Sports fans in the San Antonio area know Mike Wacker as the boys basketball coach at Judson, where he has built a consistent winner since taking over the program in May 1990.
Now in his 23rd season with the Rockets, Wacker recorded his 600th career victory on Dec. 28 and has Judson on track to make another run at the Region IV-5A title.
The Rockets are 21-5 overall and tied with San Marcos for first place in District 25-5A at 2-0. Judson plays at San Marcos (12-11) on Friday night.
"I love what I do and I love coaching at Judson," Wacker said recently. "I've been very blessed. A lot of winning, a lot of great players, a lot of great assistant coaches. I've gotten to coach all three of my sons. Like I said, it's been a blessing. It's a great way to make a living."
Wacker, who has a 606-172 career record, was an assistant coach at Southwest Texas for one season (1985-86) and at UTSA for four (1986-90) before taking his first head-coaching job at Judson when he was only 28.
While Wacker found his calling as a high school coach, his life may have turned out quite differently if he hadn't sustained a devastating knee injury in the 15th game of his sophomore season at UT.
Given his skills, size and instincts, it's not a stretch to say Wacker would have had a solid NBA career if he had stayed healthy.
A 6-foot-9 power forward, Wacker was averaging 15 points and seven rebounds when the No. 5 Longhorns played Baylor at the Heart of Texas Coliseum in Waco 31 years ago this month.
The date is seared in Wacker's memory.
"Jan. 26, 1982," he said. "I went up for an offensive rebound, tapped the ball with my right hand, and came down on my left leg and that was it."
UT jumped out to 14-0 start in 1981-82 season
Wacker crumpled to the tartan floor in agony, his knee so badly mangled that few gave him a chance of ever playing again.
Wacker had a tear of the medial meniscus, his medial collateral ligament was torn and his anterior cruciate ligament was partially torn. He also fractured his kneecap.
"It chipped off into 10 pieces," Wacker said.
UT's promising season also was shattered.
With center LaSalle Thompson and Wacker anchoring the frontcourt, UT jumped out to a 14-0 start that included consecutive victories over Houston, Arkansas and South Carolina.
The 88-71 win over South Carolina in a nationally televised moved the Longhorns to No. 5 in the Associated Press poll, then the highest national ranking for a UT basketball team.
But Wacker's injury took the wind out of the Longhorns' sails. UT lost to Baylor and finished 16-11 after winning only two of its last 13.
Coach Abe Lemons was fired after the season and was replaced by Bob Weltlich, and Wacker didn't play again until the 1984-85 season.
All these years later, Wacker remembers replaying the injury in his head over and over again as he tried to come to grips with the life-altering experience.
"Everyone does that and I certainly was no different," he said. "Everybody plays that what-if game in their mind. It was tough for a while. I didn't have enough strength in that knee. I couldn't even practice."
Wacker's father: 'You count your blessings and go on'
But Wacker, the son of former college football coach Jim Wacker, persevered and fought through the pain of rehabilitation to reach his goal of playing for the Longhorns again. He went to every practice and did all he could to remain a part of the team.
"My dad was very, very much a great influence during that time, just as he always was in my life," Wacker said. "When I was in the hospital, he told me, 'This is part of the ups and downs of life. You count your blessings and go on.'"
Jim Wacker, who died of cancer at age 66 in 2003, was head football coach at Texas Lutheran, Southwest Texas State (now Texas State), TCU and Minnesota. He returned to Texas State as athletic director from 1998 until retiring in 2001.
Mike Wacker sat out 2 1/2 seasons before doctors cleared him to start practicing again on Oct. 14, 1984.
"It was the day before practice started," Wacker said. "I'll never forget that date because I was so excited to just be out there again."
While Wacker wasn't the same player he was before he was injured, he was still good enough as a senior to lead the Longhorns in scoring (16.7) and rebounding (8.3) and earn a spot on the 1984-85 All-Southwest Conference team.
"I was so happy to be playing," Wacker said. "I had a great experience that season. I was at peace because I gave it a shot."
A month after Wacker graduated from UT in May 1985, the Utah Jazz selected him in the seventh and final round of the NBA draft. He was the 151st player picked. The Jazz took Karl Malone with the 13th pick in the first round.
Judson has missed playoffs only once during Wacker's stint
By then, Wacker was enrolled in graduate classes at SWT and was set to become an assistant coach for the Bobcats. Given his knee injury, Wacker figured his chances of playing in the NBA were minuscule.
"I thanked the Jazz for drafting me, but I knew that if I went to camp, I would lose my opportunity to start coaching at SWT that season," he said.
So Wacker launched his coaching career. Five years later, he succeeded Jim Stephens at Judson and methodically built one of the best programs in the state. The Rockets have made the playoffs 21 times and advanced to the state tournament twice under Wacker.
"We had some tremendous applicants for that job when Mike interviewed," said former Judson athletic director Frank Arnold, who hired Wacker. "We were looking for someone with a few more years of experience, but he impressed us. He was so very well organized and so dadgum positive, just like his father.
"Once he got the job, his basketball knowledge and his ability to get players to play hard jumped out at you. But the thing that's always impressed me is the job he does with the kids on a daily basis when it comes to developing character and leadership."
Wacker was inducted into the Longhorn Athletic Hall of Fame in 1999, a testament to his grit and tenacity.
A 1980 San Marcos High School graduate, Wacker started as a freshman on a UT team that lost to Arkansas in the finals of the Southwest Conference tournament, which was played at HemisFair Arena.
Wacker was Jordan's teammate in Olympic Sports Festival
Wacker's stock as a pro prospect rose after he played in the Olympic Sports Festival in the summer of 1981 in Syracuse, N.Y. Wacker finished the Festival as the South team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer.
The leading scorer? A kid named Michael Jordan, who was preparing for his freshman season at North Carolina.
Wacker played against some outstanding players in the Festival, including Chris Mullin, Patrick Ewing and Glenn "Doc" Rivers.
"I felt that when I got through playing in the Sports Festival, I could play with anybody," Wacker said. "I already knew that when I injured my knee, so I didn't wonder about whether I could have played in the NBA."
Wacker's youngest son, David, is a junior post player on this season's Judson team. He also coached Chris and Karl, who graduated from Judson in 2009 and 2011, respectively.
Besides coaching, Wacker teaches four U.S. history classes. Once in a while, the memories of that tough break in Waco bubble to the surface. Whenever they do, Wacker counts his blessings and recalls the credo his paternal grandfather, Herbert Wacker, a Lutheran pastor, lived by.
"He used to say, 'Whomever you, wherever you are, therewith be content,'" Wacker said.
To watch Mike Wacker be a coach and mentor to his players is to see someone who relishes the opportunity to influence young lives.