I thought it was a bit strange to have a sign-in sheet for the last minute faculty meeting on the morning of March 4 at Alpine High School. As a teacher’s aide for the past three years, I signed my name in my space and then looked at the paper. The spot next to Frank Tobola’s name would remain blank.
Every student gathered in the cafeteria at the start of the school day as Athletic Director John Fellows and Assistant Principal Lee Sanchez passed along news that most had already heard on social media the night before. Coach Tobola’s kind words, friendly advice, and self-deprecating humor were now only memories of a man who died at age 65 at his home in Alpine on March 3.
A memorial was set up by the students outside his classroom, and the door remained closed until spring break arrived. Messages were left by students and teachers who had just seen him a few days earlier.
Frank came back to Alpine in the summer of 2018 to teach and coach. After a career spent at Marion High School, Clemens and others in central Texas, he returned to the Big Bend and the place where he was raised. He was a graduate of Alpine High School in 1972, the last class to come out of the administration building.
He married his wife Karen in 1975, and they raised two boys, Christopher and Nicholas. He was proud of the men they became, and cherished every moment he spent with his five grandchildren.
In 2012 Frank joined his son Chris who was the head coach of Wortham. He was the defensive coordinator, and his grandson was a freshman in the football program. Yet the season turned tragic when Karen died suddenly in October. Five years later Tobola remembered his wife of 37 years in a Facebook post saying, “Miss her as much today as I did that sorrowful afternoon.”
He had already retired from teaching and law enforcement in recent years and became a security guard at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. Yet I'm fairly certain that he intended to make Alpine his last stop. It was a final opportunity to do what he loved. He was back in the press box on Friday nights during football season, and back in the classroom on school days.
Fightin’ Bucks defensive coordinator Jerry Dominguez remembers taking Tobola’s advice quite often during this past football season. They game planned for each upcoming opponent on Saturdays, and Frank was the eye in the sky during the run to a District title.
During the Bi-District playoffs, Dominguez got a phone call from Tobola during halftime. He said Lubbock Roosevelt was running the ball to the same side every single time to avoid Mason Cavness on the defensive line. The Bucks started switching up their formations in the second half, and Roosevelt did not score another point.
He had just finished coaching one of the junior varsity basketball teams, and was working with shot put and discus throwers at the beginning of track and field season before he fell ill in his final days. His health was always shaky during his final two years in Alpine, but his death still came as a shock. It was impossible to spend any amount of time with him, and not feel the presence of someone who really cared.
Working with him in freshman geography classes full of impetuous children was a daily challenge. Yet he could never stay mad at his students for very long. That wasn’t who he was.
Often he would whirl his chair around and start telling me stories. I learned about what Alpine was like 50 years ago, great players he had coached, and all the tour buses Taylor Swift brought to the AT&T Center. His eyes lit up when he talked about his sons, and narrowed when he remembered his wife. Every chapter of his life had already been written. Only the epilogue remained.
One day he passed a sheet of paper over to me. It was a profile of his career just in case I wanted it. He knew I would be writing this story sometime soon.