Robert Covey may have been a modern day student-athlete, but his mindset and work ethic utter the word throwback.
When the 2005 St. Helena High graduate was not conquering his opponents in the athletic arena, he was getting a taste of the working man’s life as a construction worker. Covey would follow an eight-hour workday in the sweltering summer heat by spending time at football workouts or practice.
Whether it involved football, wrestling, track and field, or life, Covey’s hard-edged work ethic has served him well.
“It can always be harder,” he said. “The physical pain that I felt running sprints on a football field, at least it was going to end. If it’s working construction eight hours a day in 100-degree heat, I say I could be on a football field in full uniform. On the field, it’s 105-plus.”
Covey, who works as a project manager-estimator for a St. Helena construction company, will be one of five inductees into the St. Helena High Athletic Hall of Fame on Oct. 23 at the Native Sons Hall. The 2021 class includes Artie Carr (distinguished service), Gordon Anderson (coach), Bret Del Bondio (1976) and Bridget Malone (1999).
Covey lives in St. Helena with his wife, Hailey, and 1-year-old son, Chip.
He grew up on a small farm in north St. Helena that has been in his family for multiple generations.
“Growing up on a farm taught me about putting in hard work and that you’re never really finished,” Covey said. “Every day is a work in progress.”
Covey and his family now live in south St. Helena and have a garden and a few animals.
“I feel lucky to be rooted in an area that’s as celebrated as this valley, but what’s more remarkable is the support of this community,” he said. “People in town and even clients, still to this day, bring up stats and stories about some of the football games that I played in. It’s fun to hear how enthusiastically they recall them.”
Covey’s shining moment was his senior year of football. Ian MacMillan, who coached St. Helena from 2004-2006 and is back for a second tour of duty, moved Covey from the offensive line to running back. Covey amassed 1,577 rushing yards on 265 attempts, both school records at the time. He also rushed for 22 touchdowns, the second-most in school history at the time.
Covey spent the first half of his sophomore season on the JV team at running back before head coach Randy Neller moved Covey to the offensive line because of a shortage at that position after grades of other players were released. Then-varsity head coach Bryan Powell, who resigned in May 2004, kept Covey on the line. But when MacMillan took over, Covey’s return to running back catapulted the Saints from a 4-6 record in 2003 to 9-2 in 2004.
“I think the first words Ian ever said to me was, ‘What position do you want to play?’” Covey recalled. “I told him I wanted to play running back, not thinking he would put me there because I had previous coaches and teammates tell me that I was a lineman, that I could never play running back. I wasn’t fast enough and I was too big. Ian looked at me, turned away, and then turned back around and said, ‘We’ll see what you can do.’ From there, I just fell into the running back position.”
Covey validated MacMillan’s decision immediately. In the second game of the season, he ran through the defense of the Salesian Pride — known then as the Chieftains — like a hot knife through soft butter to the tune of a then-school-record 266 yards on 29 carries for five touchdowns, the second-most in school history at the time.
“I definitely had a smile on my face after that game,” Covey said. “My teammates played great that game. It was like a once-in-a-lifetime kind of game. I was like, ‘Wow. This is fun. I can actually do this.’”
Two backstories to that game were that Jahvid Best, who went on to play football at UC Berkeley and in the NFL for the Detroit Lions, was playing for Salesian. At halftime, referee Gregg Bell said that he overheard Saints quarterback Luke McMullen call the play “16 veer” in the huddle at least seven straight times.
“I know we were running the same plays,” Covey said. “With the option, I didn’t know if I was getting the ball or if the quarterback was keeping it or pitching it. I just took every play as the next play.”
As a senior, Covey was first-team All-North Central League I, All-Napa County, All-Redwood Empire and second-team All-State in the Small School division.
Covey was also an accomplished wrestler, despite not coming out for the sport until his junior year. He was the 217-pound Coastal Mountain Conference champion as a junior and took third at heavyweight as a senior in the midst of the program winning nine league championships in 10 years under former head coach Herschel Sandler. Covey also helped the Saints win the CIF North Coast Section Class A team championships in their 40-33 win over Kelseyville. He advanced to the NCS individual meet in both seasons.
“Track gave me something to do in the springtime,” Covey said. “It helped me stay in shape and train for football. That was a physically demanding activity. It’s actually more of a team sport than the others. Even though you are out there as an individual when you are competing, you can’t do any of it without a training partner. You relied a ton on your training partners. In a small town, you need as many participants as possible to play team sports, so that allows you to play everything if you want to. I played soccer as a kid, Carpy Gang Football until they no longer allowed me to play because I was physically too big, and baseball.”
Covey’s parents, Bob and Jennine, signed him up to play sports initially and having cousins in the Wignall family became his vehicle to playing sports.
“My parents always supported me, but never pushed me to play. It was about enjoying it and having fun,” Covey said. “I always looked up to my cousin, Nick Wignall. He was two years ahead of me. He would pick me up in the morning, in the summer and during the school year when the weight room was open. His work ethic was something I admired.”
Covey’s lone sibling is his sister, 2007 St. Helena graduate Arica, whereas the Wignall family had five boys and a girl. Nick and Alex Wignall graduated from St. Helena in 2003 and 2005, respectively. The two families lived within a mile of each other. Alex played right tackle and paved the way for Covey.
“While I didn’t have brothers, they were as close as they came. It was like a built-in sports team,” Covey said. “In St. Helena in the 90’s, playing sports with my cousins was how I passed the time between doing chores on the farm and getting muddy in the river behind my parents’ house.”
Covey later grew to enjoy camaraderie with his teammates as well as growing up in St. Helena, where he appreciates his roots even more now.
“Those are the best things about sports, getting to hang out with your friends,” Covey said. “Growing up, working during the summers, we didn’t have cell phones like now where everyone is connected. I wasn’t a big fan of school. I always struggled there, but sports was a place I could relax and be myself. I don’t think I appreciated St. Helena much growing up. There wasn’t too much to do as a teenage kid. But now, especially being a father, knowing what I know now and having the opportunity to play multiple sports is amazing.”
The Saints’ football program enjoyed a lengthy run of success from 2008-2020 under Brandon Farrell, who has since become athletic director. MacMillan left St. Helena after the 2006 season before returning as the JV head coach from 2017-2019 after two stints at Napa High as an assistant and four years at American Canyon as varsity head coach.
Covey, whose wife helps with the St. Helena cheer program, recently had a chance to attend a MacMillan-led practice with his son.
“One thing I noticed was how much fun the kids were having and how relaxed they were,” he said. “You also see how involved Ian is. He gives it 100% every day when it comes to the program. There’s nothing he wouldn’t do for his players that are playing for him now and after they are gone.”
Outside of family, Covey considers former Arizona Cardinal Pat Tillman to be an influential figure. Covey entered high school in August 2001, one month before the infamous 9/11 terrorist attacks. Tillman retired from football and enlisted in the U.S. Army.
“I identified with Tillman's servant style of leadership and this was the reason I chose to wear the No. 40 in football,” Covey said. “While I wasn’t incredibly fond of academics as a teenager, I certainly enjoyed my time as an athlete in high school. It’s humbling looking through clippings and reflecting on the memories and relationships that came along with that experience. I’m honored, truly.”
After high school, Covey attended Feather River Junior College, where he played football as a fullback and tight end and earned an Associate of Arts degree. He returned to St. Helena for a semester to work in the construction industry. Covey then headed off to the University of Arizona, where he was a flanker on the rugby team. Shortly thereafter, he returned to California to earn a bachelor’s degree in history at Sonoma State.
After college, Covey continued working in construction, progressing from laboring to operating, before evolving into his current role of project manager and estimator. Covey returned to school at UC Davis to fulfill a certification in construction management. One year ago, he launched an equipment rental arm of the construction business. The Glass Fire presented a need to lend heavy construction equipment (including water trucks) to friends, neighbors, and business associates.
Covey’s father founded Taylor Bailey Construction, an earthworks construction company, in the early 2000s.
“No matter how hard I tried to pursue an alternative career path, physical work always attracted me,” he said. “Though construction has stuck with me, I do much less of the physical work on the job these days.”
Though secondary, athletics remains part of his life but it involves more recovery work as opposed to strictly lifting weights. Covey stays active with cardio work, including yoga, Jiu-Jitsu and CrossFit.
“I still challenge myself physically with marathons and half marathons and enjoy the camaraderie and competition that sports and fitness bring to my life,” Covey said. “Ultimately, I’m an outdoorsman, so really any way that I can combine being outside and being active — that’s when I’m happiest. I guess you could say that playing multiple sports has carried over into my adult life. I still like to change it up.”
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