John O’Rourke Field dedicated at Columbia River High School

This year’s Columbia River football team ran through a “tunnel” of former players and coaches prior to Friday’s game against Mark Morris. The past paid tribute to their former coach as Vancouver Public Schools officially named the athletic field at Columbia River as John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz
This year’s Columbia River football team ran through a “tunnel” of former players and coaches prior to Friday’s game against Mark Morris. The past paid tribute to their former coach as Vancouver Public Schools officially named the athletic field at Columbia River as John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz

A tribute to a teacher, mentor, friend, and football coach

The former players showed up to pay their respects, to the man who led them on and off the football field, to the football program that has meant the world to them.

Then they lined up in “tunnel formation” to give today’s players a salute as the 2022 team ran from the locker room to the football field with the new name.

It is now called John O’Rourke Field at Columbia River High School.

River remembers.

The plaque that explains just a bit of John O’Rourke’s legacy at Columbia River High School. Photo by Mike Schultz
The plaque that explains just a bit of John O’Rourke’s legacy at Columbia River High School. Photo by Mike Schultz

O’Rourke was the head coach for 22 football seasons at Columbia River and an assistant coach for many years before then, a coaching career that spanned parts of five decades, from the 1970s through the 2010s. He taught in Vancouver Public Schools for more than 40 years.

O’Rourke died at the age of 76 last November.

His name will carry on at Columbia River. 

The new signage was revealed just hours before Columbia River’s football game on Friday night at the new John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz
The new signage was revealed just hours before Columbia River’s football game on Friday night at the new John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz

On Friday night before Columbia River took on Mark Morris in a Class 2A Greater St. Helens League game, former players, assistant coaches, and fans from yesteryear to today paid tribute in a ceremony to dedicate the field’s new name.

Before the ceremony, family and friends gathered in a room on campus, near the football stadium.

“I’m a huge supporter of all things John O’Rourke,” said Brett Pierce, a 1999 graduate who went on to Stanford and played professional football for five years. “It’s really special to see all this. You think about the foundation of my entire life … it started here. I was at Stanford. I was a pro. But it all started here at Columbia River.”

Columbia River football played its first true home game, on campus, Friday night for the first time since 2019. Photo by Mike Schultz
Columbia River football played its first true home game, on campus, Friday night for the first time since 2019. Photo by Mike Schultz

Pierce was one of five guest speakers during the pre-game ceremony. He told stories of lessons learned from O’Rourke, about playing the game the right way, about living life the right way.

He noted that if he could play one more football game in his life, it would be right there at Columbia River, with John O’Rourke as his coach. 

Pierce also thrilled the crowd when he ended his speech saying he would always be a Chieftain and O’Rourke would always be his coach.

Brett Pierce can still fit into his letterman’s jacket from the Class of 1999 at Columbia River. Pierce flew in from Texas to pay tribute to his former coach. The new athletic field at Columbia River High School is now called John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz
Brett Pierce can still fit into his letterman’s jacket from the Class of 1999 at Columbia River. Pierce flew in from Texas to pay tribute to his former coach. The new athletic field at Columbia River High School is now called John O’Rourke Field. Photo by Mike Schultz

Officially, Columbia River is the Rapids now, but to the old-school players, well, they prefer the previous name.

Garrett McKee, a 2016 graduate, played on O’Rourke’s final team at Columbia River. Living in Portland, the Washington State University graduate said there was no way he was going to miss this night.

“He impacted so many people’s lives. It’s really cool they are honoring him in this way. He was a great man,” McKee said. “He was a football coach, a mentor, a leader of so many people.”

“Legacy,” said Michelle Buss, a teacher and coach at Columbia River as well as a committee member for the Columbia River Athletics Hall of Fame. Buss helped organize Friday’s event. 

“He was such a humble and kind man,” Buss said. “He expected so much out of his players, his students. He basically was the example of Columbia River’s tradition of excellence. He is so deserving of this.”

This was River’s first true home football game, on campus, since the 2019 season. Renovations to the stadium and the field were deemed ready for a crowd.

The school officially requested that Vancouver Public Schools honor O’Rourke back in March when Alex Otoupal, Columbia River’s principal, wrote a letter to the district superintendent.

“John O’Rourke’s legacy as an educator and mentor is unmatched and is uniquely tied to generations of students and families at Columbia River High School,” Otoupal wrote.

He also added comments from former players, students, and co-workers.

“Mr. O’Rourke was the epitome of what it meant to be a vibrant member of the local and school community,” wrote Mindy Williams-Cleeland, a former standout athlete at River and now a teacher. “As a coach, Mr. O’Rourke was well known by all of the Columbia River athletes because of his dedication to our school and the success of our teams.”

Family, friends, former players, and Columbia River community members gathered to share stories of former coach John O’Rourke, who died last year. O’Rourke taught and coached at River for decades. Photo by Mike Schultz
Family, friends, former players, and Columbia River community members gathered to share stories of former coach John O’Rourke, who died last year. O’Rourke taught and coached at River for decades. Photo by Mike Schultz

Williams-Cleeland noted that O’Rourke attended games for all sports, boys and girls teams, and always had an encouraging word. 

“While my experiences with Coach O centered around football, what I learned was really about something else,” said Darby Meade, now the principal of iTech Preparatory. “He taught me that people mattered and the job of a leader is to serve those around them.”

Former player Tyler Stanley has been a teacher and coach in the district for the past 10 years. 

“Coach O’Rourke’s impact at CR is more than a football coach,” Stanley said. “He enlightened students and athletes to think critically and work together, demonstrated that kindness and patience are just as important on the field as they are in the building, and (he) taught us all how to handle success with humility and failure with dignity.”

Brett Smedley, the current head coach at Columbia River, also played for O’Rourke. 

“Coach O’Rourke had a huge impact on me,” Smedley said. “It’s one of the reasons I wanted to come back here, the influence he had on me. I take a lot of pride in trying to carry on that legacy that he set for me and the other guys.”

O’Rourke surely would have been pleased with the football team’s effort on Friday night.

No, the Rapids did not win. This was not a storybook ending, with a dramatic comeback victory to cap the special night.

Thomas Blau caught the first touchdown on the new John O’Rourke Field for the Columbia River Rapids. Photo by Mike Schultz
Thomas Blau caught the first touchdown on the new John O’Rourke Field for the Columbia River Rapids. Photo by Mike Schultz

Instead, the River football team just kept fighting. Down by eight, the Rapids cut it to two. Down by 14, the Rapids cut it to two. Down by eight again, the Rapids responded, getting it back to two points. Mark Morris would hold off River for a 33-31 victory.

The score of a football game never tells the whole story, O’Rourke taught his players.

No one associated with Columbia River football lost Friday night. 

They shared another win, joining together to pay tribute to Coach O.


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