Mustang High School head football coach Lee Blankenship and his staff have nicknamed him “Hand,” as in a cowboy “top hand” at a ranch.
His name is Justin Wylder.
He’s the energetic sophomore student assistant/equipment manager who has helped keep Mustang’s football operation running smoothly behind the scenes.
This time of the school year, Wylder normally would be working hard in the field house at Bronco Stadium with the weightlifting-conditioning program while setting his sights on off-season football drills.
Of course, there’s nothing normal about these historic times.
Like Mustang’s coaches and players, Wylder can only dream about the fall when hopefully the deadly coronavirus begins to abate and football and other sports resume across America.
“It really is strange,” Wylder said following last Thursday’s announcement that Oklahoma’s high school spring sports would be canceled due in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blankenship said Wylder is the best student assistant that he’s had during his coaching career.
“Justin is one of the hardest working, most dedicated young men that I have ever worked with,” Blankenship said. “He has embraced the role of equipment manager and has become the best I’ve ever had.
“He does so much behind the scenes for our program. I honestly don’t know how we are going to replace him when he graduates.”
Injured as ballplayer
Wylder, 17, was a running back during his freshman season and sustained a serious injury to his left leg during a game.
“When I was a player, I broke my tibia and fibula,” said Wylder, who grew up in Duncan. “A titanium rod was put in my leg to help growth.”
The injury was serious enough that Wylder decided to stop playing football. But he wanted to stay involved with the team and approached Blankenship.
Soon he had a new role in supporting the Broncos.
What tasks does Wylder’s job entail? The question rather is what doesn’t it include?
MHS assistant coach Lyn Hepner, who oversees the program’s 10 or so student managers, compares Wylder to Cpl. Walter “Radar” O’Reilly, the indispensable character in the comedy-drama “M*A*S*H” played by actor Gary Burghoff.
“Radar” made sure the popular sitcom’s 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital ran smoothly, all hijinks set aside, of course, during the Korean War.
“You may recall the TV show “M*A*S*H,” Hepner said. “He is like the character “Radar” in that he can finish your sentence and usually has done the thing you’re about to ask him to do.”
Top student manager
Jason Doran, Mustang’s assistant coach in charge of the equipment room, explained how essential Wylder is to the program’s operation.
“He is the boss when it comes to the other managers,” Doran said. “He makes sure they are getting done what I need them to get done.
“All of our players have a high level of respect for him. They know he does a lot for them.”
Blankenship said Wylder’s numerous responsibilities include:
• Inventory for all pads, uniforms and equipment;
• Repairs any equipment at a moment’s notice;
• Keeps equipment room organized;
• Helmet and shoulder pad checkout/pick up;
• Locker room sanitation, spraying and disinfecting twice weekly;
• Organizes all technology for practice such as cameras, tripods, time clock, etc.;
• Makes sure student film crew is present and in correct position;
• Distributes jerseys and pants on game day, then picks them up afterward;
• Does all laundry during the season and off-season, which takes hours of extra time on evenings and weekends.
“One of the most time-consuming duties is the laundry that’s done after games,” Hepner said. “This usually takes most of the weekend for 120-plus uniforms, and Justin is the one that typically does it.”
Mustang sophomore bronco back Andre Dollar understands just how long the hours are that Wylder puts in.
“He does the laundry every day,” Dollar said. “I see him in the field house at 7 a.m. sometimes and he’s the last one to leave (at night). He’s even here on weekends.”
Hepner added, “It isn’t a stretch to say that he spends nearly as much time working for the team as the coaches do. But this does not in any way discount the fact that there are other managers that do a lot as well.”
Blankenship entrusts Wylder with many essential duties.
“He’s my right-hand man,” Blankenship said. “He runs errands for me, takes notes, delivers messages to other coaches and oversees all student managers on a daily basis.”
Wylder approaches his job the same way he did when he was playing.
“I have gotten these skills by giving 110 percent at what I’m asked to do and always being reliable,” Wylder said. “That includes really anything that the coaches ask me to do.
“My favorite part of the job is knowing that I help make the coaches’ lives easier and can help them focus on the good of the team and other important decisions.”
Dollar said the players are aware of Wylder’s difficult responsibilities.
“Justin is amazing,” Dollar said. “He’s always helping out around the field house or asking to help.
“He’s always been nice to me and the other players. We really like him and love his helpfulness.”
Wylder redefines position
Hepner recalls how Wylder literally was a whirling dervish of energy last spring during football workouts.
“This young man seemed to be everywhere, assisting in drills, chasing footballs, picking up cones, etc.,” Hepner said. “He stepped into drills to give the QBs their reads. He drove me crazy asking if there was something else he could do.
“He’s actually redefined what my definition of what manager looks like. Ask any coach on this staff: he overachieves.”
Wylder’s effort and abilities set a very high standard, Blankenship said.
“Justin is organized, takes pride in his work and works hard,” Blankenship said. “He is the epitome of what we expect from our players.
“He takes such pride in his role, is humble, does everything that he can for our team with a great attitude. It is my absolute honor and privilege to have him in our football