- Associated Press - Tuesday, September 23, 2014

POWELL, Wyo. (AP) - Riley Stringer started Friday morning like every other morning since his father died. He lay in his bed, clutching one of his father’s favorite T-shirts, the one with the sleeves cut off, with brown stains and a hole in the right collar, the one he now sleeps with every night, debating whether to look at the photo on his dresser.

The photo is of a man, a son and a fish. Jim Stringer, beaming, cradling a very young Riley, holding the fish in front of his body, locking his son in like a fastened seat belt.

Of all the photos in his room, this is the one he loves the most.

But Riley hates fishing.

He would purposely tangle the lines, but he loved being with his father, seeing him happy, loved whenever he could pair together two of his father’s three F’s of life: family, football and fishing.

The picture only makes Riley miss him more. But it’s already on his mind, always on his mind, even when he sleeps. These past two months, he’s had the same, recurring dream, and in the dream, he already knows what happened in real life. But it doesn’t matter. It’s just Riley, his dad and a tangled fishing line.

So every morning, Riley looks. He goes to his dresser. Takes the picture. Holds it close.

Mornings are tough, especially this morning for the newly minted high school All-American football player. It’s homecoming for Powell High School, the first home game of the season, the first without Jim Stringer, the man who led the school to four state championships.

The 6-foot-2, 350-pound man with the foot-long goatee who shaved only at the end of football season. The man with the booming voice that traveled at its own frequency.

Evenings are also tough, when Riley closes the door to his room and sobs. So are random times during the day, when something as simple as a father and son roughhousing triggers a memory, or when he accidentally sneaks a glance at his father’s old classroom, the place where he spent much of his first three years of high school.

Friday nights are the only time during the week the 17-year-old senior doesn’t think about his father. For three hours, one game at a time, he distracts his mind, focusing on the thing he shared and loved the most with his dad.

Football.

A week after his father’s death, Riley received a letter.

He deserved this letter. Earned it. Bench-pressed 185 pounds 30 times, more than anyone else, for it. At 6:30 every morning for the past four years, Riley hit the weight room.

He was built like his father, a stout 6 foot 1, 255 pounds with a red, scruffy adolescent beard and a shock of dirty blond hair that sticks to his face when he sweats.

And like his father, he succeeded on the field. He was all-conference as a freshman and all-state as a sophomore and junior, was second-team Casper Star-Tribune Super 25 as a sophomore and first team as a junior.

The letter said Riley was going to Dallas on Dec. 14, that he was going to compete against other top high school talents in the country and play in a $1 billion NFL stadium. The star defensive and offensive lineman from a small town in Wyoming was going to the Blue-Grey All-American Bowl.

This was Riley’s dream.

But after five minutes, the emotions set in. His father was the one who picked up the weights and slid them onto the bench press bar, who spotted him during his 30-rep bench press in Arizona during the first round of tryouts, then drove him to the second round weeks later in California.

It’s the greatest achievement in Riley’s young football career.

“And I have to face it alone,” he said.

The news quickly spread, and Riley, unable to celebrate with the one person who mattered most, texted his close friends.

“I hurt for him because I knew that was something that they worked together for,” said special teams coach Waleryan Wisniewski, who everyone calls Coach Wiz. “(Jim) never pushed Riley to do anything. Riley just has that desire to be great at football. You’d consider him the best friend Riley needed at the time on the team to help him, and it was his dad.”

His dad, the local celebrity. Riley was lucky to spend 20 minutes alone with Jim when they went out to dinner. Everyone approached the table to say hello.

Jim Stringer played high school and college football himself. He was a backup guard for the University of Wyoming but had to stop after two years because of knee issues. He started his coaching career in Arizona, then did stints at Rocky Mountain and Burlington high schools before landing in Powell.

In 2003, his first season as the varsity coach, his team lost every game. Anonymous locals left threats on his windshield and letters in his mailbox demanding a new coach.

The next season, the Powell Panthers won two games. Then seven games in ‘05. The next year, Jim Stringer led Powell to a state championship, the first of his four rings with the school.

When he died of a heart attack on July 18, his Panthers were the defending three-time Class 3A state champions, all with Riley playing on both lines. The 44-year-old had recently been named coach of the year by the Wyoming Coaches Association.

Ever since he was 5, Riley wanted to be like his dad. He too wanted to win state championships. And he did. Now, with multiple colleges showing interest and an All-American credential added to his resume, he hopes to play college football, like his father, at the University of Wyoming.

Two and a half hours before game time, Riley arrived at the football field and stepped out of the truck, the only truck in Powell custom-painted with the school’s colors, a black pickup with an orange stripe down the middle of the tailgate, with two Powell Panthers logos on both sides, orange versions of the NFL’s Carolina Panthers logo. The truck that everyone knows is Riley’s, the truck that used to belong to Jim.

He shuts the door, holding his pregame Subway sandwich, and walks toward the field. His father campaigned for the field three years ago, equipped it with state-of-the-art AstroTurf. Only water on the field. No sunflower seeds. No spitting gum.

The field sits next to the high school on the north side of town. At 6,300 residents, Powell is small enough that more people walk in the homecoming parade than watch.

Riley walked with a slight limp toward the field. Three weeks ago, he had surgery on his ankle to repair torn ligaments.

The injury forced him to miss the first game of the season. At Miles City, Montana, Powell’s 27-game winning streak was snapped, and players cried on the sidelines and in between snaps, staring toward the sky, missing their head coach.

“It was just emotionally draining for everyone,” said coach Nevin Jacobs, who oversees the offensive and defensive lines and knew Jim for 15 years. “I can’t imagine being 16, 17, 18 years old, trying to deal with emotions. I deal with them poorly enough as is, and I’m 58.”

Riley returned the next week to play at Douglas, a bitter rival, despite being only 60 to 70 percent healthy. The Panthers squeezed out an 18-17 win. He was so focused during the game that at one point, as he was walking off the field, he searched the sidelines for a familiar face.

“Where’s my dad at?” he asked. “I can’t find him.”

A trainer looked at him, unsure how to respond. Normally, Jim would be there to cheer after a touchdown. He’d greet the players with high fives and slaps on the back, or chew them out when the opponent scored.

Riley weaved through teammates and coaches, scanning every face.

“And he wasn’t there,” Riley said.

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