WESTON, Mo. — Twice in four seasons, Nate Danneman led West Platte into the Class 1 state football playoffs with a losing record.
The runs were a testament to Danneman’s preparation. His marathon film reviews were legendary. They spoke to his attention to detail, the ability find a flaw and exploit the weakness to his team’s benefit.
Above all else, the late season successes spoke to Danneman’s unwavering optimism and belief in his players while coaching at West Platte.
“I don’t think there’s anybody out there who had more belief in his players than he did,” said Brett Shepardson, a 2016 West Platte graduate and the quarterback of the Bluejays’ 2015 Class 1 quarterfinal team. “The players believed in him as much as he believed in us. We bought into his system just as much as he bought into us.
“That’s because he’s such a great guy, and he made you want to play for him.”
A four-vehicle accident along Interstate 29 claimed Danneman’s life on the evening of Wednesday, April 19. He was just 37 years old.
A candlelight vigil brought out hundreds the following night to remember Danneman’s life — enough people to line both sides and both ends of old Rudolph Eskridge Stadium, where he spent the first three years of his short career coaching at West Platte. People came to grieve and tell stories in the immediate aftermath of a shocking tragedy for the small town.
“Hopefully, (his family) will get a sense of what he meant to this community,” said Chris Kendall, pastor at nearby Salem Christian Church. “We were so blessed to have Nate with us as part of our community.”
For the ceremony, students placed items and mementos on and around a large piece of wood that became a part of Danneman’s motivation for his players. He called the piece of wood “Otaktay” — a name that in the Native American language of the Sioux means “kills many.”
After each game, coaches honored one player for outstanding play and gave him the right to sign Otaktay, mark his name on the wood and carry it onto the field prior to the next game. Danneman truly enjoyed coaching and teaching and clearly left an impression on not just those in the West Platte community but all of the people he encountered in life.
“I had the honor and privilege of working with Nate every single day for the last three years,” said an emotional Dillon Higdon, the boys basketball coach at West Platte. “Best man I ever knew. Someone I can genuinely look at and say that’s who I want to be. When I’m a father, I want to be like you. When I coach, I want to coach like you.
“The passion that he lived life with was truly, truly inspirational. I’m a better man because of him, and he’s certainly gone but never, ever forgotten.”
A native of St. Louis and a graduate of Rockwood Summit High School, Danneman spent the past four seasons coaching football and wrestling at West Platte. He came to the Bluejays after stints as an assistant with Marshall and Richmond and then two years as a head coach at Drexel, going 17-4 with the Bobcats.
Hundreds more turned out for funeral services Monday, April 24 at new Rudolph Eskridge Stadium where Danneman patrolled the sideline of a multi-million dollar facility for his final season. Those in attendance included family, friends, co-workers, teammates, players, students, opposing coaches and opposing players.
Honest at all times, Danneman became known for his jovial nature and a persona much larger than his 5-foot-7 frame — most evident first when he played football and later on the sideline during his coaching career. He loved dancing, 90s rap music, lifting competitions and hunting and fishing.
Most of all, Danneman enjoyed his job, one he took very seriously.
Danneman played collegiate football at Missouri Valley in Marshall, Mo., earning defensive MVP honors as a middle linebacker after his junior season in 2000. He also earned All-Heart of America Athletic Conference honors and served as team captain during his tenure.
While at Missouri Valley, Danneman became known not only for his dedication on the field but also a penchant for trying to instill a sense of pride in the program. He famously taught incoming freshmen the words to the school’s fight song “Valley Will Roll” as a senior.
As the story goes, Danneman was up on stage and banging chairs with his typical passion while belting out the words.
“Nate was all in,” family friend James Godfrey said in remarks during the funeral.
The spirit carried over into Danneman’s education and coaching career.
After graduating from Missouri Valley in 2002, Danneman spent time with football, wrestling, track and field and even tennis teams during the next 15 years. He became a football head coach for the first time at Drexel before finding a home at West Platte after Chuck Siler’s retirement in 2013.
“I am very excited for the opportunity to help continue the established tradition and reputation of the West Platte Bluejays football program,” he said in a news release when hired.
Danneman compiled a 20-28 record at West Platte, leading the Bluejays to Class 1 District 7 titles and quarterfinal appearances in 2013 and 2015 — both times going into a matchup as an underdog against highly ranked Hamilton. In both quarterfinal losses, West Platte came up just short of pulling a monumental upset.
West Platte struggled to a 1-9 season this past fall, but Danneman maintained his humor, offering a simple vision late in the regular season for where he wanted his team to be when Class 1 District 7 play started, saying, “If they offer us to play first round, we’ve got to play a game.”
“Before every football season, coach always told us the same thing,” West Platte senior Jonah Vandel said. “He would say, ‘My goal as a football coach is not to win games. I’m here to develop these boys into men, and if we beat some teams along the way, great.’
“This year, I think we took that winning isn’t important thing a little too seriously,” he added with a laugh.
In addition to head football coaching duties, Danneman was an assistant coach for wrestling and was in the chair in 2016 when Justin Rhodes became the first individual state champion in program history. Danneman took over the head coach duties this past season when a need arose for West Platte.
The decision fell in line with Danneman’s good nature.
While still dedicated to his job, Danneman also worked toward a balance with his personal life. He was a caring husband to wife Tabitha and doting father to two rambunctious daughters, and he had told some he looked forward to his eventual retirement while also insisting he would never stop coaching.
Danneman became known for adapting his style of play to his personnel, famously moving Shepardson from offensive line to quarterback in 2014 — a move that almost produced a district title in the wake of senior quarterback Cody Guthrie’s broken hand.
“He never once doubted his players,” Shepardson said. “He always had faith in us. He wanted to put us in the best possible situation at all times.”
Tragedy cut short the vision of coaching long into the future.
The fatal crash that took Danneman’s life occurred about one mile south of Camden Point, Mo. on Interstate 29, shutting down both southbound lanes and one northbound lane just before 7 p.m. on Wednesday night. Authorities initially indicated one semi and two passenger vehicles were involved, later adding a third passenger vehicle to the official accident report.
According to investigators, a semi apparently traveled out of the northbound lanes of I-29 and struck three vehicles before overturning. Danneman was driving a Ford Focus with his 4-year-old daughter as a passenger.
Danneman was identified as the victim in the early morning hours Thursday. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Three others suffered minor injuries in the crash, including Danneman’s daughter.
News started to reach the West Platte community late Wednesday night, and many went to social media to express condolences and grief.
“All we can do is remember the good times and be thankful for what we have,” a tweet from 2015 West Platte graduate Clay Lambrecht read.
“This can’t be happening,” West Platte senior Kyle Tabaka tweeted.
“You don’t truly know what someone means to you until they’re gone,” tweeted Tanner Lintner, another 2015 graduate.
Many of Danneman’s current and former players were on hand for the candlelight vigil in the immediate aftermath and the number grew for Monday’s funeral services. Although only at West Platte for four years, the community took the opportunity to show appreciation for what he accomplished in that time.
The services ended with all West Platte players — past and present — on the track at the stadium, Shepardson leading them in the Lord’s Prayer. At the end, they broke a huddle one last time in Danneman’s memory, calling out loudly, “Bluejay Pride.”
The end of an emotional, five-day whirlwind left some still struggling to cope with a terrible loss. The grieving and healing process will continue well into the future, but Ken Danneman, Nate’s father, offered simple advice for carrying on his son’s legacy in the short term.
“Nate wouldn’t want to focus on last week’s loss, just next week’s game plan,” Ken Danneman said.