Doug Spadoni’s efforts as coach and teacher have not gone unnoticed. He was recently named the Green Bay Packers High School Coach of the Week, and it wasn’t just his coaching acumen that drew the attention of others outside the school community.
Spadoni, a special education teacher, recently wrapped up his 12th year as the defensive coordinator for Amherst. The Falcons had a perfect record heading into Round 3 of the WIAA Division 5 Playoffs where they suffered a heartbreaking one-point loss to Wittenberg-Birnamwood High School, 28-29. “We’ll celebrate this team, and then it’s time to turn the page on to the next group,” Spadoni said.
Spadoni not only makes an impact with football players on the field; but he also impacts the lives of students and student athletes away from the Friday night lights. For example, high school athlete Harleigh Firkus turned to Spadoni after recovering from two ACL surgeries with her desire to lift weights and get involved in CrossFit.
In 2015, she was diagnosed with Vascular Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (VEDS), a rare genetic disorder that affects a person’s collagen. When many would have folded, Harleigh refused to let her diagnosis and serious injuries slow her down. Spadoni invited Harleigh to join the football team in the weight room and coached her on different exercises and lifts to achieve her CrossFit goals. “She was gutsy, willing to take risks,” Spadoni said.
In 2019, Harleigh was getting ready for weightlifting and knew something was wrong. Spadoni took her to the school nurse, where she had an aortic aneurysm and passed away.
“Despite her illness, Harleigh was absolutely fearless,” Spadoni said. “It’s been close to three years now, but I wish more people could know her. Her indomitable spirit was something to behold. When she got to high school, that’s when she wanted to get involved in the weight-training class that we have here at school. She was a little nervous. In a class full of 40 football players, she would be the only female, but she came up to me and said, ‘I’d like to join.’ So I showed her some basic lifts and [head football coach] Mark Lusic did, too, and she started in the weight training class. That just lit a spark with her, and she was just totally dedicated.”
Following her passing, Spadoni was approached by several of Harleigh’s classmates who proposed he take her passion for CrossFit and create a competition in her honor, the Harleigh Games. Under Spadoni’s leadership, Amherst organized the competition that summer and received buy-in from many people in the community.
“It was just awesome,” said Spadoni. “The amount of people that donated their time and equipment, and the turnout was tremendous. The coronavirus this past year put the stop to it, but we’re going to do it again this June.”
Spadoni graduated from Appleton East High School in 1992, where he played offensive and defensive tackle under football coach Pat Schwanke. Following high school, Spadoni played one year of football at UW-La Crosse. He later transferred to UW-Eau Claire and graduated in 2000. His coaching career began as a freshman football coach at Waupaca High School in 2001, where he remained until he took the coordinator position at Amherst in 2010.
“Growing up, I always loved athletics and being part of something bigger than yourself. Everyone comes together for a common purpose, I love that; it’s one of my favorite things in the world,” he said.
Spadoni said he’s proud to be able to accept the Coach of the Week Award in honor of Harleigh and views it as a reflection on the impact that teachers and coaches make on the lives of their students.
“It’s nice to know you make an impact. That’s why I went into teaching,” Spadoni said. “That’s why I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. I feel very lucky that 20 years later I still love my job, and coaching is an extension of that. Coaching is teaching. It’s great because often the feedback you get is years later when you hear from former students and athletes that you helped them out, but you don’t always get immediate feedback as a teacher all the time, so [winning this award] is really nice.”
Spadoni plans to donate the $1,000 Coach of the Week funds to the Harleigh A. Firkus Memorial Scholarship Fund. Harleigh’s mother, Stacey, started the scholarship fund to honor her legacy and help provide students with further educational opportunities. In addition to coaching, Spadoni is also a special education teacher at Amherst High School. Spadoni and his wife, Amy, have one daughter, Scout, and two sons, Jack and Ray.
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