Football has taken Keldric Stokes all over the map.
He killed countless hours on buses travelling the Midwest as the UW-Stout and Chippewa Valley Predators quarterback and overcame culture shock when he spent nearly a year playing ball in Norway. That’s before mentioning stops in Duluth, South Dakota and Oklahoma.
The one place he didn’t think he’d end up was Thorp, even though his wife Shayla was from there. Too small, he would say. But a successful house search changed his mind, igniting a love for the community and setting him up for an impressively speedy rise in the coaching ranks.
Stokes, previously an assistant middle school coach at Thorp starting last year, was named the head coach of the Cardinals’ varsity team this week just three years after his swan song in the Northern Elite Football League with the Predators. He succeeds Shannon Broda.
“I didn’t think I’d be the varsity coach this quickly,” said Stokes, originally from Ohio. “I’m pretty excited about it.”
A signal caller for the Blue Devils for one year and Predators for eight, Stokes brings a quarterback mindset to the position. He was a stalwart on Chippewa Valley, winning an Elite Bowl with the squad while consistently showed his ability to lead.
“The thing with Keldric is his positive energy and loyalty speaks volumes,” said Altoona coach Martin Adams, who coached Stokes when he was the head man for the Predators. “Players can rally behind that type of attitude.”
That was Stokes greatest asset, because while he has coached various sports at different levels, including everything from local t-ball to serving as an assistant with the Blue Devils, his prior head coaching experience is limited to an under-16 team in Europe. He worried that would hinder his chances when the Thorp job opened up.
“I thought, ‘They’re probably going to ask me about my head coaching experience and see that there isn’t much.’ But my football experience, I think I have a vast knowledge of football. I have a philosophy that’s proven to work.
“I knew that my knowledge, if I could just get in front of the parents, the teachers and even the students, I can show them why I should be the coach. Just give me the chance.”
So he put on his best recruiting face, selling himself to the Thorp administration. And he impressed in his interview.
“We were really looking for someone who obviously knew their X’s and O’s on the field, but the most important thing for me was someone who wanted to take their role as a mentor seriously,” Thorp athletic director Adrian Foster said. “In KD, that’s what he sees as his calling in life, a chance to reach out to young men and be an example to them.”
Stokes inherits a team that’s struggled lately, to put it lightly. The Cardinals went 0-8 last season, their eighth straight season under .500. With years of struggle comes a need to reset the players’ mindset, eliminating the fear or expectation of losing.
“It starts with culture,” Stokes said. “We have to learn how to compete again. Practice is going to be very up-tempo, energetic, with everybody competing. If you can compete in practice, the game becomes simple.”
He’s started laying down the foundation by meeting with players and is on his third attempt to set up a team-wide meeting, with the prior two disrupted by the recent weather. To compensate for his lack of experience as a head man, he’s been reaching out to old coaches over the phone most nights. When his wife heads to bed, he switches over from husband to coach.
“And she goes to bed early,” Stokes said. “8:30, it’s football time for the next three or four hours.”
He’s anxious to start the next chapter of his football career in this area, already imagining that first win, which he’ll be able to soak in since he can see the scoreboard from his house, and the day he’ll be able to coach his sons at the school. If everything goes well, he’s in for the long haul.
“It’s been a dream of mine to be a head coach,” Stokes said. “I would love to stay at high school and be here for 10, 15, 20 years. I’m really excited for this task because I remember my wife telling me about how good the football program was and how games used to be fun. … I want to leave this place better than where I found it.”