HELENA – Just over three years have passed since Alex Kastens’ college football career ended, but the former Carroll College center remembers lacing his cleats and popping pads like it was yesterday.
“I think you think about it every day, whether you’re up there or not. I know I do,” Kastens said. “Certainly all my friends that I played with and my teammates do too.”
Four years of football, friendships, wins and losses, but what Kastens remembers most, at least most vividly, isn’t the memories you might expect.
“Honestly, probably the butt chewings. That’s something we all joke about and all remember. ‘Wish I would have had a better technique on this play,’ or ‘wish we would have had a better play here.’ But ultimately what you remember is the locker room,” said Kastens. “Now I’m getting to the point where all my teammates are getting married, you’re in their wedding now and guys are having kids. It’s cool to have that bond still. You wish you were still putting pads on every day, but to be able to talk every week, a lot of my teammates are involved in coaching themselves and still involved in the sport, so now from a professional standpoint we talk more about ‘What techniques are you using? How are you arranging practice?’ I’m honestly recruiting their kids in some of the schools they’re at.”
Hearing Kastens discuss his love for the game and memories from his playing days, even those butt chewings, it’s easy to see why he’s transitioned to an assistant coach with the Fighting Saints, using his football knowledge to mentor the next crop of Carroll athletes.
“It’s cool to be able to pass along the things I learned when I was playing. From a program standpoint and a family standpoint, that’s really what that place is about,” Kastens said. “It’s a miniature locker room experiment. It’s a miniature game-day experiment where you have guys in there competing. Guys are getting after it, they’re putting it on the line every day. Now, that has to go from the room to the field.”
Kastens knows a thing or two about transitioning from the weight room and practice field to game day. The former three-year starting center at Carroll, Kastens’ Saints went 22-4 in his final two seasons, advancing to the NAIA quarterfinals and semifinals. His senior year was the last time the Saints’ made a trip to the national playoffs.
As a player, he grew accustomed to dominating the Frontier Conference and stockpiling wins. That’s made the past three seasons, each 4-6 campaigns, new territory for Kastens the coach.
“I think it’s extremely challenging, but to be honest with you, it’s just as challenging when you’re winning 10 games a year, too. You still think about those individual plays and it’s a matter of breaking down a game and saying ‘Hey, one play can change a game.’ But it could back then as it could now too,” said Kastens. “It wasn’t like we were winning every play back then either, you had to compete every play, you had to contest every play. We’re getting back to ‘We can play for three quarters, but where’s the fourth quarter?’ Wherever that quarter may be, whether it’s the second quarter or first quarter, first half or second half, being able to put together a full four-quarter game and understanding that if you have a bad play, you have to move on. As coaches we’re not going to move on, right? But as players you have to. You have to continue to evolve and grow and make sure that mistake doesn’t happen again.”
Few coaches enter each work day with the fire and intensity of Kastens, who still looks and sounds like he’s in his prime as a player. This spring was his first in his new role, strength and conditioning coach, where interacting with players from every position on the field has given him a newly formed respect for the game.
“I think for me what’s most exciting is seeing guys branch out outside of position groups. We had some position changes this year, moving some of the tight end guys to center and offensive line and tackle. You see how a running back can go up and cheer a defensive lineman on in the weight room. You see how a defensive lineman goes on and cheers a wide receiver, or a cornerback and wide receiver in the same lifting group,” he said. “That’s also part of that experiment that the weight room is. Everybody is close with their position group, but not everyone is close across team lines, across enemy lines so to speak with offense, defense and special teams.
“Having that place to play that thing out and develop leaders, to put people in power to lead, too, not just say that the leaders need to lead, but empowering them and putting them in positions to correct a technique or correct a lift, to say ‘Hey, put 10 pounds on here. Add 15 pounds here. Go lower.’ It’s not so much me anymore, but our players saying that, and that’s what you want. Developing leaders, giving them a platform to lead and then going out onto the field and seeing how that plays out.”
Spring ball came and has nearly gone for Kastens and Carroll, who scrimmage inside Nelson Stadium in the Saints’ annual spring game on Saturday. Players won’t report again until August, nearly four months away, leaving Kastens antsy for the coming summer months.
“Having to put the pads away and then having to get them back out I guess. I’m really excited for this season, I’ve been excited for this spring. It was great to get outside and run around a little bit,” said Kastens. “I think the biggest thing for us is going to be getting through spring football, finding out what the depth chart looks like, continuing to develop those guys on the depth chart, but obviously that depth chart is never going to be full. Continue to bring along more guys in the summer months, whether a freshman or guys on the bubble, continue to bring them along as we head into fall camp.”