Clad in his New England Patriots uniform at a Monday night football game in 2000, John Friesz's thoughts traveled back home to Coeur d'Alene.
"When I was at the end of my professional career, that's all I could think about was comin' back here to elk hunt in October or deer hunt in November. And here I was playin' football. I'll never forget, it was a Monday night game at the New York Jets. Tom Brady was the fourth-string quarterback and I was the back-up quarterback... It's incredible, the atmosphere. John Madden is there. It's just a huge game... The stadium, literally, you could feel it shaking. And I said to Brady, 'I don't even want to be here. The deer are runnin' back there. They're chasin' the does and that's where I wanna be.' I always knew I was comin' back (to Coeur d'Alene) for sure. And I couldn't wait to do that."
Friesz began his 11-year professional quarterback career with four teams when The San Diego Chargers chose him in the sixth round of the 1990 NFL Draft. Prior to the pros, Friesz gained national recognition for his quarterbacking excellence at the University of Idaho. Amongst many accomplishments as a Vandal, Friesz is the university's first inductee into the College Football Hall of Fame.
But before the spotlight shone on Friesz as a football star, he was an easy-going North Idaho kid who loved our outdoor paradise and playing sports. Baseball was his first and favorite one.
Starting about age 8, Friesz enjoyed a ton of baseball playing for both Hayden Little League at a field on Honeysuckle, and Coeur d'Alene Park and Recreation at McEuen Field. Friesz was tall and lacked running speed. So first-base and pitcher positions suited him well, especially pitching. Throwing came naturally to him.
Friesz, at age 12, pitched for the 1979 East Kootenai All-Star baseball team. That year they won the state championships and traveled to San Bernardino, Calif., with hopes of earning a spot in The Little League World Series. They lost. But Friesz recalls they were the first team from Idaho to win a game down there.
By this time, Friesz had added basketball and football to his athletic repertoire. He eventually lettered in all three sports as a 1985 Coeur d'Alene High School graduate.
"Those were the three sports that all of us just kinda kept bouncin' around to. The same team it seemed like. Same kids. I always had athletic abilities with my eyes and hands, just not my feet. I threw a couple of no-hitters when I was real young. Just a lot more success at that sport (baseball) compared to the other two. But overall athletic ability, I was real average. We didn't even start flag football until fifth grade, and we didn't start tackle until seventh grade. I always had to sorta be pushed to the football part of it. I had a lot of reservation once I left ninth grade - which was at Canfield - going to the high school. I wasn't going to play football. It was more than not enjoying it. I had tremendous doubt in my ability. (My dad) encouraged me, 'Just go try it. You're gonna regret it if you don't.'
"A lot of people think that I won the state championship (in 1985) because I graduated in '85. But graduation happens in June, and that fall of '85 is the team that won state. So I was already at college. We did win state my sophomore year. I was actually on JVs. Then any of the JV starters that wanted to come up to the varsity could do that after our season ended. There was probably like a dozen or so that did it. I was just one following along and getting' to ride the bus basically. But we won state. We beat Highland - a Pocatello team - horribly, so they got all of us in the game a little bit. I got to throw one pass.
"Now my senior year truly was the best of any of those teams. We were ranked 19th in the country. We were undefeated. It was a great team and we ended up losing. (We played against) Capital High School (from Boise) down in Moscow in the Kibbie Dome. But it wasn't the state championship. I think it was like the first or second round of the playoffs. And so we lost. I think that team went on to win, but we should've won the game. I mean, everybody knew we were gonna win. We didn't go into it cocky. We just didn't win. And then we had such high expectations of being another team that was gonna win state. That might have been my most memorable game because it was such a heartbreak. I was just one of the guys, but there were a ton of good guys (who) got full-ride scholarships to universities."
Dennis Erickson, The University of Idaho's then head football coach, had eyed Friesz's potential just months prior.
"It all started (when) I went to a football camp at the University of Idaho before my senior year. At that time, it was completely the university finding you. Like now, a lot of times, kids will get DVDs made of their highlight career and they'll send it out to universities and sorta sell themselves. Many years ago, nobody left Coeur d'Alene. It was just a small town. Even if you were good, the colleges thought, 'Well, you're playin' Silver Valley or little Post Falls, so we don't really know how good you are.' That's not the case anymore with these travel teams.
"So, I went to this camp and I was there for a week and the coaches were just around me and liked what they saw. Maybe even more (than) the physical, maybe the even-keel and just the mentality of things and they saw potential. So, I was offered a full-ride scholarship. I was thankful for that. Appreciative and almost overwhelmed that was actually happening. Because just a couple years before that, I was barely a starter. I wanted to hold out for baseball. But we didn't have tons of money. I needed to take what I had. And I remember my mom talkin' about that. Like, you don't know about the future and she was right. Not only because of how far it went, but I didn't have a great senior year in baseball. I know I couldn't have gone to the bigs in baseball for sure. So the football scholarship would've gone to somebody else. The basketball was just goofin' around, playin'. So I took the first thing that was there. I'm thankful for all the coaches (I had) 'cause I took something from all of them. If they coached me, they should take some credit in the successes that I had. They all taught me how to handle adversity and to respect not only the sport, but how you play it..."
Katie Vaughan is a personal historian and owner of Sojourn Lifewriting in Post Falls. If you have a personal story to share which also illuminates our local history, please call (208) 660-8767.
Chosen as a quarterback for the District I All-Star football squad, this photo of John Friesz was in the Coeur d'Alene Press June 1985.