Sahuaro High School athletic director Steve Botkin can recall one of the best compliments he has heard of his late brother Rick from former standout Amphi defender Riki Ellison.
Ellison went on to play for USC and later excelled in the NFL for 10 years with the San Francisco 49ers and Oakland Raiders,
“Even a caliber of player like Riki Ellison said that Rick hit as hard as anyone who’s ever hit him,” Steve relayed to me.
When Sahuaro hosts Cholla on Friday night it will be the 40th Annual Rick Botkin Memorial Game, the longest active memorial game in the U.S.
Steve lost his brother Rick when Rick was tragically killed in an automobile accident during his senior year of 1977. Rick was only 17 and a budding star on the football field.
Before kickoff on Friday night, the Sahuaro administration, coach Scott McKee, and the football team will honor Botkin’s family and many of Rick’s friends. Many travel from out of state to attend the game and pay tribute to him.
After leading Sahuaro to a win over Palo Verde while playing at quarterback, Rick was killed hours later in the car accident. Rick was also a star safety, leading the division in interceptions at the time of his death.
“At 9 p.m., he was the hero. Hours later (On Oct. 15, 1977), our ‘Friday Night Lights’ dimmed and then went black,” former Sahuaro and Arizona receiver Jay Dobyns wrote in a tribute posted on Sahuaro’s Web site.
A few other Sahuaro students were injured and hospitalized before being released.
“Rick could run like few I’ve ever seen,” Dobyns writes. “He could throw and hit and play football better than the rest of us. I was two years younger and a thousand times less the athlete; for me it was incomprehensible that anything could defeat him. Not Rick. I idolized him. I admired him. Everything about him. I wanted to be like him. I wasn’t the only one.”
Rick’s popularity was so strong then it has lasted this long — and will last forever — with the annual memorial game at Sahuaro.
Shortly after Rick’s passing, former Sahuaro coach Virg Stan told The Arizona Daily Star, “He was a very popular man who meant so much to us. … It was a terrible tragedy.”
Stan called for a team meeting the day after the accident.
“As he walked in, tears streamed down his cheeks,” Dobyns wrote. “His eyes were swollen and red. His assistants Bob Vielledent and Lance Prickett followed him. They were a mess as well. As Coach tried to speak, he was forced over and over to pause and compose himself. There is no chapter in the coaching manual for guidance on something like this.
“What he said is still in my heart. He normally stood before us as we sat at desks. He grabbed a chair and pulled close:
“’There are things in life that we do not plan for. That is why they are so hard to accept and understand. We had no time to get our hearts ready for what just happened. Rick Botkin was loved by all of us. He can never be replaced. Let’s just think about Rick right now. Football isn’t important today.’”
Tucson High School was scheduled to play at Sahuaro the following week. The Badgers’ head coach, Bill Dawson, offered to forfeit the game out of respect for Sahuaro and Botkin’s family.
Dobyns wrote that Stan told the team, “When I think of Rick I ask myself, ‘What would he do?’ Would he want to show this city that we are the football team from Sahuaro High School? That even in the face of adversity we will fight on? Number 25 will still lead this team. If you decide to play, I will coach you the best I can in honor of my player. You will play your best in honor of your friend. The choice is yours.”
“Now, entirely choked up and no longer able to speak, Coach left the room and said he would be back in five minutes for our answer,” Dobyns added. “The room of only players was quiet. We could hear him sobbing in the hallway with the other coaches. We looked at each other and we knew what to do.
“Our team had only 15 healthy players. That Friday night young ball players with casts on their arms and legs dressed in full uniforms to give our opponent the sideline illusion we had more players than we really did. We were determined to try. Coach kept his promise. He coached his best. We kept ours too and played our hardest. It simply was not enough. We lost the football game.
“But, we had won the game of dignity and loyalty. Rick inspired courage that would never be captured on the sports page, never be displayed in a box score and never credited anywhere but in our memories. After that game, our families and classmates swarmed the field. Hugs and tears were everywhere. No one wanted to leave the grass. This is where we knew Rick best. We didn’t want to say goodbye or let him go.”
Tucson High’s players, coaches and fans also joined in a circle on the field and they applauded the Cougars.
“They had tears in their eyes, too,” wrote Dobyns, who had a couple of long pass receptions from Mark Mistler (who replaced Rick Botkin at quarterback and later played receiver in the NFL). “They knew we played through broken hearts to honor our friend. When they turned off the stadium lights, we were all still out there.
“They didn’t cheer the game, the cheered the boys who had become men that night, and more, the one who was no longer there. RIP Augie (Rick). Never forgotten. Still cherished.”