Bigfork football coach decides it’s time to step away

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Todd Emslie on the football field at Bigfork High School on Thursday, Jan. 10. (Casey Kreider/Daily Inter Lake)

A freak, and horrific road accident one summer destroyed Todd Emslie’s dreams of a star-studded football career at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point.

Years later, another medical issue has altered his outlook on life, and perhaps played an indirect role in his football career once again, this time as a coach.

Emslie, on Dec. 2, at the age of 54, suffered a heart attack.

Weeks later, during the Christmas break, he turned in his letter of resignation as the head football coach at Bigfork High to Matt Porrovecchio, the school’s activities director.

“My wife (Shelley) said ‘that’s it,’” Emslie said.

“She reinforced the whole thing (regarding my health).”

The heart attack happened around 7 p.m. on a Sunday.

“I was feeling lousy after dinner,” Emslie said.

“Chest pains, didn’t want to believe it was a heart attack.”

Shelley called 911 and the Bigfork ambulance arrived minutes later.

“They hooked me up to an EKG machine,” Emslie said.

“The whole time they were hooking me up, I told them it was heart burn, maybe a gallbladder attack. They said: ‘No. You are having a heart attack.’”

Emslie spent three days in the hospital and missed a week of school.

“She’s always been there, so supportive,” he said of his wife.

“Coaching takes an incredible commitment from the spouses. My wife has been wonderful.”

Emslie leaves behind a brilliant coaching career that covered 16 seasons, a record of 102 wins, 48 losses — and included a state championship in 2010.

Bigfork, which competed in Class A for six of those years, advanced to the Montana High School Association playoffs 13 seasons under his guidance. The Vikings were semifinalists four times.

He has built the program into a Class B power.

The year before he took over as head coach in 1998, Bigfork had 14 players on the roster. This year it had close to 50.

Emslie will continue to teach middle school science and history (grades 6-8) at Swan River. This is his 28th year at the school.

“He (Porrovecchio) knew (his resignation) was coming,” Emslie said.

“There were things we had talked about.”

“That’s something that happened to me,” he said of the heart attack, “but not a reason I am getting out. I just have other things I want to do. I love football. It’s been my life. I will continue to follow it, be around it, help when I can.”

Emslie continued this season for a couple reasons. His daughter Hattie, a junior, has been the team manager the last three years.

Prior to that, his son Augie was the Vikings starting quarterback for two seasons, from 2016-18.

“The things I so enjoyed in coaching, just being with my kids,” he said.

“In coaching you spend a lot of time, it’s a job, so to be with your kids makes it all the more special.”

Emslie also felt a deep connection with his current group of players, which kept him on the sidelines for a couple more seasons.

“I promised these senior boys I would be there for them,” he said.

“They are special.

“There is never a good time to retire when thinking about kids,” he continued.

“All those memories, I will think of those things. That’s pretty special for anyone who puts their heart and soul into it. I will remember that. I will remember those kids.”

Emslie was an all-state high school quarterback his senior season in Waukesha, Wisconsin.

“Not a fast quarterback, but I could throw it,” he said.

Emslie decided to continue his career on the collegiate level at UW — Stevens Point.

“I was a backup, but when it was my time to shine, I got in a terrible accident,” he said.

It happened after his sophomore year. Emslie landed a summer job, with help from his college coach, working with the Wisconsin Highway Department.

“I was on the back of a truck, we painted the center lines,” he said.

“My job was to carry the 55 gallon paint barrels, pour in the paint. There was a yellow light flashing, it was 9 a.m. and I was changing the lid on top of the barrel.”

A dump truck loaded with gravel, which seemed to come from nowhere, plowed into the truck Emslie was on.

The driver of the truck had fallen asleep at the wheel.

“At the last second I looked up,” Emslie said.

“I had no place to go. I held on to the side of the truck.

“The next thing … I wake up in the middle of the road, paint every where. My foot was shattered, knee shattered and my jaw was broken.”

So where his gridiron dreams. Gone in a flash.

Emslie was expected to be the starting quarterback that fall.

To stay involved with the program, he became the Pointers quarterback coach.

“I worked with a kid who took over for me,” he said.

“Coached there for three years. I was on the staff that won a NAIA title in 1987. We beat Pacific Lutheran University.”

Emslie was drawn to Montana after taking several trips here to visit his sister.

“I realized this is the place I wanted to be, a place I where I would retire,” he said.

So Emslie moved to Montana in 1989 and found work as a substitute teacher in the Flathead Valley for a year.

“I went to the head coach at the high school,” Emslie said.

“After watching some of the practices, I said I think I could help you.”

The head coach took Emslie up on the offer and he joined the Bigfork staff in 1991. He ran the offense for five years.

Emslie left in 1996 when Bigfork head coach Don Farris moved on.

Emslie returned as the Vikings head coach in 1998 and coached until 2004.

“My wife had health issues, we had young kids and I was in a master’s degree program in administration,” Emslie said.

“I needed to stop something; be home with the family. I love to coach, but I felt like my calling to middle school teaching was where I needed to be at, and I am at it today.”

Thus, he picked teaching over coaching.

When the time was right, Emslie returned as Bigfork’s head coach in 2009.

“Football has been everything for me,” he said.

“It kind of shaped my life. I have great experiences. I wouldn’t do anything differently.

“I hope I will be remembered more than just a coach with wins or losses. With the kids I was around, I wanted to be a part of their lives.

“I was probably tougher when I was younger, a lot of tough love,” he continued.

“Coaches change and I really do think they get better with time. Our coaching staff is a bunch of old guys with the exception of a few younger guys.”

What does Emslie treasure the most?

“Being able to work and coach with my dearest friends, talk about memories,” he said.

“And going forward with these friendships. They are great men.

“I’ve coached with a lot of guys over the years, but four who have been there along time are John Little, Saia Misa, Ed Buttrey and Jim Epperly.

“Millions of memories I have, will always have,” he added.

“Lots of special times. I’m a rich guy in memories.”

So what lies ahead for Bigfork?

“I have some young guys there now who will stay and work with the new guy (coach),” Emslie said.

“I know I will (help) if called upon, just not as a head coach.

“There are some good kids coming up,” he continued.

“Coaching today is more about the kids. They are different (from when I played). One thing that hasn’t changed is the game and what it takes … the commitment, the preparation, the sense of urgency when you get into it. Your competitiveness doesn’t change. You gotta make it fun. That’s the secret.”

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