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Chinle grieves the loss of coach ‘J.R.’ Wagner

Chinle grieves the loss of coach ‘J.R.’ Wagner


During a year of heartache, the Chinle community suffered another significant loss with the passing of longtime coach and teacher, Woodrow Wagner Jr., or “J.R.” as many people remembered him.

Wagner passed away on Nov. 22 due to a respiratory illness that wasn’t related to the COVID-19 virus. His funeral was held on Nov. 27, attended by close relatives.

Wagner was from Chinle and has worked at the school since 1995, as Chinle athletic director Shaun Martin recalled.

“J.R. was 66 years old when he ended his journey here in the world and began his journey to the next,” Martin said. “While at Chinle High School, he began as a teacher aid. In 2005, he became a home school liaison.

“Acting upon his own beliefs and role modeling philosophies, he became a teacher in 2008,” he said. “Just last year, 2019, Arizona Superintendent of Education Kathy Hoffman visited Coach Wagner’s welding class, where she got to see firsthand his outstanding instructional abilities and even got to experience his very high-tech welding simulator.

“Needless to say, she was very impressed, and Coach Wagner was proud to host her,” he said.

Wagner had worked alongside his son, Nate Wagner, as they both coached football for a while. According to Nate, his dad was a man of many skills.

“He coached all sports – football, wrestling, basketball, track and field, and softball,” Nate said. “He was a man of many talents and coaching abilities but loved his students, loved his student-athletes, his peers and his family.”

Wagner had coached all his children and even two of his grandchildren.

Former Chinle High parent counselor and head football coach Tim Su’e Su’e Liufau remembered working with Wagner and had a strong bond with his family.

“We talked about that numerous times about passion and sports, about what he likes,” Liufau said. “Whatever sport he is coaching, he always has that passion, that desire.

“He loves wrestling, wrestling was one of his things, basketball, football, it didn’t matter,” he said. “We always talked about having that passion and desire for anything you go out for.

“He reminded me to always don’t force yourself to coach something that you don’t have a passion or desire for,” he said.

Wagner was described as always having a smile on his face and a welcoming handshake or hug. A force of positivity when on the sports field.

If his team loses he always had a comforting atmosphere that set many at ease. To everyone who knew him, he was more than a coach or teacher. He was a friend and a role model.

Nate said he was a loving family man, and he treated his students and athletes like they were a part of that family.

“He was very humble, whether it was winning or losing, he always had words of encouragement and positivity towards his student-athletes,” Nate said. “When their heads are down, he would help bring them back up.

“His teachings and words of wisdom always uplifted his student-athletes and helped them know there is more to sports and put into perspective for his student-athletes, like a teacher in life,” he said. “He was always, always supporting and encouraging. I learned a lot from coaching with him. When he won by a lot, he was very humble, a very humble man.”

For Liufau, Wagner was a positive role model for everyone. One of Wagner’s favorite sayings was “Ohana means family and family means nobody gets left behind.” A quote from a Disney movie, but a quote that Wagner said, believed in and lived by every day.

“He’s a man with the master plan, with many great, great attributes, I will describe him as Christ-like,” Liufau said. “He loves to put others first before anything else, he loves his family, he was a person with a great heart. A heart like no one else would have. There are so many things I could use to describe him, but I would describe him as Christ-like.”

Nate said that his dad always cared for others before himself, be it family, friends, or students. No matter what it was, he would still be there to help. He believes that the thing his dad was most proud of was helping others.

Nate remembers how former students would come by and talk with Wagner.

“Just letting him know that they’re doing good and everything being positive with them,” Nate said. “He was always helping a person, whether they’re a student or anybody. He enjoyed hearing those stories of how they moved on or telling them the positivity he brought them and helped them through so they can be the best that they can be.”

Liufau was one such individual. When he first met Wagner at a game 12 or 13 years ago, he had gotten close to him and his family to the point where Wagner became a father figure for Liufau, something he never had while growing up.

“He’s an example in himself,” Liufau said. “Who he touched and reach out to many of our Native American students before he passed on. We’re lucky we were able to have a piece of him, our students, our people, our Native American people, our community. We were blessed to be a part of it, and his legacy will keep going. We’ll never forget about it. About all his leadership and examples, he shares.

“I’m so fortunate and so blessed,” he said. “I am one of the luckiest ones that he called son. It has been an important factor in my life because he has helped my family since I got onto the reservation. He accepted me into the Wagner family with Nate Wagner, you name it.

“So, I want to let everyone know he is a true father, something I never had growing up as a little kid,” he said. “It has influenced my family and me to always serve and love. That’s what his thing was, ‘to serve others rather than ourselves’ and to remember who we are and where we come from.

“I want to give my gratitude and love to the Wagner family and to everybody,” Liufau said. “I love Wagner, I love my pop, I want to thank him for all he has done, not just for me but for all of our people.”

Wagner will be missed on the courts, on the fields, in the classroom, and at home.

But he left behind a legacy of encouragement, kindness, and love, and for some, it was their first experience with such caring attributes, their first time meeting a loving person.

Wagner’s legacy will live on in his family, friends, and his students. Being a good sport, a good friend, a good leader and a good father.

“My dad was a true role model,” Nate said. “A true role model to the community here in Chinle and other places. He touched a lot of lives, not only on the reservation but elsewhere.

“He was a man of faith,” he said, “he was a bishop in the LDS church, his religious beliefs and traditional beliefs, and his family. And just seeing him, how he impacted others’ lives. He’s truly a great man. He will be missed as a teacher, coach, father, brother, and friend.”

About The Author

David Smith

David Smith is Tódích’íi’nii and born for Dziłt’aadí. He is from Chinle and studied at Northern Arizona University. He studied journalism and English for five years while working part-time for NAU’s NAZ Today and the Lumberjack newspaper. After graduating in 2020, he joined the Navajo Times as a sportswriter for two years before leaving in September 2022. Smith returned in February 2023.


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