Over a year ago, former Dawson County varsity football player Bailey Dameron contemplated where he wanted to continue his academic and athletic career on the collegiate level.
Having experienced little playing time his first three years of high school, he was having a breakout season at wide receiver as a senior and garnered several offers.
But in truth, there was only ever one choice he wanted to make — a fact directly influenced by another former Tigers standout in Dakohta Sonnichsen.
As a 2021 graduate, Sonnichsen was already launching his college career at Taylor University in Indiana when Dameron was in the midst of his senior season.
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For both players — and many others in the Dawson County football program — their lives had been impacted by coach and motivator Tony Kijanko.
But for two years before his senior season, Dameron had looked up to Sonnichsen — and the latter’s work ethic, character and confidence to play far from home for college made an indelible mark on Dameron.
“Watching Dakohta make his choice to go far from home and truly betting on himself is what impacted my choice more than anything else,” Dameron said. “He inspired me to take a chance on myself and to do what is best for me.”
Not only did Sonnichsen serve as a motivator to Dameron, he served as an example through his character.
While the two worked hard everyday to improve on the football field, they also experienced spiritual growth — with the latter ultimately influencing Dameron to follow in Sonnichsen’s footsteps to attend a Christian university.
Amid all the offers he received, Dameron jumped at the chance to emulate Sonnichsen after earning a chance to sign with Missouri Baptist University.
The combination of traits exhibited by Sonnichsen over the years helped push Dameron to maximize his potential both as a player and person.
“I just have this memory of looking down the weight room and seeing Dakohta pushing himself in the workouts. That set a new standard for me on how I should be working out,” Dameron said. “He’s very respectful and holds himself to a high standard. He’s influenced me on and off the field.”
But what made the connection between the two unique was that Sonnichsen was not one to declare himself a leader or mentor.
Instead, his actions spoke far louder than any words could.
“I was unaware of the way I was being an influence for Bailey,” Sonnichsen said. “I tried carrying myself in a manner of respect for others and trying to be the best leader for those around me that I could.”
What ultimately tied the two players together was the influence of Kijanko — one of the varsity team’s offensive line coaches whose true role on the team reaches far deeper than his job title.
For Sonnichsen, joining Kijanko’s post-practice sessions helped him build the traits that in turn impacted Dameron.
“After practices, we would meet with a group [Kijanko] started called Men of Valor,” Sonnichsen said. “We would do extra work after practices and he would always end this segment with a motivational speech and a [Bible] verse. Meeting with the coach practice after practice, I had come to the realization that I wanted to be more like him.”
In addition to increasing his work ethic through Kijanko, Sonnichsen also used his influence to chart his own collegiate path.
After initial uncertainty, he took the chance to continue both his football career and spiritual journey at Taylor University — a program Kijanko coached at for many years and where the family has a scholarship in their name.
That decision to embark on a path far away from home served as a template for Dameron. Both have credited Kijanko as being a positive influence.
“He has a strong character that has always pushed and motivated me to be who I am today,” Sonnichsen said. “I will always be so appreciative for the things he has done for me.”
“He’s made me a better football player but more importantly he’s made me a better man,” Dameron said. “Something that will forever stick with me is when he spoke about being a man of honor — to take 100% accountability for your actions and to lead by example. Probably the greatest lesson I have ever learned in my life.”
On the other end, Kijanko expressed admiration at both players for their efforts on the field and growth as men.
“Their work ethic is what really got them where they are right now,” Kijanko said. “They want more than just the physical, football experience. They are looking for more as far as developing into a whole person.”
Through their hard work, Dameron and Sonnichsen have both earned playing time on their respective teams as freshmen and have positive structures around them as they transition into adulthood.