It’s hard to believe, listening to Rory Rosenbach speak on what he believes builds successful high school athletic programs or how to foster relationships with student-athletes, that he never intended to be a coach.
The same man, flanked inside his Union High School office by footballs from three high school state championship teams he has coached, is an ex-businessman who once had sights on medical school.
Not this coaching stuff.
Not impacting lives through sports.
Not inspiring, motivating, directing young athletes to reach their potential.
Yet he does every day.
Union’s players have felt Rosenbach’s power to inspire through the biggest victories and toughest losses. Last season, he guided the Titans to a 14-0 record and the Class 4A state championship.
“He’s so passionate about what he does,” starting center Jack Grimsted said of his head coach, “you want to be around him. He makes you a better player and a man.”
But if the past 10 months of triumph and tragedy have shown him anything, it’s that Rosenbach and his team need each other.
The family-first focus he’s created in a championship program continues to help Rosenbach through the kind of pain no football victory could ever offset: losing a child. In March, his daughter Gabby, a high school senior, died in a car accident.
It’s the kind of tragedy that turns lives upside down. But here Rosenbach and the Titans are, opening their season tonight against Mountain View.
- Rosenbach, 43, is in his fourth year as head football coach and athletic director at Union. Sitting down recently in his office, he talked about his career and family with confidence and affection.
- This high school career might not have happened if Luke Butkus, the nephew of former NFL star Dick Butkus, didn’t beat out Rosenbach for a graduate assistant job with the University of Oregon football team. Luke Butkus is now the offensive line coach for the Green Bay Packers.
Then again, even that might not have happened if Rosenbach had stuck with the original plan of a career in medicine.
Long before winning 121 games in 14 seasons as a head coach and long before moving to Vancouver, Rosenbach helped dental practices grow through products he sold as a sales representative.
His football playing career was done by 1998. An all-state player at Snohomish High School, Rosenbach started for two years at tight end for the Air Force Academy. When he transferred to Oregon — where he met his first wife, Amanda — injuries prematurely ended his career before he had a chance to play for the Ducks.
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By then, the idea of a sports medicine career was in the rearview mirror. Some ex-athletes make a natural transition into coaching, but Rosenbach didn’t.
Not at first.
“I never thought for one second about being a coach,” he said. “I wish I did.”
A number of Rosenbach’s accounts and clients at Patterson Dental came from parents of students at Marist, Eugene’s only private high school. It’s the same school that gave him a start in high school coaching in 2000, and the same place he made a career change five years later at 29.
In 2005 — the same year Rosenbach led Marist to the Oregon 3A title as its first-year head coach — he took night graduate courses to earn his master’s degree in education. He taught physical education and coached at Marist during the day. He showered daily inside the on-campus dorm because that’s where he lived rent-free.
It’s never too late for a career change. Rosenbach found where he’s needed: in education.
“You have to know when to turn left or turn right,” he said, “and find a new path.”
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- Rosenbach is a husband, educator, and coach. But since Feb. 7, 2001, father is the title he’s most proud of.
- Gabriele Mabel Rosenbach was Rory’s only child from his marriage to Amanda. The couple divorced when their daughter was 3.
Gabby blossomed into a 6-foot-2 all-league volleyball standout who had an eye for fashion. She could easily speak in front of the congregation at church and sing for a crowd at concerts.
“She wasn’t afraid to try anything,” Rosenbach said.
Being closer to Gabby in Portland was one of the reasons why, in 2016, Rosenbach left Glacier Peak High School in Snohomish after eight seasons as head coach.
Gabby grew to know a number of Union football players while attending practices and games. During those times, players saw another side of their coach.
One of the photos Rosenbach displays in his office is from Marist’s 2007 title-game victory at Oregon’s Autzen Stadium. A young Gabby is on Papa’s shoulders with the first-place trophy in full view.
In December, the two re-enacted that memory on the Tacoma Dome turf after Union won the Washington 4A state championship game over Lake Stevens, 52-20. It’s one of their final photos together.
- Brian Grimsted spent the first 12 years of Union’s existence as the school’s principal. He’s now the executive director of school services at Evergreen Public Schools.
- Grimsted didn’t know Rosenbach before Union’s search for a new head football coach in January 2016.
Character is what stands out about Rosenbach, Grimsted said. He’s now good family friends with the Rosenbachs, who include Rory’s current wife, Kelli Ann, and Rory’s stepsons, Jake and Joel.
As a school principal, Grimsted learned to handle difficult situations. So when law enforcement needed to notify Rosenbach about Gabby’s death, Grimsted is glad Rosenbach learned it from a familiar face, surrounded by other school and district personnel.
“I’m glad looking back,” Grimsted said, “I was able to tell him.”
Hours earlier, Gabby was killed instantly in a single-car accident at a northbound Interstate 205 onramp in Oregon City, Ore., while driving home from a friend’s house.
Gabby, 18, was three months away from graduation at Grant High School in Portland.
- Over the past 10 months, Union’s football program endured the biggest victories and toughest losses.
- On Aug. 21, the opening day of practice, the Titans learned that incoming freshman football player Anthony Huyhn drowned at Lacamas Lake.
Then there’s #RegoStrong. In October, Mark Rego, the program’s longtime offensive line coach, died of complications from a return of tongue cancer that spread to his lungs. A scholarship now is named in Rego’s honor.
Teamwork and family, through thick and thin, is what Union stands for, senior tailback Isaiah Jones said.
“That’s what kept us together,” Jones said. “Everybody on this team is a brother, and we take care of each other — all the time.”
The grieving never stops. That’s one common thread among families that lose children.
Former Heritage head football Matt Gracey is in that same fraternity. His first child, Alexandra, died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome in 1998. The tight-knit family culture is one aspect of Union’s program Gracey admires most since joining the coaching staff this season.
And that family atmosphere begins at the top — with the head coach’s power to inspire through the biggest victories and toughest losses.
“There’s a lot of love there,” Gracey said. “They don’t make it through without that guy — that is a fact.”
The same way Rosenbach addressed the team in both Rego’s and Huyhn’s deaths is similar to how he spoke to the football program returning to work two weeks after Gabby’s death.
This time, he needed them.
“It’s never better,” Rosenbach said, “but you figure it out, you get up every day and go.
“They (the players) are what save you.”