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HOLLADAY — As the first high school football games kicked off last week, a lot of players and schools were playing for a lot of reasons.
Some wanted to prove they could get back to the lofty traditions of the past. Others are striving to maintain a run of recent success.
For Olympus High School, the 2016 season means more than just football. The players are dedicating the season to a fallen assistant coach, and they’ll continue the trend Friday when they travel to non-region rival Highland at 7 p.m. MT in a game streamed live on ksl.com.
The Titans lost Eric Gunderson this summer after the fourth-year assistant died of unknown causes in June. The players still feel the loss of the 49-year-old offensive line coach with a heavy heart.
“Losing coach Gunderson was rough,” said linebacker Ben Bywater, a BYU commit. “When we found out, it was rough on the whole team. He was such a fun coach to play for … definitely not something you want to experience.”
Bywater and the rest of the Titans have dedicated the season to Gunderson. Players will remember him before and after each game, and their helmets are adorned with a patch that reads “Gundo.”
The motivation is more than just an outward showing, though.
“Every time we step on the field, we have a sticker on our helmets and a motto to step it up,” linebacker Chase Thatcher said. “You’ve just got to step up for Gunderson. He was that guy who would always make you go 100 percent.”
Gunderson was a prep star at Brighton High School, where he won a state championship before going on to play at the University of Utah.
But he was best remembered as a coach, with stops at Cyprus, Copper Hills and Bingham. He came to Olympus four years ago, and made an immediate impact on the team — both as a coach and mentor to young men in his attitude toward others.
“He had a tremendous impact on our team,” Olympus coach Aaron Whitehead said. “Behind closed doors, Eric never once made a negative comment. He always turned it into a positive.”
With the dedication to the season, Olympus players have also planned two acts of service per month to honor the memory of Gunderson.
“Football is a great venue for teaching life lessons,” Whitehead said. “There is no other sport that does it like football. But it’s just a game, and it’s nothing more. When they can translate those lessons into more than winning a ballgame, it’s an excellent thing.”
The next game is important for Olympus, too. A non-region affair, defending Highland’s triple-option offense will determine a lot about the Titans’ season as they prepare for 4A Region 6 play.
“It’ll be great. I’m close with a lot of guys on that team, and they are all studs,” Bywater said. “It’s going to be a battle Friday. But I’m ready.”