We first met Craig Zetterberg in the fall of 2008. Our oldest daughter, Angela, had failed to make the Nevada Union freshman girls volleyball team, and she turned to the sport of swimming instead. The following fall, swimming turned into water polo, and our relationship with Craig “Zeus” Zetterberg began.
Immediately after the close of that first water polo season, Angela was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a rare childhood cancer, and our lives turned upside down.
Prior to her surgery at Stanford Children’s Hospital, a series of meetings began between Angela, my husband and I, the high school nurse, counselors and teachers. The goal of these meetings was to form a plan that would allow Angela to continue with her studies while she was undergoing post-surgery radiation and rehabilitation as she would be unable to attend school for several months. Even though Angela had never had Craig as a teacher and had only been on his water polo team one season, he attended every single meeting.
At one of those meetings, my eyes were searching around the room trying to make sense of everything that was happening, and I looked back and saw Craig listening intently to the school nurse with tears in his eyes. All I could think was, “Who is this water polo coach who cares so much?” I soon found out that Craig had volunteered to be Angela’s home-hospital teacher, and for the next four months, he would come to our house after school and work with Angela in world history, English and Spanish. The first time he came over to the house, he brought a pan of his homemade lasagna and assured us that he was going to make sure Angela passed every one of her classes and that she was going to graduate with her class.
I have very fond memories of Craig teaching Angela at our kitchen table several afternoons a week. It was obvious that history was his passion, and as I worked around the house, I would get caught up in the lesson and start asking questions myself. I believe I learned more about history in those few months than I ever did when I was in high school. (Note to my Nevada Union teachers, it was me, not you.) During this period of time, he began recruiting Angela’s two younger sisters, DeAnna and Jessica, to play with a water polo ball and be ready to try out for the team when they reached high school.
Angela made a complete recovery and played water polo for Craig the next two years of high school. Our daughter, DeAnna, then played water polo all four years of high school, and our daughter, Jessica, has just finished her junior year on the varsity water polo team. Over these last seven years, we have traveled to many water polo tournaments and many more water polo games. Our respect and love for Craig Zetterberg grew every year. I don’t know if there has ever been a coach who cared more about his players. Even though water polo is a fall sport, many girls from the team spent their lunch time in Craig’s classroom. Water polo was seasonal, but Craig’s ability to be a mentor and compassionate listener lasted the entire year. I don’t know how many conversations I have had with my youngest daughter, which would end with her saying, “I will ask Zeus what he thinks tomorrow.”
Craig’s attributes were many, and the only faults I ever saw involved referees making hotly contested calls during water polo games. Even though calls did not always go in his favor, Craig was the first one to “shake it off” and encourage the girls to play their best.
Craig was highly principled when it came to his polo girls. As an example, he refused to allow the girls to conduct a car wash or pose for a group swimsuit poster as a form of fundraising for the team. He expected them to conduct themselves with dignity and respect. He tried to instill a sense of excellence in all the players and students whose lives he touched.
But once the games were over and the nets put away, Craig wanted to be home with his family. He was a proud father of his two children, academically and athletically.
Over the years of attending overnight tournaments, my husband had many late-night conversations with Craig about family and the importance of fathers in their children’s lives. Craig cherished his family and often remarked what a lucky guy he was to have the wife and children that he did.
When it comes down to it, we will miss Craig, our friend, as much as we will miss him as a water polo coach. We will miss watching the intensity with which he lived every part of his life. We will miss his floppy hats and imaginative ties on the water polo deck, and we will especially miss his influence in our daughters’ lives. His death has left a huge hole in his classroom, in the water polo program, on the mountain biking team and in our hearts.
Dee Murphy lives in Grass Valley.
Over these last seven years, we have traveled to many water polo tournaments and many more water polo games. Our respect and love for Craig Zetterberg grew every year. I don’t know if there has ever been a coach who cared more about his players.