Steve Gokey says the only time he has been early to anything was when he was born two and half months premature in 1952.
“I weighed in at a healthy two and a half pounds,” Gokey recalled with a laugh on Sunday. “I was literally a handful.”
Fifty-nine years after his unexpected early arrival left him fighting for his life and permanently blind, Gokey’s journey has built a reputation across the country. He’s appeared in the Seattle Times, USA Today, on ESPN and lately on the sidelines of Oakdale High football games.
The Turlock native, former Modesto Police employee, longtime Modesto A’s coach and veteran of nearly 30 full marathons was seen at 13 of Oakdale’s 14 varsity games during his final season on the Oakdale sidelines.
He missed Oakdale’s win at Kimball of Tracy for a half-marathon in Seattle, but caught the next eight victories and was on hand for Oakdale’s loss to Del Oro in the Sac-Joaquin Section finals on Friday night at Sac State.
Gokey says he has the best seat in the house from the Oakdale sidelines, and no one picks up on the sounds of the game quite like he does.
“It’s a sound world for me, and I even dream in sounds,” Gokey said. “I can often tell what the penalty is before the officials say anything to the coaches because I can hear them talking to each other in the middle of the field.
“My hearing is really, really good.”
Gokey said his heart was broken during the final minutes of Oakdale’s defeat on Friday. Emotions overwhelmed him as the hopes and dreams of Oakdale players were overtaken in a 21-7 Del Oro win. Gokey moves to Seattle to reunite with his fiancée on Monday, so the 2011 season represented his final year as a staple on the Mustang sidelines.
“My problem is I am a really emotional guy and I pull together every ounce of energy I have on those sidelines every week,” Gokey said. “The kids worked so hard and put forth such a commitment this year, and I felt so awful afterwards.
“It was just so hard watching those kids suffer.”
Gokey said though Oakdale was a big underdog to top-25 nationally ranked Del Oro, he wouldn’t have considered it an upset if Oakdale had won the game.
“I think at this point you have to focus on what a tremendous team this was to set a record for wins and show the incredible chemistry they had,” Gokey said. “I hate teams that quit and there was no quit in this team. I was so proud of them.
“They were 13-0 and got beat by a good football team in a position where the winner was going to go south (state bowl game). That (state bowl game) was my secret goal all year and I would mention it to ‘Merz’ (Oakdale coach Trent Merzon) privately.”
Gokey struggled to avoid tears when referring to coach Merzon, who decided to make him part of the program when they met in 2004. Merzon agreed to give Gokey a chance to listen to the game from the sidelines and the two have been close ever since.
“The whole coaching staff has been wonderful to me, and I can’t stress how tremendous Merz has been to me,” Gokey choked out. “I have to tell you that it has been so exciting to be ¾ and let’s clearly define this ¾ a very small fish in a very big pond who plays a minimal role in a tremendous team and experience.”
Gokey’s role is obvious when Oakdale needs motivation most. He leads chants, ignites support from the Oakdale crowd and paces the sidelines with emotion that mirrors the action on the field as if he can see it with his own eyes.
It’s the thrill of the sideline that led Gokey to the decision to wait until the end of the football season to move to Seattle to join his future wife Lynn Mains.
He said she didn’t necessarily agree with his decision to stay until the season was over, but he had no plans of abandoning the Mustangs mid-season.
“I told her that once I walk on that field I am in this for the long haul and committed to this team,” Gokey said. “People make commitments in their lives that they don’t hold themselves to, but I will stay committed until the end.”
Gokey said he plans to marry his “beautiful, wonderful, attentive, kind and gentle” fiancée this month after he moves to Seattle, but hasn’t ruled out the possibility of one day returning to the Oakdale football sideline.
“I am very fortunate to have been part of this program and though I hope none of these kids will ever have a child with a disability, if it happens I hope he can look back and say that ‘he did pretty well with one’,” Gokey said. “Hopefully I will have a little bit of an impact because these kids have had such a tremendous impact on me.”