Forest Grove's Strachan is living the dream
Neil Strachan's life began in Africa, settled in Forest Grove and now sits comfortably in Nampa, Idaho. But it's not where he's been and how he got there, but rather the people who helped him along the way that made him a standout athlete, mentor and soon-to-be Forest Grove High School Hall of Famer.
"My whole life has been a classic American story," said Strachan. "I can honestly say growing up in Forest Grove and playing sports all the way through made me who I am, and I owe a lot of that to the great coaches I had."
The 1977 FGHS graduate played three years of varsity football and three years of varsity baseball for the Vikings — and later played both sports at Pacific University. He was all-league, an All-American and accomplished things at the time that had never before been done at FGHS. But it's not the games and accolades he remembers, but rather the people that made it all so great. Coaches like Jeff Durham, Larry Binkerd and Ken Bond. Role models like Dan Wood, a 1971 Forest Grove graduate and himself a FGHS Hall of Famer. And Strachan's dad, who overcame a physical handicap and showed Neil the benefit of hard work.
"My dad taught me that I could either be a hard worker or a whiner," said Strachan. "And I sure as heck wasn't going to be a whiner."
Strachan's parents, Jim and Francis, were Scottish. Jim's parents — and Neil's grandparents — left Scotland for what was then Rhodesia when Jim was in his teens. Rather than follow his parents to the African nation, Jim ended up in Canada, where he met Francis. Feeling the need to make things right with his father, Jim went to Africa and later sent for his soon-to-be wife, Francis, to join him. They stayed there and had three kids before heading for the United States, where Jim had a job and a sponsor that led him to Los Angeles.
After a handful of years, the family — which included four kids — moved to Oregon settled in Forest Grove when Neil, the second oldest, was in fourth grade. It was then that Neil got into sports, and two years later that he found his place on the gridiron.
Made varsity as a sophomore
"We lived on the old side of town, and a bunch of us grew up playing ball in the street," said Strachan. "So when we were in sixth grade, we all got involved in the youth program."
Five of those kids, including Strachan, made the varsity football team their sophomore years. It wasn't unheard of for tenth-graders to play varsity, but even Strachan's dad didn't know what to make of his son playing with juniors and seniors.
"My dad went to our running back coach, Don Adams, and asked him if I was really good enough to be playing with the older kids," Strachan said. "And Coach Adams told my dad he thought I could be the best running back Forest Grove had ever had. My dad told me that and that's all it took. I would've run through a wall for that man."
Adams' vote of confidence started a pattern. Strachan learned to appreciate what he learned from coaches, and even at the time, he said, he understood he was fortunate to be surrounded by such a great group of men.
"Coach Durham was a genius," said Strachan. "He understood the importance of building kids up and he made sure he had nothing but positive people coaching from the youth programs and up."
Those coaches included Adams, Binkerd and Bond, who coached Strachan's eighth grade football team and would later become a longtime Viking baseball coach.
"Ken taught me a lot," said Strachan. "He was the one who taught me it wasn't all about me, and that I had countless teammates responsible for my and our success."
And he and they succeeded.
The Viking football team won league titles in all three of Strachan's years on varsity, and in his senior year made it all the way to the state final before losing to state power Sunset 14-7. Strachan remembers the fanfare surrounding the team that year, including police and fire escorts out of town en route to their semifinal game at La Grande.
"I heard that there were 4,000 Forest Grove residents that traveled to La Grande for that game," Strachan said.
The senior Strachan became the first Viking to rush for 1,000 yards in a season that year, earning first-team all-league offense and defense and second-team all-state honors. He was also selected for the 1977 Shrine All-Star Football Team. He played three years of both football and baseball at Pacific before moving on to teach physical education and coach football, baseball and wrestling in the Hillsboro School District for 34 years.
Pride in his profession
Strachan and his wife Suzie — his high school sweetheart and a Registered Nurse — have two kids who both went on to earn athletic scholarships and become teachers themselves. They retired in Nampa, Idaho, and have spent the last handful of years traveling the country in their 28-foot trailer, helping friends and family and simply doing things on their own terms. But one needn't do more than speak with Strachan for a couple minutes to understand the pride he takes in his chosen profession, the people responsible for making him who he is today and the community from which he came.
"I honestly couldn't have imagined having better coaches growing up," said Strachan. "They taught me what was important, and I think we've really lost focus of what coaching is all about. It's not just about sports; it's about making better people, and they taught me that."
Strachan believes wholeheartedly in the power of positive reinforcement and repeatedly tried to drill into younger coaches and teachers the significance of what one communicates to kids.
"Whether it's positive or negative, kids are always going to remember it," he said. "So you might as well make it positive."
And what does he think of his Hall of Fame induction?
"It's an honor because there are so many great people in it, but I think it was a bigger honor when our 1976 team went in because there were so many great guys on that team," Strachan said. "I likely wouldn't have accomplished what I did without all those great guys."
It's one thing to have it good and another thing entirely to recognize and acknowledge it. But Strachan appreciates his life and in the process honors his past, relishes the present and looks forward to what's to come.
"I've had that life right out of a movie," Strachan said. "We've been very blessed, no doubt about it, and it just gets better every day."