a quick little running back named Brian Subler, a couple of good blockers out there – Chad Marshall and Jeff Barga – and we blocked the plays three different ways.  We were making the calls at the line, and Bellaire just couldn’t stop us.”

Versailles won that game, by the way, 50-44!

“We always tried to bring out the best in the kids,”  he adds.  “Just do your job.  They knew they were going to get the ball so many times, and they tried to make the most of it.”

So, simple with Al Hetrick is best, and as he approaches 80 his routine thrives on it – country living, Friday morning breakfast with friends, and now the weekly football game in Brookville where he watches his son Mike coach the Blue Devils.  And yes, he tries to make at least one Versailles game a year.  He eschews attention, and the temptation to give opinions on coaching, because thirteen years after leaving the sidelines people still seek him out to talk football.

“I’m pretty far removed from it now,”  he smiles.  “Emotionally I’m involved with Mike’s team, and with Versailles, of course, but I try to stay away from it.”

The 2003 Tigers…the last Versailles football team to win a state title, 26-0 over Villa-Angela St. Joe.

But that doesn’t eliminate the ever-present comparisons of football now in Versailles, and football back then, when they did it his way.

“I don’t know about comparisons,”  he says.  “It’s a different game than when I coached.  Coach Miller knows what he’s doing.  I know they’re getting the numbers out, but I don’t know the kids anymore.  The league’s changed.  Fort Recovery’s tough now in football, and you got St. Henry, Delphos (and Minster).  Look what Coldwater’s done, and now I hear that New Bremen’s got a good group coming up.

“But once you lose that little edge when you walk on the field and the other team goes, “uh-oh, how we gonna’ play with these guys”…once you lose that you don’t get it back overnight.”

Some say the edge left with Hetrick, who stepped down in 2005, replaced by Jason Schondelmyer, who discovered immediately what it was like to match the influence of a legend.

“Anytime you try to replace a legend like that it’s hard,”  says Schondelmyer.  “And I mean…very hard.  But at the same time it’s an honor.  His influence was incredible, because it’s a small town influence, a generational thing where you have family members that all played for one coach.  So to come in as the new coach, like I said, it’s an honor, but it’s a tough gig, too.”

Hetrick won 334 games, 18 league titles, and 6 state titles as coach of the Tigers.

While he’s not involved, Hetrick is still a football fan.  He watches, and like most, he’s aware of the cultural pressures being brought to bear on the sport that has been his life.  Like others, he’s concerned for its future!

“All you read about now is stuff about head trauma, and someone that died at age 50, and possibly because he played football,” says Hetrick.  “There’s so much emphasis now on coaches to teach the proper techniques.  And I say if you want to make it safer take the face masks off the helmets.  You’d learn to tackle with your shoulder like we did when I played.  And once in a while you get a bloody nose or a busted lip, but that’s about it.

“But I’m concerned because I think this country was founded on the principles of football – hard work, teamwork, sacrifice, commitment – and you cannot play football without having those things.  I don’t think it’s something you want to lose.”

Without question, he’s the most influential man in the history of Versailles sports…and some make the case for the community itself.  Before he arrived the town was known for agriculture and eggs.  After he arrived it was known for winning;  and now, increasingly, for the influence he had on a new generation of coaches that played for him at Versailles.

But it’s not all football, as the examples of so many now exemplify.  Work, sacrifice, loyalty and commitment are the trademarks of Al Hetrick’s influence – what those whom he’s coached now proudly claim.

“To hear that is very humbling,”  he confesses. “We all look at our inner self and I know I have flaws that I wouldn’t want someone to copy.  It’s heart-warming to think about, and it brings tears to your eyes, knowing that your life was not a waste.  My whole life’s been football, and I let a lot of other things go by.  Football, football, and more football…but it wasn’t a bad life.

“I just thank God that it all worked out.”

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