November 4, 2006

Brotherly love survives tough battle
Siblings Mike and Joe Pepple each wanted to be O’Hara’s quarterback, but ultimately only one got his wish.

By J. BRADY McCOLLOUGH
The Kansas City Star

Dena Pepple blends in with all the other moms at the O’Hara-Center football game.

She carries a pile of blankets that could warm up the entire O’Hara team, she wears her O’Hara green, and she buys her youngest daughter a pack of Skittles.

But Dena Pepple (pronounced Pep-lee) is not like all the other moms. They don’t scream, “Hold on to the ball!” each time the ball is carried. They don’t count the number of players on the field before a punt return to make sure an illegal-procedure flag won’t be thrown on the Celtics for too many men on the field.

See, Dena has a lot of investment in each punt. Dena’s husband, Tim Pepple, is the O’Hara special-teams coach. Her youngest son, sophomore Joe Pepple, plays on the return team. And her oldest son, senior Mike Pepple, is the starting quarterback. A poor effort on the punt return would bring Dena triple the frustration.

On Friday night, as she settles into her seat, Dena isn’t asking for as much as she normally would.

“If Mike plays well,” Dena says, “I’ll be fine.”

The Center game is Mike’s last game at O’Hara, probably his last as a starting quarterback. More than that, this game marks the end of the Great Pepple Family Adventure, a season full of lessons for the boys and sacrifices from the parents.

Mike and Joe started the year in a heated competition for the starting quarterback position. Mike won out eventually, but not without some awkward moments at the dinner table along the way.

Two years ago, Tim Pepple left behind 74 wins, four district titles and 14 seasons as the head coach at Hickman Mills to coach the special teams and the freshman team at O’Hara. Tim also left behind a large chunk of salary, but he wanted to be able to watch his boys play together. Little did Tim know that they’d have to play against each other first.

Through it all, Dena has admirably played the role of Mama Bear, making sure football didn’t rule over family. She sits near the 50-yard line on Friday night, watching the first quarter of what would eventually be a 49-22 victory over Center.

Mike drops back to pass and zips the ball to an open Tokie Aromona for a touchdown, O’Hara’s second of the game.

“Yes!” Dena says, jumping out of her seat. “That looked good, didn’t it?”

•••

Mike and Joe Pepple were born two years apart, but that wasn’t the problem. They both were born with the same leadership gene, the one that makes boys want to be quarterbacks.

Mike started playing quarterback as a fourth-grader, and Joe started the same year in second grade. The Pepple boys would take snaps under center for the next seven years. Being a quarterback became a part of their makeup.

Maybe Dena Pepple should have seen this coming all along, but it wasn’t until last November that it smacked her in the face. The quarterback job was open, and her Mike was going to be a senior, and her Joe would be a sophomore. They were two of the better athletes on the team, and they both coveted the starting job.

This could be a nightmare for her close-knit family. Dena had Tim’s ear at home, but she also wanted to make sure the other O’Hara coaches knew this wasn’t just a football decision.

“I don’t care who you put where,” Dena told them, “just don’t mess up the Pepple family.”

When camp started in August, O’Hara coach Jim DeMarea was calling Mike, the senior, his starter. But Joe, who is 4 inches taller than Mike, was still taking reps in practice.

“I wanted to be the starter,” Joe says. “It was sophomore year, and being a starting quarterback as a sophomore is pretty cool. At the same time, I didn’t want to take Mike’s spot.”

Joe’s competitive spirit won out over brotherly love, of course. The Pepple boys had competed all their lives, so Joe wasn’t about to let his older brother take the job because he had put in his time as the backup.

When Mike went down because of a hip flexor in camp, Joe worked with the first-team offense exclusively for three or four days. That time was crucial for the younger Joe to earn the trust of the coaches.

The day before the first game against Platte County, DeMarea told Mike that he and Joe were going to alternate series. Mike was crushed.

“I assumed I was the starter,” Mike says.

The Pepple house had never been quieter than on that Thursday night.

“Our neighbor could tell something wasn’t right,” Dena says. “Mike was outside sitting on the swing, thinking, looking into space.”

Mike and Joe had shared a bedroom for 16 years, and Dena’s biggest fear was that this football season would draw an invisible line in the middle of the room. That night, as the boys did their homework and slipped into bed, not a word was said about the next day’s game.

•••

In that first game, Mike led O’Hara on an early touchdown drive and recovered a fumble soon after. On the ensuing O’Hara drive, Joe fumbled it back to Platte County.

This fall has been a constant tug on Dena Pepple’s heartstrings.

Mike and Joe continued to alternate series at quarterback until the fourth game of the year. Mike had won the job, and there was a need for Joe at tight end.

A week later, against California, Mike hit Joe for a 45-yard connection, a beautiful over-the-shoulder catch by Joe. This was what the family had imagined when Tim decided to leave Hickman Mills.

“It was a nice night,” Dena Pepple says.

It was certainly less stressful for the whole family. Mike and Joe were talking football again and teaming up on Dena at home.

“It was two against one again,” Dena says.

O’Hara hasn’t had its best season, finishing 4-6. Dena thinks it could easily have been 6-4, but in the end, she got what she wanted.

“I think it brought us closer together,” Joe says.

“We were close to begin with,” Mike says.

Dena nods approvingly. For her two gruff boys, that’s about as close to an “awww” moment as she’ll ever get.

Every week, Kansas City Star reporter J. Brady McCollough will take a look at a unique aspect of the high school football community. To submit a story idea, e-mail McCollough at jmccollough@kcstar.com.

 


 


J. Brady McCollough - jbrady@coveringsports.com (email) - 816-868-2621 (cell)