There are sports icons, and then there are sports icons.
When it comes to athletics in the Mining City, we have a lot of names that have reached legendary status. We have guys like Bob O’Billovich, Milt Popovich, Sam Jankovich, Brian Morris and Colt Anderson. We have Lexie Nelson, Kellie Johnson, Meg Haran and Liza Merrifield.
We have so many that you cannot name them all off the top of your head. So many greats led the Bulldogs and Maroons to titles. Some went on to play their sports at the highest level.
Others coached athletes so they could reach heights they never knew were possible.
Then, there are icon’s icons. The Mount Rushmore types, and those are rare.
We are talking Eso Naranche. We are talking Swede Dahlberg. We are talking Charlie Merrifield.
Merrifield died in his sleep Monday morning. He was 90, and that somehow seems way too young.
His death came shortly after he watched his grandson Casey and the Butte High Bulldogs clinch a berth in the Class AA State boys’ basketball tournament at the Western AA Divisional in Kalispell.
He undoubtedly went to bed thinking about those Bulldogs and dreaming of the upcoming track season.
Merrifield officially retired as the head boys’ track coach at Butte High a decade ago. The truth is, he was a track coach until the very end. He was working with track athletes — from Butte High and Butte Central — in the days before he passed.
The man would eat, drink, breathe and sleep track. On his first date with Betty Whelan, he took her to a track meet.
Somehow, he won her over, and the two were together ever since. Rarely would you see Betty without Charlie by her side.
Charlie was one of Dahlberg’s students and then one of his assistant coaches.
He first started coaching track for the Bulldogs as an assistant under Dahlberg in 1963, and was part of Butte High state championship teams in 1963 and 1966.
When Dahlberg hung up the whistle after the 1966 season, Charlie assisted George Tarrant for seven seasons.
In 1974, the same year I was born, Merrifield took over the Butte High program, and the Bulldogs won back-to-back titles in his first two years. Butte High’s boys also won the 1981 and 1982 crowns under Merrifield.
During his remarkable career as head coach, Charlie saw Bulldogs win an individual title 60 times. His relay teams also took home seven golds.
“If Charlie had a strength as a coach, it was bringing the best out of athletes,” Pat Kearney wrote in the final days of Merrifield’s run as head coach in 2013. “He guided some of the remarkable athletes ever to compete at Butte High. This list includes Mike Houlihan, Bryl Thompson, Danny Hanley, Kelly Davis, Ron Collins, Scott Hemmert, Josh Paffhausen, Jake Larson, Zach Ueland and Tony Cunneen.”
Charlie, though, did not limit sharing his wisdom with just his Bulldog boys.
In 1982, Merrifield worked with Morris, the Butte Central star, helping him win the 110- and 300-meter hurdles while helping the Maroons capture the team title.
More recently, he worked with Rileigh McGree, helping one of the all-time great Butte Central girls in her remarkable career, which is continuing at the University of Montana thanks, in part, to Charlie.
Merrifield was a Bulldog legend, but he was colorblind when it came to the track. Nobody around knew more about the hurdles than Charlie, and he was happy to share his knowledge with any man, woman, boy or girl who wanted to clear a hurdle.
Charlie was also funny. Really funny.
One time the late Swede Kenison accidentally fired the gun for a false start, disrupting the 100-meter dash at the Swede Dahlberg Invitational.
Charlie started laughing at his friend, and then he yelled, “Someone take that gun away from Barney Fife.”
In 2017, longtime Kalispell Flathead coach Dan Hodge was called to the Butte Sports Hall of Fame. Charlie, his coach at Butte High, was called to the same Hall in 2003.
Charlie sat in the Butte Civic Center crowd, smiling ear to ear, as Hodge talked about his old coach.
Hodge told of the time Charlie set up the track and clocked Hodge at 13.9 seconds in the 120-yard hurdles in the dirt at Naranche Stadium.
That would have been a national record had Merrifield set up the track correctly. Instead, he made the track 10 yards short and with nine hurdles instead of 10.
Charlie burst out laughing when Hodge pointed out that Merrifield was a math teacher.
That story made my night, and not just because I looked and snapped a photo of Charlie laughing at the story.
From time to time, I have made mistakes in reporting on track. Charlie would notice every time. He would call me to tell me the time or mark I listed for a certain event would have been a world record.
He knew it was just a typo, but he loved to pretend like I just didn’t know any better. He did that when I noted that Butte High great Erika McLeod high jumped more than 17 feet.
Of course, I meant the long jump, not the high jump. Charlie laughed and laughed as he pointed that out.
A girl clearing 7 feet in the high jump would make national news. A 17-foot mark would be out of this world.
Interviewing Charlie during or after a meet was never an easy thing to do. Usually, you talk to a head coach for 3 to 5 minutes, or so.
With Charlie, you got 30 seconds. If you were lucky.
It wasn’t that Charlie was rude or short. Everything he gave you was gold. It was just that Charlie had too many things going through his mind at a track meet to stop for more than a few seconds.
Charlie’s last official day of his head coaching career was a good one. On the Saturday of the Class AA State meet in Bozeman in 2013, Charlie watched his grandson Jake Dennehy place fourth in the discus.
After Jake threw for the final time, he gave his grandpa a big, long hug.
It would have been the perfect ending to his long coaching career, had we thought it was the end. We knew better, though. We knew Charlie would coach track until he took his last breath.
Now, he will be missed by so many. I miss him already.
Every time I would see him, Charlie would smile and stick out his hand. When you saw him in the hallway at Butte High, he would tell you to “hit it,” to see how strong of a grip you had on that handshake.
The grip was never as strong as Charlie’s. Nobody’s was.
That scene played out when I talked to Charlie for the last time after a basketball game a couple of weeks ago. Charlie shook my hand with his iron grip, and then told me I should have mentioned that “Jumpin’ Joe” Kelly did not have the benefit of the 3-point line when I wrote about Butte Central star Dougie Peoples passing the Butte legend on the all-time scoring list.
Charlie was right.
Then, Charlie flashed that grin, as if I had just written that Erica McLeod jumped over the moon.
Butte High and Butte Central athletes compete on the Charlie Merrifield Track. It is a fitting name and an incredible tribute to the great coach and great man.
Somehow, though, it doesn’t seem like enough to honor and remember Charlie.
That’s because anything short of adding his face to Mount Rushmore just seems way too little when trying to explain the impact of this icon’s icon.
— Bill Foley can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74. Listen to the ButteCast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever you find your favorite podcasts.
Awesome Article! Mr. Merrifield will be missed! Words can’t describe the impact and influence that he had on so many! My mom had Mr. Merrifield as a teacher when she was 13! The families are in our thoughts and prayers! ❤️❤️🙏❤️❤️