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Motz achieved greatness on the field and in the classroom

Alum Herman Motz won two state championships while head coach of the Thomas Jefferson High School football team. Motz also taught English and Latin. The football field at Thomas Jefferson was renamed in his honor last year. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Early on the morning of Sept. 8, which happened to be his 82nd birthday, Herman Motz collapsed in the bathroom of his Denver home.

He was unconscious when the paramedics arrived. They detected no pulse or blood pressure and thought he had suffered a heart attack.

Motz was taken to Swedish Medical Center and admitted when his blood pressure registered 70/40 in the emergency room. Upon being transferred to a regular room, Motz began expelling blood. Motz would spend a week in intensive care. The diagnosis was a bleeding ulcer, and Motz ended up receiving 14 pints of blood.

Patricia Motz, his wife of 56 years was at Motz’s bedside, along with their four children. Their vigil, naturally, was hour-to-hour, day-to-day, but with a football field soon to be named after him at Thomas Jefferson High School, the family couldn’t help but gaze a few weeks ahead. They offered Motz encouragement — dialogue that was one-sided for several days until Motz became more responsive.

“We kept saying, ‘You’ve got to hang in there, because you’ve got to be at that field on Oct. 15,’” Patricia says. “‘You must survive. Don’t you dare check out on us.’ And we told the nurses, too. ‘He is a legend, and he has to be in attendance at his ceremony on Oct. 15. So do what you must. But he must survive.’”

Motz spent a week in the hospital but recovered. “So he’s a survivor as well as a legend,” Patricia says. To which Motz, who received his teaching certificate from DU in 1956 as well as his master’s degree in 1958 and his PhD in education in 1965, says, “Sorta.”

Motz can talk for hours on a variety of subjects but is given to brevity when talking about himself and his accomplishments.

Michael Gellner, a volunteer for 12 years at the herbarium in the Denver Botanic Gardens, where Motz, a master gardener, has been a herbarium volunteer for about 20 years, calls Motz, “a very unassuming person. One never knows, unless you find it from somebody else, what he’s done.”

What Motz accomplished as the football coach at Thomas Jefferson led to the renaming of Spartan Field in his honor. A redstone slab announces the entrance to the Coach Herman Motz Athletic Facility.

Motz was the head football coach at Thomas Jefferson from 1976–89. During those 14 seasons — all of them winning — the Spartans compiled a record of 135-30-1. They won the Denver Public League nine times, reached the state semifinals six times and won state championships in 1980 and 1989. No DPL school has won a state football championship since Motz’s 1989 team.

In addition to having the field named after him, Motz was one of the inaugural inductees in the Thomas Jefferson Spartan Hall of Fame. It’s the fifth hall of fame that has inducted Motz, who is called “Coach” for obvious reasons.

And because Motz has his doctorate, some call him Dr. Motz. This melding of Motz’s higher education and his gridiron experience has resulted in stories about Dr. “Coach” Herman Motz — nomenclature that is somewhat cumbersome but entirely appropriate.

Motz never taught a physical education class. He taught Latin and English at Thomas Jefferson from 1967–92, adding science to his teaching duties in his final few years.

“For me, it was a holiday; I loved teaching,” Motz says. “You’re molding. You only have a little part of the statue to mold, but you get to do that. It’s really worthwhile. And the better you do it, the better it is for the kids.”

Re-naming the Thomas Jefferson football field after Motz was the culmination of a grassroots letter-writing campaign. One of those letters came from Bob Lackner, a member of the Thomas Jefferson class of 1977. Lackner never played for Motz but had him as a Latin teacher for three years. And in his letter of support, Lackner wrote, “He could diagram a passage from the Aeneid or a poem from Horace with as much skill and mental dexterity as he could diagram a modification of the I-Tight Slot Fake 42 Dive 456X.”

Motz, who grew up near Newtown, Ohio, was a halfback at Xavier University in Cincinnati. A photograph from 1952 shows Herman “Buck” Motz   in one of those wonderful publicity poses from that time. Leather helmet, the top marked by an ‘X.’ No face mask. Straight-arming with his right arm and the football cradled in the left arm. Right leg lifted off the ground and crossed over the left. A try-and-stop-me grin on his face.

Eric Black was the quarterback on Motz’s 1980 state title team and graduated from Thomas Jefferson in 1982. Black said Motz had all the necessary football attributes, namely a playing past and knowledge of the game, but his intellectual side made for an intriguing and memorable mix.

“I’m 16 then, and my world is just expanding,” says Black, who did not have Motz as a teacher. “To see somebody be that smart and also be a big, stud athlete and a big, stud football coach and to command respect not just because of his physical presence but by his mental capacity and with humor mixed in — he had all sorts of assets that were woven into one exemplary person. Looking back in my life, I think that’s the first time I saw somebody like that.

“When I think of ‘Coach Motz,’ I don’t think of the football coach. I think of Coach Motz as ‘Dr. Motz’ the teacher and the family guy.”

Motz began his teaching career at Cole Junior High School in 1957 and taught Latin and English there until 1967 when he moved to Thomas Jefferson. At Cole from 1963–66, one of Motz’s English students was Alex Martinez, who became Manager of Safety for the City of Denver on Nov. 1, stepping down after 15 years as a justice on the Colorado Supreme Court to take that position.

Martinez recalls how happy Motz seemed about whatever he taught and his ability to make it fun.

“His enthusiasm was contagious,” Martinez says. “More than anything, it’s that sense of joy at the mere opportunity to learn something that you didn’t know before without regard necessarily to whether it had some application. If it had some application, then maybe there was even more joy. But it was that sense of learning, the excitement of learning that influenced me the most.”

Years later, Motz had a similar effect on a student teacher named Matt Spampinato. In the spring of 1989, Spampinato, then 27, completed his student teaching under Motz in his American literature class at Thomas Jefferson.

“The first lesson I saw him teach was about Jack London’s short story “To Build a Fire,” says Spampinato, the journalism teacher at Thomas Jefferson and director of the school’s center for communication technology magnet. “He stood in front of that class and in 45 minutes, I watched him turn kids on to American literature just with the quality of his voice and his storytelling ability. And his obvious love of literature was infectious.

“He was the perfect role model. When I watched him the first couple days, I thought, ‘Oh boy, if I ever end up like this guy, I will have reached the pinnacle, because he was the most comfortable, knowledgeable guy I’d ever seen deliver a lesson.’”

In 35 years of teaching, Motz, an imposing figure who stands 6-3 and has a distinctive handlebar moustache, never sent a student to the office for disciplinary reasons.

“I dealt with it,” he says. “We had some kids that put up their backs, but we worked on it. And sending them to the office doesn’t do any good, doesn’t help anybody. They’re never better when they come back.”

Martinez crossed paths with Motz in his early teaching days but wasn’t surprised to learn Motz never banished a student to the office during his career. A frown or a shake of the head, Martinez says was usually enough to cause any inappropriate behavior to cease.

“Disapproval from him had a very powerful impact,” Martinez says. “You saw the effect on him. You saw yourself taking that fun and taking that spirit away, and his disapproval was just completely undesirable. It was like you disrupted a flow of joy and that was wrong.”


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