Even to this day, the story of Ethen Koepke’s life moves Bonney Lake High School football coach Jason Silbaugh to tears.
“I told him that I know adults that wouldn’t be able to do what you did,” Silbaugh remembered, as the brawny, thick-bearded coach’s eyes began to swell. “I told him, ‘That is an amazing story. It is amazing that you are where you are at.’ ”
The team was at summer football camp in 2014 and took a break on the beach at Mud Bay near Olympia. Instead of hiking back with the others to the parking lot, Silbaugh pulled his team’s newest member off to the side.
Long after the other players and coaches had left, Silbaugh remained, listening to Koepke explain how he went from sleeping in a tent to living in Kris Thul’s and Heather Altmayer’s home in Bonney Lake.
He learned about the car accident involving Koepke’s father that turned his life upside down and how his mother left in his early childhood. He also heard troubling stories about Koepke’s life with his father and how he would run away. Koepke told him he lived on his own most of his freshman year of high school.
Silbaugh had heard only bits and pieces of Koepke’s story. Impressed with Koepke’s resiliency, he pledged to help.
“I told him, ‘I don’t know what is going to happen. I can’t promise you what will happen. All I can promise is that I’m going to support you the best I can,’ ” Silbaugh said.
“ ‘I’m going to make sure you get a high school degree. Other than that, I can’t promise you anything. I can’t promise you football glory. I can’t even promise you glory in high school football. But I’ll promise you that I’ll be there for you.’ ”
Thul and Altmayer had also made a similar pledge. They gave Koepke basic things most might take for granted — food, clothes, a place to stay and somewhere where he could call home.
“I think the only thing that really carried me through was knowing that I got to play football,” Koepke said of his time before moving in with Thul and Altmayer. “And my past memories of being the best football player and wanting to become a great football player.”
When reached by The News Tribune, Jeff Koepke, Ethen’s father, said in a brief conversation that “not all of it is true.” He did not return multiple calls requesting further comment.
Although The News Tribune could not verify all parts of Ethen Koepke’s story, his coaches, Silbaugh and former coach Marty Parkhurst of Orting High School, Orting school counselor Matt Carlson, Thul and Altmayer believe it to be accurate.
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Koepke’s father wanted him to pick up the sticks off the trails.
Koepke, in middle school at the time, asked if he could use a rake because the sticks were so small.
He asked several more times but got no response as his father walked away.
Finally, Koepke said his father told him to leave him alone and then threatened him.
“He started walking toward me aggressively, so I ran away and I hopped the fence with nothing but the clothes on me,” Koepke said.
Wearing just shorts and a T-shirt, he said he walked to a nearby school where he slept under the bleachers that night.
“Thank God it didn’t rain because that would have been really crappy,” Koepke said. “It was already cold enough.”
It wasn’t always like that with his father, but that changed, Koepke said, when his father’s truck was hit by a bus. Jeff was hospitalized after his head collided with a toolbox in the back.
After the accident, Koepke said his father stopped throwing the football with him and stopped coming to his practices and games.
He said trivial things would set his father off, such as not putting the cups on the top rack of the cupboard, forgetting to set the table, or if Ethen asked how Jeff’s day had been.
He said he would often spend his days hiding in his bedroom closet until his father took down the doors to his room.
At a friend’s house one night, he opened up about his home life and how his father treated him. He said his friend’s mother called the police.
They drove Koepke to a nearby elementary school, where his father and the police were waiting. But the police said he had to go back with his father because they couldn’t see physical evidence of abuse.
Ethen Koepke returned home with his father. But Ethen said when his dad went to take a nap, he ran away again 30 minutes later.
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Koepke prayed the janitor wouldn’t see him.
He spent his freshman year at Graham-Kapowsin High School. Sometimes he said he’d sneak into the gymnasium, scale the stands into the upstairs gym, work his way underneath the bleachers and sleep there.
Koepke didn’t have a lot of friends, but a lot of what he said were little more than acquaintances. He’d ask them if he could hang out for a weekend — really just hoping they’d take him for a couple days so he’d have a place to stay.
And he became resourceful. He would stuff himself with food from the salad bar at lunch, he said, or try to mooch food off a classmate and save it for that night.
He would wash his dirty clothes with hand soap in a sink at school, put them in his locker and “pray to God that someone turns on the heat,” so they would dry, he said.
Other times, he would take clothes from the lost and found. He felt bad about taking the clothes so he would memorize items that were there. Days later, if no one claimed them, he would take them.
“I don’t like to admit it, but I would have to steal a lot,” Koepke said. “… I didn’t want to steal somebody’s belongings they had just lost that day because I know how I would have felt if I would have lost something and couldn’t find it.”
Koepke said he got all Fs his second semester at Graham-Kapowsin.
He transferred to Orting his sophomore year. The change offered not just a fresh start in school, but also somewhere to live.
Koepke stayed with a man on Orting-Kapowsin Highway he had met through friends in elementary school — another of his many acquaintances. Things weren’t perfect — he had to do a lot of chores, work on cars and walk about five miles to a bus stop on Orville Road just to get to school. But he believed he could live there through high school.
However, he said things got more strict about six months in. Then his grades slipped and his living arrangement changed.
He said he then wasn’t allowed to sleep in the house anymore. He had to sleep outside. In a tent.
Less than a week later, Koepke left. He was homeless, again.
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All Orting football coach Parkhurst knew was Koepke was a well-liked, talented player who struggled with grades.
Koepke played one game — on junior varsity. Parkhurst said they called him their scout team All-American.
“Because if he didn’t make grades and couldn’t play that week, we would put him on the scout team and he would kill us,” Parkhurst said.
Koepke also hit it off with Carlson, a school counselor at Orting and a pastor at Abundant Life Community Church.
Carlson learned of Koepke’s daily journey to school, which he first believed was embellished.
“Then the more I learned about him the more I was like, ‘No, he really was doing that,’ ” Carlson said. “The people he was living with, they had a way of doing things that were old, old school. Strict.”
“On one hand they were wonderful people who took him into their home and tried to help him out. On the other hand … they were a little backward. It was a little different.”
When Koepke told Carlson he was living in a tent, Carlson sprang into action. He contacted Ed Hatzenbeler, Orting’s principal at the time, and filed a report with Child Protective Services.
Carlson and Parkhurst reached out to their church, though Parkhurst said he was ready to take Koepke into his own home.
“At that point you are just trying to help that kid survive,” Carlson said. “Can you couch surf? Do you have any friends you can stay with? Where can you go?”
Then Koepke told Carlson about Thul and Altmayer.
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Thul and Altmayer, who aren’t legally married but did have a wedding ceremony, don’t have children of their own. They work from home, own their own business and are active in community charities.
They had a friend whose two kids knew Koepke. Thul and Altmayer were going to take them Christmas shopping and one of the kids asked if they could invite Koepke.
After a meal and a few presents — Thul and Altmayer bought Koepke some books, basketball shorts and new shoes — Altmayer said she felt compelled to give Koepke her phone number. She told him to call anytime he needed anything.
“(Koepke) was in my office and he’s like ‘I’m stuck,’ ” Carlson said. “And I was stuck, too. We were stuck. To be honest, as a school we didn’t know what to do. I told Ethen, ‘Hey, man, I know it’s a long shot, but you were told by Heather and Kris that if you ever needed anything to call them.’ ”
So Koepke did. They took him in on Easter Sunday of 2014.
“Heather and Kris saved the day for him,” Carlson said. “… I wouldn’t advise people to take 16-year-olds into their house who come from at-risk populations very often. … But Ethen is the poster child for an amazing kid.”
There was more to do. In order for Thul and Altmayer to gain guardianship, they needed Jeff Koepke to give his signed blessing.
Carslon said a high school counselor normally would not get involved in this process. But this was different, and with Hatzenbeler’s blessing, he helped facilitate the meeting.
A dinner was arranged at Thul’s and Altmayer’s home. Jeff, wearing a big straw hat, was there with his girlfriend. Carlson described the night as “two worlds colliding” and a really, “fun and intense moment.”
Jeff signed the papers.
“That whole time, as a counselor, I could look through all the craziness there and see the heart of Dad,” Carlson said. “And that was, ‘I really do want what is best for my kid.’ I think he could recognize in his own way that he could not care for his son the way he needed to and I think that tears him up.”
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“Which one do you want?” Altmayer asked Koepke.
Koepke was stunned. He hadn’t even got to their house for the first time and they were about to purchase him a new touch-screen cellphone. This was the first of many changes in his lifestyle.
He has his own room — it’s painted red and black, Orting’s school colors. The room’s filled with logos of the Green Bay Packers, even the cover to the light switch. He has two big screen TVs and multiple video-game consoles upstairs.
Parkhurst remembers seeing the change in Koepke as he walked the halls, beaming over a new red sweatshirt.
“You could just see the sense of pride,” Parkhurst said.
Thul and Altmayer held a surprise birthday party for him, took him on vacations to Las Vegas, Hawaii and Disneyland and gave him a car.
“There was no feeling him out,” Altmayer said. “We were 100 percent in.”
“If we were going to offer him this, it was going to be, ‘This is for real,’ ” Thul said. “If he calls us and needs us, we are going to stick up on our end of it and give him the chance that unfortunately he’s never had up to this point.”
About two weeks in, Koepke asked if he could have friends over and use the swimming pool.
“Our house went from silent to guys all over the place and food everywhere,” Altmayer said proudly. “I should have bought stock in Costco at that moment.”
They also got Koepke a tutor. They spent more than two hours together every school day.
He went from a 0.6 grade-point average to 2.3. He got 117 percent on a math test. On another test, he said he was the only one in his class to pass it.
“One of my really good friends was sitting next to me and he’s like, ‘What the hell happened?’ ” Koepke said, laughing.
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The commute from Bonney Lake to Orting couldn’t continue to work, which meant Koepke had to transfer schools.
Parkhurst immediately called Silbaugh.
“And I told him, ‘I’m sending you my boy,’ ” Parkhurst said. “ ‘I need you to take care of him. Don’t lose this kid. He needs you.’ ”
Silbaugh said Parkhurst also told him bits of Koepke’s past. He met Thul, Altmayer and Koepke registering at Bonney Lake later that spring. Koepke then watched the team’s spring football practice.
“I knew some of the stuff, but I was, like, I’ll find the right time to ask him,” Silbaugh said.
He wanted to first get Koepke acclimated with the team and ensure Koepke knew he belonged, with a support system beyond Thul and Altmayer and his new coach.
It wasn’t until that summer Silbaugh learned the full story. Koepke has since opened up to players in small-group settings, as well.
Last year, Koepke scored his first varsity touchdown in the season opener against Bellarmine Prep — on a 4-yard run late in the game. He returned a fumble 25 yards for a touchdown and added another 4-yard TD run the following game.
He’s part of a three-man running back rotation this year and also rotates in at defensive end. Koepke ran for three touchdowns against Auburn two weeks ago.
“My main goal in life has always been to go to college and the NFL,” Koepke said. “I know the NFL doesn’t always work out for everybody, but I want to give it my best shot and I think that my shot has a lot better chance than everybody else’s because of what I’ve been through.”
Silbaugh believes Koepke will be able to play in college somewhere next year — even if it’s not an NCAA Division I school. He also believes Koepke can break the school’s track and field record in the javelin this spring. He’ll play lacrosse, too.
“In his perfect world he would have been starting last year and he would be the only running back this year scoring thousands of touchdowns,” Silbaugh said. “But in my mind, it’s pretty close to perfect because, as coaches, we’ve seen a lot of players take a lot of different paths. What Ethen has done, it’s amazing. It’s perfect in my eyes because, shoot, he’s still doing it. He could have even given up last year with football and school not going the way he wanted it to.
“But to go from those horrible times to the fact where he is going to end up graduating and we are going to find him somewhere where he can play in college? I know he’s envisioned Division I and playing for the Green Bay Packers. Not to say that won’t happen, but he has the opportunity to play college football and graduate from high school – that is phenomenal.”
TJ Cotterill: 253-597-8677