KINGDOM CITY — Even with the thought of retirement creeping closer, Don Boulware could not resist the opportunity to return.
Boulware is not only back in coaching, he's coming home to do it.
The 64-year-old Boulware — a 1973 North Callaway graduate — will coach a varsity football game for the first time in 19 years when he guides the Thunderbirds into tonight's season opener at Lincoln. Kickoff is at 7 p.m.
Boulware — who last coached in Iowa before moving into a career in sales — replaces Kevin O'Neal. O'Neal stepped down after five seasons to become North Callaway's athletic director when Mike Emmons retired.
The time away from the game has energized Boulware. His previous high school coaching stops include Centralia, Valle Catholic, Santa Fe and Ste. Genevieve, as well as the collegiate level at Ottawa University in Kansas.
"I've always missed coaching — being around the kids and other coaches, and just the competition," Boulware said. "Had I been doing it the last 18 years, on top of the 25 before, I don't know that I would still be doing it.
"But being away for that time, I have a different perspective and I'm not burned out because I had a change of pace, a break."
Boulware is also excited about the chance to coach at his alma mater in front of family members and friends.
"It feels different than any other coaching stop I've ever had because of that, and I know so many people," Boulware said. "I think it helped me be accepted a little bit more.
"It's been a good welcome home so far, and of course we're still undefeated. You know the old saying, 'We're with you, win or tie.' There's no ties anymore, so they're with you, win or win."
Boulware inherits a Thunderbirds team that finished 7-4 last season after being edged by South Callaway 14-6 in the Class 2 District 5 semifinals. North Callaway brings back six starters on both offense and defense.
Senior quarterback Jadon Henry returns for his second season as starter to direct the Thunderbirds on offense. The 5-foot-8, 150-pound Henry completed 73-of-148 passes (49 percent) in 2018 for 1,326 yards, 18 touchdowns and nine interceptions.
"First of all, he's a great kid and very competitive," Boulware said. " He's highly conditioned and throws it pretty well."
Boulware plans to maintain North Callaway's tradition of running the football. The Thunderbirds averaged a robust 213.9 yards rushing per game last season, but they lost the bulk of their production with the graduation of Jordan Delashmutt (1,322 yards, 16 TDs) and Dakota Brush (659 yards, 14 TDs).
North Callaway's backfield this season will line up in the full-house T and wing-T formations, and will be comprised of senior fullback Mason Wortman (5-11, 225), junior halfback Cody Cash (5-7, 145) and sophomore halfback Trevor Ray (6-0, 195). The trio combined for just 135 yards and two TDs on only 35 carries in 2018.
"(Mason) is not super-fast, but he's freaky strong and tough," Boulware said. "I've had some big fullbacks that didn't have natural body lean — he seems to have that. He can be a punishing runner. He's not going to break any 80-yard runs, but if he gets a 5-yard head start, I wouldn't want to jump in front of him.
"(Cody) is very explosive and what I've learned in football camp and practice, he's not just a speed guy, he's a football player. He's got wiggle, vision, body control, great hand-eye coordination, really good hands. He's a special player.
"(Trevor) is almost as fast so that's three good kids. They've all got their own special skill set and we hope to take advantage of all of them."
Henry will be looking to develop new targets when he throws the ball after the Thunderbirds also graduated their top two pass-catchers from last season. Dawson Wright had 23 receptions for 433 yards and seven touchdowns, followed by Chet Cunningham with 16 catches for 369 yards and six scores.
Cash logged 10 receptions for 188 yards and three TDs, while Ray recorded three catches for 86 yards and a score. Returning junior tight end Christian Griffith (6-0, 190) tallied just three receptions for 59 yards in 2018.
"It'll be spread around," Boulware said. "We probably won't have a guy like Dawson Wright with that many touchdowns receiving, but we've got some options there."
North Callaway's offensive line will be bolstered by the return of three starters — senior tackles Will Jeffries (6-4, 315) and Ben Bondurant (6-4, 205), and sophomore center Zeke Gilman (6-1, 210). Junior Josh Selby (5-10, 190) and senior Josh Riecke (5-9, 185) are expected to line up at the guard positions.
On the defensive side, Boulware is ecstatic to have longtime Thunderbirds assistant coach Ronnie Kimbley back for a second season as coordinator.
"He's done a great job — if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Boulware said. "It's going to be Ronnie's show. I trust him completely."
The tackle spots in North Callaway's four-man front will be manned by a pair of behemoths in Jeffries and junior Brandon Hill (6-6, 305). Bondurant and Gilman will occupy the defensive end positions.
The Thunderbirds' linebacker group will be made up of Mason Wortman and Griffith on the inside, while Henry and Ray will patrol the outside. Wortman was second on the team with 6.5 sacks last season.
North Callaway will feature some size at the cornerback spots in juniors Layne Wortman (6-1, 165) and Wyatt Raithel (6-0, 160). Cash will roam in between at free safety.
The Thunderbirds will begin Boulware's tenure tonight with a tough road challenge at Lincoln, last year's Class 1 runner-up. The Cardinals amassed a 13-2 record after being humbled by Hayti 44-0 in the Class 1 state championship game.
"That game will tell us where we're at, it'll be a good measuring stick," Boulware said. " That'll be a good test for us and that will make us better down the road, win or lose."
Notes: North Callaway will remain in Class 2 District 5 this season. The Thunderbirds will be joined by Centralia, Father Tolton, Hallsville, Hermann, Missouri Military Academy, Montgomery County and O'Fallon Christian.