NEWARK -- To an outsider, there does not appear to be anything unusual about the Newark Memorial High football team's preseason practices. Players are drilling, coaches are teaching.
But there is something profoundly different about this August for the Cougars. For the first time in school history, Rich Swift is not guiding the varsity football team. Swift died Feb. 13, eight days after finding out he had an inoperable brain tumor.
"It feels like something's missing. It feels like a teammate is gone," senior wide receiver John Kapu said.
Swift started coaching at Newark High in 1978 and continued when the school merged with Memorial High in 1982. He was the longest-tenured high school football coach in the East Bay and the only head varsity football coach in Newark Memorial's history until Ralph Meredith was hired this spring.
"Before he went in the hospital, he asked me to take the team over. I told him I would take the team over until he was better," said Meredith, who was an assistant under Swift for seven seasons. "When he found out he had the tumor, he asked me to take the team over (again)."
Swift coached Meredith at Kennedy-Fremont in 1974 and 1975. When Meredith became Kennedy's defensive coordinator for the freshmen football team in 1977, Swift was a varsity assistant.
"I've been an assistant coach for 35 seasons, but I never wanted to be a head coach," Meredith said. "That's what his wishes were, so I honored them."
Newark Memorial dedicates a practice once a week to Swift, Meredith said. If the tempo at practice gets sluggish, the phrase, "Coach Swift is watching you guys, you need to pump it up," can be heard from Meredith.
"Next thing you know, the players and coaches respond," Meredith said. "He was probably the most motivating person. ... He believed in heart."
There are tangible reminders of Swift, such as his initials on the team's jerseys and a large photo of him in the team room. But it's the intangible things about Swift that live with the players and coaches.
"He just had a presence around him. He made you work harder," Kapu said.
"There are a lot of things he did behind the scenes that I didn't realize until he wasn't here. ... The setting-up of the fields, the refurbishing of the helmets," said assistant head coach Mathias Vavao, a 1992 Newark Memorial graduate who played for Swift and later was a nose guard on the practice squad for the Atlanta Falcons before a long Arena Football League career.
When asked what he learned from Swift, Vavao said, "Discipline. I carried that all through my football career and it helped me."
"What I learned about Coach Swift is that he didn't care about winning and losing and some people didn't like that about him. He cared about the kids becoming adult men and being responsible," Meredith said. "We are taking that attitude not just for varsity but at the freshman and J.V. levels. Our philosophy is take care of your home, take care of school, football will be fun."
Last season, the Cougars won their first outright Mission Valley Athletic League title since 1983, and many players are returning this season.
When asked what Swift would say about this year's team, senior running back/strong safety Marty Leggett had a succinct answer.
"We need to hustle," he said.
Look for our 2013 high school football preview in next Thursday's newspaper and online at www.contracostatimes.com/high-school-sports or www.insidebayarea.com/high-school-sports.
Fall schedules needed
Coaches and athletic directors of East Bay high schools are asked to submit fall schedules for their varsity teams to email@example.com.