Costa Mesa Steelers coached themselves to Super Bowl win, honoring late mentor

Travis Reedy, Xavier Palhetus, Conner Strader, Nolan Scott, Henry Birchard, Kane Suh and Dylan Dallal, from left.
Travis Reedy, Xavier Palhetus, Conner Strader, Nolan Scott, Henry Birchard, Kane Suh and Dylan Dallal, from left, of the Costa Mesa Steelers flag football team, gather around the Matt Leinert Flag Football League Super Bowl trophy.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)
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Tim “TJ” Hicks loved coaching in the Matt Leinart Flag Football League.

The West Virginia native, a big Pittsburgh Steelers fan, would typically spend all Friday night at the field. If he wasn’t guiding his own team, he would be scouting others.

Hicks died doing when he loved.

He suffered a heart attack at Jack Hammett Sports Complex in Costa Mesa while coaching a girls’ team on Nov. 17, and passed away soon after. He was 56 years old and left behind his wife Cindy and two sons, Jackson and Sam.

His eighth-grade boys’ flag football team knew something had happened to their beloved coach but didn’t get the news from parents that he had died until they got off the field following a loss.

Tim "TJ" Hicks, front, had coached many of the players on his flag football team for several years.
Tim “TJ” Hicks, front, had coached many of the players on his flag football team for several years.
(Courtesy of Kerry Suh )

“The parents were trying to hold it together on the sideline,” said Dana Strader, whose son, Connor, was a member of the team. “Most of the moms are crying, and nobody wants to be the one to deliver the news, right? But we had decided, it’s better that we deliver it to them while they’re all together.”

When the boys found out, those tears transferred to their faces. Hicks had coached several of the team’s members — Kane Suh, Henry Birchard, Travis Reedy and Connor Strader — since first grade.

“A couple of people cried, you know,” quarterback Dylan Dallal said. “It was just tough.”

Dallal and Gavin Spears joined the team while in third grade, followed by Xavier Palhetas in fourth, Nolan Scott in seventh and Beckett Williams in eighth. All were made to feel special by their lovable coach, who would often break clipboards but stayed positive with his words.

“He was a really funny guy in general,” Travis said with a smile. “He would do this thing where he would bite his knuckles when he got really mad. That’s how you’d know, you’re kind of cooked.”

The Costa Mesa Steelers flag football team.
The Costa Mesa Steelers flag football team: Conner Strader, Nolan Scott, Travis Reedy, Henry Birchard, Xavier Palhetas, Kane Suh and Dylan Dallal. Not pictured are Gavin Spears and Beckett Williams.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

The teammates attended Hicks’ funeral and sat near the front, wearing suits but bringing their Titans and Steelers jerseys. Some of them spoke.

Then an unusual thing happened as winter arrived. They decided to keep going without their coach.

“We had a chip on our shoulder,” Connor Strader said. “We had to prove ourselves.”

A couple of older brothers stood on the sidelines that season, but the kids essentially coached themselves. They used familiar plays like Red 1 and Blue 3, plays that Hicks used to call their bread and butter.

And they kept winning for their beloved coach.

They won the winter league title. Playing as the Costa Mesa Steelers, they won the spring league title too.

Then they captured their first and only Orange County Super Bowl title on May 31, finishing up five straight games at Orange County Great Park with a 40-25 championship game win over the Irvine Saints.

That capped a hectic day, as seven of the nine team members had to rush from their Our Lady Queen of Angels school graduation to the field for their first 6:15 p.m. game time.

Quarterback Dylan Dallal, of the Costa Mesa Steelers flag football team, throws a pass on Monday at Bonita Creek Park.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Dylan threw 27 touchdown passes in the five games, team mom Kerry Suh said.

“When they came over to give them the 4-foot trophy, making them the No. 1 team in Orange County, they explained that their coach wasn’t with them anymore and they won it for him,” Suh said. “It’s just one of those, ‘Oh, my God, this could have been a movie’ [moments].”

Frank Albers, a Matt Leinart league representative, knew Hicks well and started a GoFundMe for the family after he died, raising more than $35,000. He most appreciated Hicks for his positive attitude. They’d talk once or twice a week during the season and never did he hear complaints abut the officials or anything else.

Albers said Hicks definitely would have wanted the kids to continue to play.

“The most tragic thing happens, and they find a way to come together, persevere and win it all,” Albers said. “It’s a pretty cool story.”

The boys are off to high school in the fall, and they’re going their separate ways. Henry, Dylan, Nolan and Gavin will attend Corona del Mar. Kane, Travis and Beckett are headed to Mater Dei, while Connor and Xavier will go to Santa Margarita.

Members of Tim Hicks' flag football team attended his memorial service last fall.
Members of Tim Hicks’ flag football team attended his memorial service last fall.
(Courtesy of Kerry Suh)

Flag football will soon be a thing of the past.

“If you think about it, we’ll never put these jerseys on again,” Travis said.

But it’s appropriate that they went out wearing the black and gold of their coach’s favorite team. Last fall, soon before he passed, the team got Hicks tickets to watch the Steelers play at SoFi Stadium against the Los Angeles Rams.

It’s also appropriate that they went out as champions, even if that meant having to coach themselves.

Maybe there were other forces at play.

“My husband would say it was amazing how they would literally look and see what needed to be switched,” Kerry Suh said. “They just adjusted, and then they would win. It was crazy. If I wasn’t sitting there, I would be like, ‘This is not real.’

“He coached them from heaven.”