Football coach reflects on eight seasons at Troy Athens

By: Timothy Pontzer | Troy Times | Published January 30, 2018

 Josh Heppner led the Troy Athens football program for eight seasons before stepping down in January. Next fall, he’ll be an assistant on Rochester Adams’ staff.

Josh Heppner led the Troy Athens football program for eight seasons before stepping down in January. Next fall, he’ll be an assistant on Rochester Adams’ staff.

Photo by Timothy Pontzer

AUBURN HILLS — Josh Heppner believes it is time to move on.

After spending over a third of his life as a varsity football head coach, the former St. Clair Shores Lakeview and Troy Athens leader has decided to step down from his spot with the Red Hawks.

“I can honestly say I’m leaving Athens at a better spot than when I started,” Heppner said. “That was important to me. I also didn’t want to leave these guys hanging, so I chose to do it at the beginning of the year. Now they can make sure they get a new guy in who can build those relationships.”

After a standout collegiate career as a tight end at Ferris State University, Heppner took over at Lakeview at 23 years old. After eight years with the Huskies, Heppner moved to Athens, guiding the team for eight seasons.

“Athens has been great to me in so many ways — it helped me to grow and focus on what mattered,” Heppner said. “I was able to connect with great families and kids, and those relationships will certainly continue. It’s not just the football, either. When I was a teacher, I met some extraordinary people at Athens. ... Troy is an unbelievable school district, and it was not an easy choice to leave.”

A myriad of factors at both the personal and professional levels combined to convince him that a change would be good for his family.

Now 39, Heppner is married with three children ages 12, 9 and 3. He praised his wife, Nicole, and the kids for being willing to go through the ups and downs of all 16 football seasons.

“People don’t understand just how coaching has changed so much and how there’s a lot that goes into it,” Heppner said. “The tough seasons don’t just affect the coach. My kids and wife are embedded in this program. By God’s grace my wife lives for the team, and when the team loses we all lose. … The positives are great too, but you have to think about how much of that roller coaster ride you want to take your family through.”

A career change also helped to make the decision clear for Heppner.

“I taught English at Lakeview and physical education at Athens,” Heppner recalled. “I loved every minute of it. I embraced the culture of that community, and that carried over to my coaching.”

Heppner left his teaching role two years ago for a role as a business manager.

“For about three years, I was praying for a change,” Heppner continued. “I thought it would be an administrative role, but school districts don’t allow administrators to coach. I definitely didn’t want to leave the world of coaching. With this new position, I was allowed the flexibility to spend more time with my kids and still get to football practice on time.”

While his family is uprooting from the home they’ve owned for over a decade, the Heppners are only headed a few miles down the road. 

“I’m a big believer in the power of prayer, and honestly everything has just fallen into place for us to move to Rochester,” Heppner explained. “When you have your answers, it just happens.”

Heppner’s love of coaching has admittedly not left, and a new opportunity was offered via his move. Next season, Heppner will join the staff at Rochester Adams, coaching the defensive line and overseeing the strength and conditioning program.

“I’ve known Josh for a long time, and he’s a great coach in all facets,” Adams coach Tony Patritto said. “He’s a high-energy guy who has a kids-first approach, which is really important to me. When I heard he was stepping down, I immediately offered him a spot. He’s someone who is passionate about the game.”

Patritto and Heppner only faced each other once, coming this past season in Week 8. While the Highlanders earned a 55-13 victory, the longtime Adams coach had high praise for Heppner.

“My evaluation of Josh goes way beyond any game,” Patritto said. “I’ve seen him work with kids on and off the field, able to build relationships with them. He shows them values and things that (are) more than just the sport, and that’s what we try to accomplish at Adams.”

Heppner called Patritto’s offer a blessing, allowing him to still be involved with a football program while being able to take a needed step back.

“The thought of not having to write up a practice plan every day and just deal with all the ins and outs of a team is nice,” Heppner said with a laugh. “I’m more excited to learn. I’ll never claim to be the best or greatest coach, but I’ve always prided myself on working hard for my kids. Starting so young, I never really had a guy by my side to mentor or groom me. I’ve had great men in my life to look up (to), but I’ve never coached underneath anyone. I’m excited to be in another program to see what that’s like.”

While he will don a Highlanders polo on Friday nights, Heppner still plans on paying close attention to his former team. 

“I’m still talking to college coaches all the time, promoting guys,” Heppner said. “A big part of me will still be invested in Athens; I’ll just be behind the scenes now. … I’ll do whatever it takes to make it a smooth transition for the next guy.”

That balance is made even easier as Athens will move out of the same division as Adams — the Oakland Activities Association Red Division — to compete in the White.

“We fought very hard to get to the White; it should’ve been that way years ago,” Heppner said. “In the 23 years since they started the Red, only Athens and Clarkston (High) never moved out of the Red. You look at a Clarkston sideline and see 90 kids, while you look at us and we’d maybe have 40. People have asked me why I’d leave now that we’re finally down in the White and we’ll probably have more success. But the seasons were becoming more and more rough, and the trickle-down effect had not enough of myself being poured into my family.”

Heppner takes great pride in seeing the move happen and believes it marks a good opportunity for a new leader.

“I don’t want these guys to think I’m bailing on them, and the move to the White will really help,” he said. “It’s not that I wouldn’t approach the season with excitement, but I thought it was good for the program to have a fresh start.”

Heppner still cherishes his relationships with current and former players. The coach meets with old team captains for breakfast on a routine basis, carrying on a tradition from the days when they were on the roster.

“Most of all, I want people to know how much I loved the kids I got the opportunity to coach,” Heppner said. “Sure, we had lower numbers and were outmanned. But we never made excuses. If there is any kind of legacy I leave, I hope it is what we always talked about. It’s like you’re backed up in an alley with just you and 50 other dudes charging out. No matter what happens, we’re going to be throwing haymakers and fight to the finish. I think that was reflected every single game and especially this last year. We may not have produced the greatest records, but we were always prepared mentally and physically.”

He believes the bond he built with those players will live on.

“I go out and meet my old Lakeview players and some of the first guys to play for me at Athens,” Heppner said. “They’re getting married, having kids. Getting to be part of their lives is a real pleasure. … There’s no good time to cut it off. But for me, this is a good time to move on.”