It isn’t often you have the chance to meet a legend.
So it was with great interest, curiosity and anticipation that I looked forward to meeting with Escondido High coaching icon Robert, better known as “Chick,” Embrey.
My sit down with the venerated football coach took place in a quiet and secluded section of a local restaurant. The interview had been kindly arranged by Valley Center High tennis coach Tom Helms, a friend and acquaintance of Embrey.
After I shook Embrey’s hand and introduced myself, the three of us took a seat and began chatting. Even at the age of 89, Embrey still looked damned good, his whitish hair neatly combed back and his eyes clear and bright. His smile came easily and he possessed a pleasant laugh, which often punctuated his conversation. What’s more, Embrey was fully engaged, his mind sharp and focused, his powers of recall vivid and very much intact.
And based on the prominence that Christianity plays in life, it was no surprise that Embrey carried himself with perceptible humility and unpretentiousness. He even wondered out loud why anyone would be interested in reading about him since it’s been quite a spell since he last patrolled the sideline as the Cougars’ head coach. Embrey had come to think of himself as something of a relic, someone whose relevance had virtually disappeared with the passage of time.
But nothing could be further from the truth. Even today, nearly 40 years since coaching his last game against Orange Glen in 1977, Embrey’s presence still resonates resoundingly around here. You can’t think of local football history and the thrills that came with it without conjuring up the image of Embrey. He remains as much a part of the fabric of Escondido as any well-known landmark or edifice. And there are still countless locals, both ex-players and fans alike, who remember the immeasurable impact he had on both the school and the community as a whole.
No, those glorious memories that Embrey helped to generate are hardly forgotten. They still live on, and in some ways seem almost timeless, as if untouched by the years.
If a Mount Rushmore of all-time North County prep football coaches was ever erected, “Chick” Embrey would find his likeness front and center. The resume that he accumulated, the records that he achieved are darn near unassailable. Over the course of his illustrious 22-year career (1956-77), he achieved the following at Esco High: he won 144 games at an impressive .682 clip, nine times his teams won eight or more games. In five seasons his Cougs lost only once, on 10 occasions his teams either won outright or shared Avocado or Metropolitan League titles. Six times his squads went undefeated in league competition. His Cougars reached the semifinals of the CIF playoffs an amazing nine times. And last but hardly least, Embrey captured three CIF titles, the last of which the Cougars shared with San Diego High.
The hallmarks of his teams were that they were quick, mobile and disciplined. And because the Cougars were frequently of limited size, with their guards and tackles in particular being on the smaller side, it was imperative that Embrey got his charges to play with both passion and intelligence — traits they seemed to have in abundance.
Creativity was also an Embrey strong suit. Forward thinking and seemingly one jump ahead of the opposition, the coach was at the forefront of running end arounds, double reverses and double passes. “The end around was particularly effective for us,” Embrey remembers. “We would use it whenever we got backed up near the end zone and it got us out of trouble many times.”
He also bedeviled foes with innovative delayed screen and middle screen passes. Under Embrey, the Cougars were adept at causing confusion and placing doubt in the minds of those they played. The coach was an expert at knowing how to keep the other team guessing.
Embrey was also reputed to be a master motivator, someone who could fire up his squads with some inspiring oratory. You read articles from the past and they are replete with quotes from his former players about how desperately they wanted to win for their revered coach. As far as his ability to rouse his charges with soaring words, Embrey tries to downplay that perception. “Oh, I don’t know so much about that,” he muses quietly. “Mainly, it was just a case of me being me and being who I am. Really nothing more than that.”
Bonding and fostering team unity was another huge component in the big picture that Embrey always sought to establish. As a means to accomplish this, Embrey would take his players on an annual four- day sabbatical up to the Sierras where the team would hike in to a nearby lake and then set up camp. With the coaches doing the cooking and the footballers participating in some zany and offbeat games, the team would begin to develop a chemistry and rapport that would carry over into the season. Embrey’s teams seemed unusually close and tight and this undoubtedly had a direct bearing on their high degree of success.
Embrey has a mind like a steel trap and details about specific games, players and teams come cascading back when he’s asked about them.
Like the time very early in his tenure when a player named Chuck Wood got dinged and had to come over to the sidelines, feeling quite woozy. But after being moderately revived by whiffing some smelling salts, Wood managed to make his way back onto the field and rather remarkably proceeded to kick the game-winning field goal in a 16-13 win over Vista.
Embrey is quick to share the fact that the 1960 Cougar squad that downed Point Loma 20-13 in the championship game was a collection of extremely bright minds. According to Embrey, 19 of those players went on to become teachers, administrators or coaches.
As far as sheer drama and poignancy is concerned, Embrey said it would be hard to top the 1969 title tilt versus San Diego High. After racing out to a two- touchdown lead, the Cougars saw their advantage completely evaporate and then some. Late in the game, the Cavers had forged ahead and were holding onto a 21-14 advantage. Time seemed to be running out when Esco middle guard/fullback Jack Thoreson knifed through and came up with a clutch blocked punt which the Cougs managed to recover.
Shortly thereafter, the tallish Jeff Flood, after blocking down and allowing two other receivers to clear the field, slipped underneath and gathered in a touchdown grab that had Cougar fans at San Diego Stadium screaming with delight. Now needing a two-point conversion to knot the score, the Cougs called the same play on which they had just scored, only with Flood now deployed on the other side.
Again, Flood stayed with his block until his teammates had crossed to create an opening and then as he had done before, Jeff got himself open. And after securing the ball, he vaulted into the end zone with a memorable somersault, landing at the feet of none other than his wheelchair-bound father, who happened to be situated at the exact spot where Flood fell to the turf.
“That was as emotional a moment as I’ve ever experienced as a coach and certainly for us as a team,” Embrey relates. “So many of us were brought to tears because of what it meant and the way in which it happened.” With no overtime option available, the game ended in a deadlock and the teams were deemed co-champions.
One of the more painful losses that Embrey experienced was undoubtedly the 27- 14 semifinal setback to Kearny in 1963. The year before the Cougars had gone all the way and captured Embrey’s second CIF title with a 28-14 victory over Clairemont. And Escondido came back the following season with another powerful team that was a perfect 9-0 entering the contest with the Komets. Back-to-back titles seemed a real possibility for a squad that Embrey candidly admits was one of his best. But fate played a cruel trick on the Cougs when triple-threat quarterback Jerry Montiel broke his tibia in the first half and was demonstrably hindered for the rest of the contest. With its star greatly hampered, Escondido just couldn’t quite hang with a dynamite team that would go on to send five players to Division I schools.
The list of notable and gifted players who came under the guidance and tutelage of Embrey is extensive and if was up to the coach, each and every one of them would be mentioned here. He respected, admired and treasured them all.
Among the more prominent was Toby Thurlow, not only a stud receiver but also an All-CIF performer in three other sports. His younger brother Steve was a long- legged quarterback whose loping and deceptive running style made him a terror when he toted the football. Steve would go on to play in the NFL as a running back for both the New York Giants and Washington Redskins.
Bobby Blunt was a marvelous athlete who doubled as both a tailback and defensive back. Named the co-CIF player of the year, Bobby ultimately headed north to Stanford before later dying tragically in an airplane crash. His older brother Dave Blunt was a baseball standout who eventually developed a bad arm. As such, he turned to football for the first time during his senior year. The results were beyond impressive as Dave proved to be a natural as a receiver and came away earning All-CIF honors.
Danny Hustead was a 5-foot-8 running back who possessed huge legs that were accentuated by massive calves and thighs. Embrey claims he never saw anyone faster at 40 yards than was Hustead, who went on to garner co-CIF Player of the Year honors and eventually matriculated to Arizona State.
Doug Bennett was a gifted quarterback whose splendid play made him the top player in the County. He continued his career as a signal caller at Whittier College. Ultimately, he became a coach at one of Hawaii’s topflight prep programs.
Denny Snyder was a 225-pound fullback who played with an indomitable heart and was often seen carrying guys on his back while bulldozing his way to sizeable gains.
And then there was Rex Holloway, a blazing receiver who virtually no one could cover.
“Chick” said goodbye to coaching the Cougars football team in 1977 under less than ideal circumstances. With interference from outsiders creating not only problems but aggravation, Embrey felt it was best that he move on. In a perfect world, he might have stayed with it but he didn’t care for the politics that were taking place. Besides, he admits with a slight chuckle, “It probably was time to leave, anyway. Heck, they most likely did me a favor.”
He would remain at Esco through 1988 as a cross country and track coach. He had also had a lengthy stint as the jayvee basketball coach for the Cougars.
Even though he was no longer on the sidelines, Embrey continued to go to the Cougar games although he would sit by himself or with a friend or family member on the visitors’ side of the field. Happy that his former player Denny Snyder succeeded him, Embrey nonetheless made the decision to stay away and not be seen as interfering.
And to this day, he still attends games at Bob Wilson Stadium that features an artificial surface that just so happens to be named “Chick” Embrey Field, a fitting tribute to the man most identified with the program and its halcyon days.
The coach doesn’t exactly like where the game is now trending, particularly at the collegiate and pro levels, calling it “kind of brutal” and likening it to a gladiator sport where the helmet is too often used as a weapon. “Guys are absorbing some pretty vicious hits and the body can only take just so many of those,” Embrey worries.
Away from the field, Embrey feels he has lived a somewhat charmed life. He’s very thankful to have had an incredible life partner in wife Ann to whom he’s been married for 67 years. Embrey is eternally grateful that Ann was willing to put up with the demands of his profession, with so much of his time spent away from home. She also took on a major role in the raising of their three sons, Bob, Mark and Danny. “It’s unbelievable that she hasn’t left me,” he jokes.
Embrey is also the proud overseer of a passel of grandkids. One of his grandsons, Rielly earned a unique distinction when, while playing baseball for San Diego State, he ripped the first homer ever hit at Petco Park in a game against the University of Houston before over 40,000 fans.
“There’s not a better person,” says Valley Center High grid coach Rob Gilster, expressing a sentiment that many share about the esteemed Embrey. Though Gilster is quick to point out Embrey’s undeniable coaching knack and acumen, he indicates that there was much more to the man than simply that. “He was more about character building and developing relationships than anything else. He really cared about his players, off the field and on. He taught you the meaning of commitment and the importance of bonding together as a group.”
Gilster, who played at Escondido as an off guard during Embrey’s final campaign, readily admits that he was clearly in search of answers when the coach came into his life. But Embrey provided invaluable guidance to his young charge in a number of ways, not the least of which was in a spiritual context. “I can’t tell you the impact that he had on my life,” Gilster reveals.
So much so that after observing the manner in which Embrey was influencing so many lives in such a positive way, Gilster elected to take a similar path. And obviously the VC head man learned Embrey’s lessons exceedingly well because as of today, only 10 coaches in San Diego prep history have won more than the 197 victories that Gilster has amassed.
Finally, you can’t get a sense of “Chick” Embrey without addressing his faith. He is a man who has long embraced his relationship with Christ and has never backed off from it, though others have attempted to get him to do so. During his coaching career, he would hold Bible studies at his home that were available to both his players and anyone else for that matter. Those get-togethers were intended to share the Gospel and present as an option an encouraging way of life. Embrey believes there are important battles to be won here on earth but ultimately, nothing is more critical than one’s salvation. He has been a true adherent to his faith, which speaks volumes about him as a man, a person of principle and as a human being.
Though he’s too modest to even consider it, the fact remains that Embrey is an all-timer of legendary status and it was under his stewardship that Escondido High football flourished and created for itself a lasting legacy. The Green Bay faithful had their Lombardi, South Bend had its Rockne and Escondido will forever be synonymous with Embrey. He was that good and meaningful a coach, and as such, can never be forgotten. The passage of time will never dissipate the Embrey impact. Though he may not believe it himself, his influence lives on to this very day, in the lives he touched and in the community to which he brought so much pride and excitement. In Escondido, “Chick” Embrey will forever be a titan!