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Max Tuerk’s high school coach remembers him as ‘loving giant’

Former USC and Santa Margarita lineman Max Tuerk died on Saturday while hiking. He was 26.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Former Santa Margarita High football coach Harry Welch said he was preparing for a Father’s Day breakfast with his wife, Cindee, on Sunday when his cellphone rang. It was Greg Tuerk, father of his former All-American offensive lineman, Max Tuerk.

“I said, ‘Good morning, Greg. Happy Father’s Day.’ He said, ‘Thanks coach,’ and broke down.”

That’s how Welch learned that Max, 26, died Saturday while hiking with his parents in the Cleveland National Forest on a trail above the high school where he starred. Welch said he was told Max collapsed and died in his father’s arms at the end of a long hike. A helicopter was called to help remove him when he could not be revived. An autopsy is expected.

Tuerk, an offensive lineman who helped Santa Margarita win a CIF state championship bowl game in 2011, was The Times’ lineman of the year before moving on to USC and becoming a three-year starter. He was a third-round draft choice of the Chargers in 2016.

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He spent 2016 with the Chargers, playing in exhibition games but not the regular season. In 2017, he was suspended for the first four games; a violation of the league’s policy on performance-enhancing drugs was cited. He was released, then he re-signed with the Chargers late in October 2017. Two weeks later, he was signed off the Chargers practice squad by the Cardinals and played for the Arizona team that season in the only NFL regular-season game of his career.

In 2010, Welch was a new head coach at Santa Margarita when he hired Marty Spalding to be the line coach.

“I got to Santa Margarita trying to get to know players,” Welch said. “There was this big tight end who wanted to be a slot receiver, Max Tuerk. After some workouts, Marty and I had some conversations, and we told Max he would not be catching touchdown passes. He could cease his dreams of catching footballs in college but had the potential to be one of the premier offensive linemen. He continued to grow and improve.”

By Tuerk’s senior season in 2011, he was 6-foot-6, 254 pounds, and USC assistant Ed Orgeron was recruiting him.

“He came out four times to take video and with his Cajun drawl would say, ‘He’s a maula, coach.’ What’s a maula? ‘He’s mauling other players,’” Welch said.

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In 45 years of coaching, Welch said he had seen lots of outstanding linemen, including Randy Cross and Brent Parkinson, standouts at UCLA and USC, respectively. “Max Tuerk was the greatest high school offensive lineman I had ever been around,” he said.

“His work ethic, his intensity, his feet, his hands, his speed, his aggressiveness. He was second to none,” Welch said. “We would design plays, and as we were designing them Marty would come up with a blocking scheme. Marty and I would argue in the coaching office, ‘Who’s going to block this guy?’ Max is. ‘Then who’s going to block this guy?’ Max is. ‘Coach, Max would block both of them.’ I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Welch said he last spoke with Tuerk a couple months ago, at a fitness center.

“He was walking and running a lot and working out,” he said. “He looked great. He had lost a lot of his football weight and would come up, ‘Hi, Mrs. Welch, hi, Mr. Welch.’ He was always the friendly, loving giant we knew.”

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Welch said on Sunday he tried to contact as many former Santa Margarita parents as he could to inform them about Tuerk’s death. Tuerk had been living with his parents for the last three months.

“My wife and I cried most of the day,” he said. “The man I knew had a superior attitude, he had a smile and loved to play football.”


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