John’s Journal: Playing For The Coach Who Can’t Be There
Nick Lanners Is The Heart Of Royalton Football Team
Posted: Tuesday, August 16, 2022 - 3:27 PM
ROYALTON -- This could be a big season for the Royalton High School football team. The Royals finished 8-2 last year and are led by 14 seniors. Before the opening practice on Monday, the team of 33 boys gathered in a chemistry classroom for a brief meeting led by head coach Jamie Morford.
The topics ranged from expectations to plans to team apparel to practice schedules. There were four freshmen in the room who received a round of applause as they signed “letters of intent” with the football program. Players were asked about their team goals and the replies included going to state and winning a Class 2A state championship. Rules for music played on the practice field were spelled out thusly: The boys can listen to any tunes they like as long as they include no vulgarities (actual or bleeped). If those standards are violated, they were told, “get ready to listen to Coach Morford’s 1980s country hits playlist.”
In the meeting and during the practice that followed, everything seemed perfectly normal: stretching, agility drills, conditioning, formations, water breaks … normal, normal, normal.
But this is no normal football season in Royalton, a town of 1,200 souls a short drive north of St. Cloud. Normalcy went out the window on the morning of July 13, when assistant coach and Royals alum Nick Lanners was critically injured when his vehicle was rear-ended at high speed at a stoplight. He suffered a spinal fracture and is facing a long road of recovery and rehabilitation.
That’s when folks sprung into action to support Nick, 35, his wife Heather and their two children. Enough casseroles to fill a refrigerator were brought to St. Cloud Hospital. A livestock auction donated proceeds to the Lanners family and a major benefit is planned for October. Morford received calls, texts and emails from coaches at other schools. Lights were turned on at high school football fields all over Minnesota in a show of support that was reminiscent of the “Be The Light” efforts during the pandemic in 2020 (click here for more: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P4sPcDxJZqk )
A GoFundMe site has blown through several goals. Morford and former head coach/current assistant Joel Swenson set up the site with an initial goal of raising $11,000 because Nick wore No. 11 during his playing days at Royalton. As donations poured in, the goal was raised to $22,000, then $33,000. As of this writing, nearly $60,000 has been donated (click here: https://tinyurl.com/2p84wsny ). A Caring Bridge site provides updates on Nick’s condition: https://www.caringbridge.org/visit/nicklanners/journal
“It's been truly amazing to see the outpouring of support for him,” Morford said. “As much as I know he hates it, he needs it.”
Nick is the first person to help others but everyone knew he wouldn’t want to be the focus of donations. Too bad, dude.
“At some point he’s going to yell at me because I did all this stuff,” Morford said. “Heather said, ‘He won’t like that.’ But they don’t need more casseroles. Insurance won’t cover all these expenses and this will help pay for lots of things.”
Yes, Monday seemed like a normal opening day of football. But it wasn’t.
“He's a big part of the team,” senior quarterback Drew Yourczek said of Lanners. “Everybody loves him. It's tough for the community and the whole team. We've been with him for all four years and it's tough having a guy like that go down.”
Nick has been part of the Royalton football team for about as long as anyone can remember. He was one of those little kids who watched the big kids and couldn’t wait for his turn. He was an eighth-grader when Morford joined the coaching staff as an assistant in 2001 (becoming head coach in 2011). The talented youngster was brought up to the varsity as an emergency backup quarterback that season, missed most of his freshman year with a broken hand, then was a three-year all-conference player at quarterback and tight end.
After graduation he studied to become a corrections officer, which became his career. But he stayed with the Royals football team, working as a volunteer coach. He became a paid staff member in 2011.
‘He’s definitely a players’ coach,” Morford said. “That’s why this has been difficult, the players always go to Nick. He can be fiery, he’s also a calming presence in our group.”
Nick seemingly did everything for the team. Before Monday’s meeting, Swenson said, “He did so much, we don’t even know what we don’t know. For example, we realized we didn’t have mouthguards.”
“You have players that come through your program and you have some that you're acquaintances with throughout your lifetime,” Swenson said. “Nick was one of those guys that worked his way not only into being an assistant coach but a friend to us. I know a little bit from being a head coach, Jamie's known a little bit as the head coach, and Nick knew every aspect of this program. He knew it as a player, he knew it as a coach, he knew it as a community member.
“It’s hard to replace what Nick brings to the program. One thing about Nick Lanners is he's a bullhead, he's determined and he's tough, and he will beat this and be back with us and we're looking forward to him being back in our program and working with kids and being a contributor to this.”
Sunday evening, Royalton coaches and players were invited to Osakis High School for a presentation by Hunter Pinke, a former University of North Dakota football captain who suffered a spinal injury similar to Nick's and uses a wheelchair (more on Hunter: https://www.hunterpinke.com )
During the evening, a message appeared on the phones of the Royalton players. It was from Nick Lanners and it said everything about him and the game and the team he loves …
Tomorrow you start another season. Long practices to prepare yourselves for the ultimate goal. For some of you it’s your last first practice, for some of you it’s learning from your senior leaders. Every day you put on your practice gear, it’s to prepare yourselves for when you put on those maroon and gold game jerseys, to play in front of your family and friends. I will not be there this year. I will be practicing every day myself, trying to learn how to use my hands, trying to learn how to use my arms and my legs. Know that every day I am fighting and I need you guys to be fighting for the ultimate goal that we’ve talked about. It will be a tough season with lots of ups and downs. Every week will be a test for the end goal. Know that I love every single one of you, I think of us as a family. I will be rooting for you guys from a distance, so please fight every day and don’t take this experience for granted. My fight will be long and painful, your fight needs to be fun and unforgettable. #goroyals #family #doyourjob
Have a great season, Royals. We’re all cheering for you.
--MSHSL media specialist John Millea has been the leading voice of Minnesota high school activities for decades. Follow him on Twitter @MSHSLjohn and listen to "Preps Today with John Millea” wherever you get podcasts. Contact John at firstname.lastname@example.org