Attention: Highland football coach incorporates military background into practice and schoolwork

Arriving to practice at 5:30 a.m. isn’t easy, but the Highland High School freshman team has bought into the schedule, coach Mark Falagrady said. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

Falagrady started out at Brigham Young University but after a semester realized he wan’t ready for college. He then opted to join the Air Force. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

GILBERT – The U.S. Air Force and a freshman football program typically don’t have much in common. But Highland Hawks freshman coach Mark Falagrady has incorporated some of his experience as an airman into his coaching approach.

And his players have bought into it.

In Falagrady’s words, the freshmen run a “tight operation.”

And rather than practice after school, like many football teams, the freshmen Hawks take to the field before the crack of dawn at 5:30 a.m. While Falagrady expected some tired-eyed grumbling from teenagers, he was surprised how well his players accepted the schedule.

“I thought that would be a challenge for us when we started, but they’ve rallied,” Falagrady said. “I really haven’t heard much grumbling. Our attendance rate is right up there in the 90th percentile, and the reason that we took that route is it allows the kids to focus on homework after school.

The team is guided by the military strategies of extermination, exhaustion, annihilation, intimidation and subversion. While the freshmen aren’t trying to take out their opponents or survive in desolate conditions, their discipline and military-esque practice routine has drilled in the fundamentals of organization and hard work not just in football, but in school and life.

“Otherwise, you know, they come out of the gate, they’re blinded by the high school life and then we eat up their time after school,” he said. “Their grades probably suffer and as a result The school and football program would suffer because they’d be ineligible to play. So yeah, they’ve embraced it pretty well.”

The Highland coaching staff believes discipline and military-esque practice routines help drill in the fundamentals of organization and hard work, not just in football, but in school and life. (Photo by Harrison Zhang/Cronkite News)

For Highland freshman running back and wide receiver Kody Cullimore, Falagrady’s work ethic and dedication to his team has resonated with Cullimore and his teammates.

“His work ethic is really good,” Cullimore said. “He just pushed me, he doesn’t accept no as an answer. He expects maximum effort. He probably has to wake up at 4:30 for three straight months. He didn’t have to coach freshmen. So I think that’s a huge credit to his work ethic. I just think it shows his love of the game of football and for his players.”

Falagrady’s tactics are strict, run like a military operation. For his players, value is present in routine and effort. From football to the classroom, his coach’s tactics are paying dividends, Cullimore said.

Even though differences between combat control school and high school exist, the team is embracing the challenge.

“I think discipline comes into play a lot. … I also think it shows your teammates that you’re not there just for yourself. … I think it’s a sign that you’re there for the team,” Cullimore said. “With school, my grades are looking good right now. I think that’s partly because they expect a lot out of us because they know what we can do.”

Falagrady always loved football and played the game through high school before attending college. After a single semester, the 18-year-old Falagrady felt like he needed a change and joined the Air Force.

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“Initially I didn’t want to go into the Air Force,” Falagrady said. “I went to college for a semester over at BYU and decided I wasn’t ready for college yet. … My dad actually made the recommendation and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you try the military?’

“I settled on the Air Force for its technology. I went to college afterwards. I was married once my career got going, and I did college kind of on the side and it was a good path for me.”

Falagrady’s path eventually brought him back to his love of football because he wanted to be active in the athletic pursuits of his kids.

“I just loved being around football,” Falagrady said. “I’ve loved football my whole life. We’re big Broncos fans, and so it was always a part of my life. And when I had kids, I went from being the dad with the big mouth – which was me – to joining the coaches on the sideline, and you learn from them and their processes.

“And I loved it ever since.”

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Henry Schleizer expects to graduate in May 2022 with a degree in sports journalism. Schleizer, who has interned for ArizonaSports 98.7 and the Draft Network, is working in the Phoenix Sports Bureau.

Harrison Zhang heh-rih-sun z-hang
Sports Visual Journalist, Phoenix

Harrison Zhang expects to graduate in May 2022 with a master’s degree in mass communication. Zhang, who is a digital media intern with Sun Devil Athletics, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.