SAN ANTONIO – Former Churchill football coach Jerry Comalander faced a dilemma last Sunday as he watched the Dallas Cowboys play the Green Bay Packers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs.
A longtime Cowboys fan, Comalander also had a rooting interest in the Packers.
Alex Van Pelt, who quarterbacked Comlander’s last Churchill team in 1987, has worked closely with Aaron Rodgers as the Packers’ quarterbacks coach the last three seasons.
Comalander was among the many people Van Pelt heard from after Green Bay’s thrilling 34-31 victory, which landed the Pack in the NFC Championship Game against the Falcons on Sunday. Comalander congratulated Van Pelt, who graduated from Churchill in 1988, via a text message.
“I told him I was not pulling for the Packers, but I was pulling for him,” Comalander said Saturday. “I wanted Rodgers to do good, but I didn’t want him to do that good. Gosh almighty, what a throw he made on that last play.”
Rodgers completed a 36-yard pass to tight end Jared Cook near the sideline on the play before Mason Crosby kicked a 51-yard field goal as time expired, sealing the victory for Green Bay.
TV cameras showed Rodgers and Van Pelt, 46, embracing near the Packers’ bench after the game.
“I just wanted him to know how much I appreciate him, and how much I enjoy coaching him,” Van Pelt said. “He’s a tremendous player for us, coaches and players. It gave me a chance to tell him how much respect I have for him as a leader, and how he’s been such an impressive leader for us this year.
“I’ve learned a lot from him, and I hope he’s learned some stuff from me as well. He’s a joy to coach. He enjoys to get coached. He’s not like he’s beyond coaching. On a scale of 1 to 10 physically, he’s around a 10, and on a scale of 1 to 10 mentally, he’s definitely a 10. You combine his skill set, his knowledge and his competitive fire, and you’ve got a pretty good athlete.”
Although it’s been nearly 30 years since his senior season at Churchill, Van Pelt has fond memories of playing for the Chargers. He moved to San Antonio from Grafton, W. Va., in January of his junior year, and alternated with Joe Ahmad at quarterback for the first four games of the 1987 season before winning the starting job. The Chargers went on to finish 10-3, losing in the third round of the playoffs.
Van Pelt spoke of Comalander with affection.
“He was an exceptional high school coach,” he said. “One thing about Coach Comalander, he was very consistent. That was the biggest thing. He was disciplined. The team was disciplined across the board. You knew you had to come to work every day.”
Comalander, who led Churchill to a state title in 1976, left coaching after the 1987 season and became athletic director of the North East ISD. Now 77, he retired in 2015.
“Alex was just a special young man,” Comalander said. “He fit in right off the bat. The kids really liked him and respected him, which is always important for a leader. I think they respected his work ethic and they respected his commitment to a new school and a new place. It was a big adjustment for him, but what a great attitude and work ethic he had.
“He had no preconceived notions that the job was his. He knew he was going to have to work for it. That’s what makes it special. Everything he got at Churchill High School, he earned. I can’t say enough good things about him.”
Van Pelt went on to a stellar career at the University of Pittsburgh, breaking several of Dan Marino’s passing records in four seasons.
Born in Pittsburgh, Van Pelt grew up a Steelers fan. He was selected by the Steelers in the eighth round of the 1993 draft, but was released during training camp. He had two different stints with the Kansas City Chiefs before he caught on with the Buffalo Bills. Van Pelt’s best season came in 2001, when he completed 178 of 307 passes for 2,056 yards and 12 touchdowns.
Van Pelt played nine seasons (1995-2003) with the Bills before retiring in 2004. He started his coaching career with the Frankfurt Galaxy of NFL Europe in 1995, and also coached with the Bills and Tampa Bay Buccaners before he joined Mike McCarthy’s staff in Green Bay as running backs coach in 2012.
McCarthy coached Van Pelt as a graduate assistant coach at Pittsburgh in 1990 and 1991.
Van Pelt, whose parents were divorced, moved to San Antonio to live with his mother. He considered making the move before his junior year, but he decided to stay in Grafton. Van Pelt made his only season with the Chargers a memorable one, passing for 1,888 yards and 12 TDs and rushing for 401 yards and two TDs.
Van Pelt was named San Antonio’s player of the year. He also played baseball for the Chargers as a junior and senior.
Van Pelt was inducted into Churchill’s Athletic Hall of Honor in 2015, but couldn’t attend the ceremony because he was busy with offseason workouts in Green Bay. Comalander stood in for Van Pelt at the induction ceremony.
“I still have friends from that (senior) class,” Van Pelt said.
Van Pelt will pace the sideline Sunday when the Packers, who have won eight consecutive games, play the Falcons in Atlanta for a berth in the Super Bowl.
So what’s it like to work closely every day with Rodgers, one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history.
“It’s awesome,” Rodgers said. “He is such a competitor. He has a desire to not only be the best, he wants to be one of the all-time best. He does not like to lose. You combine those two things with his skill set and his knowledge, and you’ve got a pretty good athlete.
“On a scale of 1 to 10 physically, he’s around a 10, and on a scale of 1-10 mentally, he’s definitely a 10. I’ve never had the opportunity work with somebody who had that kind of unbelievable skill set combined with the football knowledge. And then with the competitive fire that he has, it’s a great combination.”
Van Pelt talked about the mystique of the Packers, one of the storied franchises in American pro sports history.
“It’s a dream every day to get to work for this organization,” he said. “I’ve had a chance to be around other organizations. Hands down, this is a special, special place. I pinched myself about the first two years when I walked into Lambeau (Field) to go up to my office.
“You bring people in town for games and they’re just in awe. It’s a great game-day experience. It’s a great place to work. The fans here are phenomenal. Looking back a few years when we lost in Seattle in the NFC Championship, we get back at 3, 4 in the morning, and there had to be 300, 400 people at the airport with signs congratulating on us on our season. They love their Packers.”
And Comalander? He’ll be cheering for Green Bay on Sunday without having to worry about his allegiance to the other team on the field.
“There will be no question where my loyalties will be,” Comalander said.
(© 2017 KENS)