Rich Van Volkinburg played football with such intensity and ferocity that he was dubbed “The Animal.”
Away from the gridiron, however, Van Volkinburg speaks with the soft, soothing tones of a Sunday School teacher and includes art and gardening among his hobbies.
Aberdeen residents have seen both sides of Van Volkinburg, on the football field and in the classroom, since the late 1960s.
The Cosmopolis native, who celebrated his 61st birthday last week, perpetuated a six-decade association with Aberdeen High School football when he came out of a brief retirement to serve as an unpaid Bobcat volunteer assistant coach this fall.
“I wanted to do it one more time,” he said.
An all-state lineman in high school prior to his 1970 AHS graduation and a two-time Little All-American at the University of Puget Sound, Van Volkinburg both played and coached under the legendary Al Eklund at Aberdeen. As a line coach, he also served on the staffs of all five of Eklund’s successors.
“I do what I can do and what they want me to do and I enjoy doing it,” Van Volkinburg related in typically self-effacing fashion.
He brought a similar passion to the classroom during a 35-year career as an elementary school teacher before health considerations forced his retirement three years ago.
“He was one of the best teachers I’ve ever seen,” said Kelly Stewart, Van Volkinburg’s faculty colleague at A.J. West Elementary in Aberdeen. “He was quiet and reserved, but had a quietly commanding presence. To see him in the classroom and see him coaching was so dramatically different. I always considered it an honor to teach with him.”
Had it not been for his own persistence and a college test, Van Volkinburg might not have been able to fulfill either his athletic or educational ambitions.
He attended Puget Sound with the intention of becoming an attorney. A freshman test designed to determine an ideal occupation changed those plans.
“I scored high on elementary school and PE teaching and as a youth pastor,” Van Volkinburg recounted. “The lowest (score) was as a lawyer. The writing was on the wall.”
His football career, meanwhile, almost didn’t get off the ground, thanks to a childhood bout with rheumatic fever.
“The doctor told me I’d never play sports and I cried and said I would because I really enjoyed sports,” he said.
He wasn’t permitted to turn out for football until his sophomore year in high school, however. With some 115 players on the Aberdeen roster at the time, he was relegated to the junior varsity during his first season. While that squad went unbeaten, he remembers some trying moments.
After the Bobcats struggled in the first half in a victory over Centralia, the JV players were subjected to what Van Volkinburg describes as “The Bataan Death March,” which involved spending an entire practice running from one corner of the end zone to the other on both sides of the AHS practice field.
“No water, in full gear. That was the practice,” he said. “If we did that now, we’d have lawsuits all over the place.”
Even so, Van Volkinburg calls the Bobcat coaching staff at the time, composed of Eklund and assistants Dewey Van Dinter, Stew White, Ron Langhans and Dick Dixon, “as the best I’ve ever been associated with.”
Once he was promoted to the Bobcat varsity as a junior, Van Volkinburg made an immediate impact as an offensive tackle and defensive end.
So immediate, in fact, that his name was featured in a banner headline in TheDaily World — “Van Volkinburg saves Cats” — after only his second varsity game.
The Bobcats led a talented Mount Tahoma team, 18-13, in the closing moments of a September contest at Stewart Field.
Mount Tahoma’s Terry Warren, who was clocked in 9.9 for the 100-yard dash, broke loose on a long punt return that seemed destined to produce the winning touchdown. Van Volkinburg, aided by a slight angle, raced over to trip up Warren on Aberdeen’s 30-yard line and preserve the victory.
As it developed, it also preserved an unbeaten Bobcat season.
“I never thought that guy could catch him,” legendary Mount Tahoma coach Joe Stortini told Ray Ryan, who covered the game for The Daily World.
The play typified the hustle and desire that characterized Van Volkinburg’s high school career. He earned all-league honors twice and all-state recognition as a senior despite never weighing more than 175 pounds.
“Rich was a player with a high motor,” Langhans recalled. “He was just a player who never made a mistake, always a team player.”
Heavier than in his playing days and with a gentle countenance that suggests Santa Claus without a full beard, Van Volkinburg is scarcely recognizable as a player once nicknamed “The Animal.” He admits, however, that the designation wasn’t far off-base.
“That’s what people called me and it stuck,” he reflected. “You’ve got to watch out for the quiet guys.”
He was also a wrestling standout at Aberdeen, although his lone state appearance ended in disappointment. Leading 11-2 in an early round at state, he was caught and pinned.
“I’ve kicked myself on that ever since,” he said.
On to UPS
At Puget Sound, he was twice named to the Little All-American football team as a nose guard, despite an illness that caused him to lose 20 pounds prior to his senior season. Deeply religious, he credits his faith and support from his teammates and family for getting him through that ordeal.
Van Volkinburg doesn’t remember much about his college career and was not directly involved in his most colorful story from that era.
Willamette scored with about 1:30 remaining to take a two-point lead over UPS. In an incredible display of confidence or chutzpah, the Willamette coach then sent his offensive starters to the showers.
But Puget Sound quarterback Bob Fisher — like Van Volkinburg, a member of the Aberdeen High Hall of Fame — engineered a drive that produced a go-ahead field goal with 35 seconds remaining. With their offensive regulars lathering up in the locker room, the Willamette coaches were forced to form an offensive unit out of their defensive starters, with predictably unsuccessful results.
The field to the classroom
Van Volkinburg began his teaching career as a long-term substitute in the Tacoma area. He returned to Grays Harbor as a fourth-grade teacher and coach at Wishkah Valley School and later had stints at Robert Gray Elementary and the Rhema Christian Fellowship School in Hoquiam before settling at A.J. West, where he spent his last 24 years in the classroom.
He joined the Aberdeen coaching staff in 1976, assisting Eklund with the famous “8 and 1 and all done” team that failed to gain a state playoff berth despite only a single loss.
Following Eklund’s death, Van Volkinburg also assisted with teams coached by Langhans, Rob Lonborg, Rick Moore, Ron Clark and Terry Dion. Although the members of that group had drastically different coaching styles, Van Volkinburg offered positive comments about all of them. Current head coach Dion, in Van Volkinburg’s view, “has the quickest football mind I’ve ever seen.”
Future University of Washington and NFL tight end Mark Bruener tops the list of memorable players Van Volkinburg has coached.
“I didn’t realize how good Mark was until the state high school all-star game,” Van Volkinburg remembered. “He was like a man playing with boys. It was the most dominating performance I’ve ever seen.”
He said he first became aware of offensive lineman Jason McEndoo’s potential when the future Washington State University standout battled the more experienced Bruener to a standoff in a preseason “pit drill.”
In addition to football, Van Volkinburg was an Aberdeen boys basketball assistant coach for several years.
Fun vs. headaches
Van Volkinburg has never held a head-coaching position at the varsity level. He said he once applied for one of the Bobcat football openings, but withdrew due to personal reasons.
“Assistant coaches have a lot of fun,” he noted. “Head coaches have a lot of headaches.”
He has also popped up in some unexpected roles.
“I saw Coach V at the Home Depot one weekend and we started talking about how I got hired to coach basketball out in Wishkah,” recalled Aberdeen alum and current Bobcat football assistant Joe Fagerstedt. “Out of the blue, he said he would be interested in helping me. I was in shock. A coach of that caliber helping a young coach out? I couldn’t have asked for a better situation.”
While Aberdeen’s head track coach, Stewart recruited Van Volkinburg to help the javelin throwers. Though, by his own admission, he knew very little about javelin technique, Van Volkinburg guided a pair of first-year throwers to district berths.
“He knew nothing about it, but he put in a lot of time and a lot of effort and he coached some kids who did very, very well,” Stewart said.
Without a full-fledged art teacher one year, A.J. West Principal Sue Torrens asked Van Volkinburg to take on that assignment. He agreed and continues to dabble in painting— from acrylics to watercolors — and pottery as a hobby.
“It’s not good,” he insists. “It’s just something I enjoy.”
Intentionally or not, Van Volkinburg may have borrowed some of his teaching and coaching principles from his high school mentors.
He admired Eklund’s ability, for example, to blend civility with competitiveness.
“He was extremely intelligent and a good motivator, not over-the-top,” Van Volkinburg said. “He was a good strategist. He had a calm sense about him, but if he got your attention, he got your attention.”
His role model, however, was the equally revered Dixon, his junior varsity football coach who earned his greatest renown as Aberdeen’s Hall of Fame head basketball coach. Although Van Volkinburg never played basketball at AHS, he observed Dixon’s technique “through the curtains” at Sam Benn Gym when the basketball and wrestling teams were conducting simultaneous practices.
“He was so intense and just quietly powerful,” Van Volkinburg recalled. “I can never remember him raising his voice. If I could be that way, I would. I would never compare myself to him.”
According to some, however, Van Volkinburg’s own style doesn’t differ greatly from Dixon’s.
“When I had Coach V as a player, he was intense,” said Fagerstedt. “He wasn’t the coach who yelled, but the looks he would give over his glasses was enough to scare you straight. He knows football and it doesn’t matter if it was the 1970s or this season, the kids respect him.”
“It was so unusual for him to raise his voice (in the classroom) in any way,” Stewart agreed. “When something (developed) that was serious, even class members would say, ‘OK, we’ll behave.’ “
Van Volkinburg was diagnosed with prostate cancer four years ago and complications from the disease eventually forced his retirement from teaching.
He survived that illness — and offers profuse thanks to the doctor (Mel Strange) who made the original diagnosis and the staff at Radiant Care of Grays Harbor and Virginia Mason Hospital in Seattle for their kindness during the recovery period. Like many afflicted with the disease, he advises all men over 45 to receive yearly prostate examinations.
More recently, however, Van Volkinburg was diagnosed with chronic lymphocytic leukemia — a blood and bone marrow disease that usually progresses slowly.
While emphasizing that his condition is “stable,” Van Volkinburg is uncertain whether he’ll return to coaching next fall.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “Most of the time, I feel fine. There are days when I get really tired.”
His love of coaching remains strong.
“I like the association with the kids,” he said. “Hopefully, see them develop and grow as people and athletes and become good people. And I enjoy winning, but that’s not the most important part of it.”
Van Volkinburg makes his own contributions to the maturation progress of his athletes.
“He respects everybody,” Langhans said, “and everybody respects him.”
Rick Anderson, The Daily World’s sports editor, can be reached at 537-3924, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org