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Sideline view still best for Rios -- here, or in Puerto Rico
By Jerry Fitzpatrick | Daily Herald Columnist

Mike Rios, left, a former standout at Larkin who coached at South Elgin the past two years, celebrates the Storm's first win last Saturday with some of the players, including Josh Kaminski (center).


George LeClaire | Staff Photographer

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Published: 9/14/2007 12:31 AM

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Mike Rios isn't used to the view and probably never will be.

As an assistant football coach at Bartlett, Larkin and South Elgin high schools for the last 12 years, Rios viewed games from the sidelines.

Now, he watches from behind the fence like everyone else.

"It's a weird feeling, being on this side of the fence during the national anthem," Rios said Saturday afternoon as South Elgin prepared to host East Aurora at Millennium Field. "This is my third time and I still can't get used to it."

Rios left his jobs as South Elgin assistant dean of students and defensive coordinator of the football team at the end of last school year.

The kids miss him in both roles.

"I wish he was still here," said South Elgin quarterback Pete Scaffidi. "He's a good guy and he helped us out a lot last year. I hope he comes back."

Big, tough football players aren't the only ones missing Rios.

"He was awesome," said Sami Sipraseuth, a football team manager more bubbly than 7-Up. "He was more like everyone's best friend than a dean, but he always knew when he had to be strict and stuff. You could always go to him."

High schoolers don't always trust adults, particularly adults whose titles begin with dean. Kids have ultras-sensitive filters. They know who's genuine and who's not.

"He didn't judge anyone," said Kelsey Kucik, also a team manager. "You were a person to him, which is so nice because a lot of people aren't like that."

No, a lot of people aren't like Mike Rios, whose hard-edged image -- he keeps his head shaved and always sports earrings -- belies the teddy bear personality lurking beneath. That big heart made saying goodbye to the kids at South Elgin difficult.

"I don't even know how to put into words the rapport you build with these kids," Rios said, shaking his head. "It's those relationships that you build... You can't replace those."

Rios left for another line of work, one that will make any sun-worshipper envious.

He'll soon open a business in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico called Aguadilla Aquatic Adventures. He's going to rent Wave Runners on the beach and give tours on the water.

Guy's so enthusiastic about his new venture he makes you want to quit your job, bathe in Coppertone, beg him to take you on as a business partner and book the next flight.

And there is a next flight to Aguadilla. The airport began accepting international arrivals six months ago.

Actually, the sun-drenched city at the northwest tip of the island -- whose name translates to "Waterville" -- is a hot, new tourist destination and is enjoying a building boom.

Three casinos are planned, the first of which is scheduled to be up and running in November. Condos are being constructed. Resorts are rising from the beach.

Rios intends to cash in by providing a needed service to the coming tourist horde.

"I think this was perfect for him," said Dale Schabert, Rios' high school coach at Larkin and later his coaching colleague at Larkin and South Elgin. "Part of me is jealous. Part of me wants to go run it with him."

It should be a great adventure, perfect for a guy with energy to rival ComEd.

What people may not know is that Rios didn't leave those special relationships with the kids at South Elgin just to go make money and play in the sun. It was a matter of putting family first.

What Rios hasn't even told some close friends is that he moved to Aguadilla to be closer to his mom and dad as they age. Opening the new business was simply the means to that end.

Last year he took six weeks off the job to be in Puerto Rico with his father, Adrian, who was experiencing serious medical problems at the time. Adrian eventually recovered, but the scare sparked Mike to think of ways he could be closer to his folks. He didn't like the distance.

Adrian and Luz-Maria Rios, Mike's mother, emigrated to Elgin in their early twenties.

Mike was born and raised in Elgin and is a product of the same District U-46 school system that would later employ him.

Adrian drove a city bus in Elgin for years before landing a job as a driver's license examiner at the Secretary of State facility on Illinois 31.

Luz-Maria found work at the B.F. Goodrich factory in St. Charles. Mike remembers jumping in the car with his dad to go pick his mother up from work after midnight. "They made a life for us here," Mike said with respect.

Adrian and Luz-Maria moved back to their native island years ago. Couldn't stand the winters, Mike said. Can you blame them?

Mike, on the other hand, can't stay off the mainland. Though he has already moved to Aquadilla, he has become South Elgin football's longest-commuting fan.

Rios flew back to watch the Storm lose its season opener against Marmion and stayed for the Week 2 loss against Geneva, which dropped South Elgin to 0 for 11 as a varsity football program.

Rios, the defensive coordinator for the first 9 of those losses, vowed to fly back for every game until the team won. He returned in time for Saturday's shining moment: South Elgin's 42-2 victory over East Aurora. He's already scheduled to come back for Senior Night in October and says he'll fly back for Homecoming every year as long as the guys show interest. It's hard to imagine his interest in them will wane.

"I'm so excited for these kids," Rios said following Saturday's first win. "They've worked so hard for this with all the blood, sweat and tears they put in the past two and a half years. I'm just so proud and happy for them to get their win."

How proud and happy were the players to have him present Saturday? After head coach Schabert and new defensive coordinator Jason Schaal were doused with ice buckets, players Garvin Thomas and Shawn Ryan used water bottles to playfully squirt Rios, who by that time had found his way onto the sideline as the final seconds ticked off the clock.

And before leaving the field after their first win, every member of the team gathered around their former coach and broke the huddle by yelling, "One, two, three -- RIOS!"

Though he's in another line of work these days in another part of the world, Mike Rios will always be drawn to mentoring kids and coaching football.

After learning that a high school football league will form in western Puerto Rico this year, Rios immediately called the local head coach and volunteered his services.

"I think that's going to give me my fix because it hurts so much leaving this," Rios said Saturday. "These past couple of weeks have been so hard. I'm champing at the bit to get back and start working with those kids.

"I told the coach that I want this little town of Aguadilla to be known for football. I want everyone on the island to know that if they want to play football, they'll want to play it in Aguadilla."

And they'll want to play it for a coach who can't settle for anything less than a sideline view.