When he began the construction of a new high school football program, surrounded by acres of open land on a patch in northern Lake County, Luke Mertens had neither a hard hat nor helmet.
Just 29 years old and admittedly thinking he knew it all when he knew not much, he began laying the foundation for what would become a perennial winner and first-class program.
"When I was hired, there was nothing," Mertens said. "There wasn't a helmet. There wasn't a football. There wasn't a (coaching staff)."
A lot has changed since Lakes' inaugural season of football in 2005. The Eagles have been to the state playoffs eight years in a row and have won 9 games in a season three times, advancing to the Class 6A quarterfinals in 2011. Mertens has overseen it all.
Now, however, the man who says he talks to his players all the time about taking on challenges and pushing themselves to get out of their comfort zone is doing just that. He's leaving his own comfort zone and heading 20 miles straight south, where Thursday night he was expected to be officially approved as Lake Zurich's football head coach.
"I felt like it was time for me to do what I preach," Mertens said.
His new challenge won't be to build another program but rather to rebuild the image of another perennial power.
Grab your hard hat, Luke.
"It comes with a heavy heart," Mertens said of leaving Lakes, where he went 72-50 with 9 postseason berths in 12 seasons. "But there's also an amazing opportunity for me."
From Lake Villa to Lake Zurich, here comes Luke, who's transparent, sharp, straightforward, competitive without being consumed with winning, and always in charge.
Lucky LZ, which gets a 41-year-old coach in his prime who has been coveted elsewhere.
"Truth be told, I've had opportunities come the past couple of years that I have decided not to follow through on because of my love for Lakes," said Mertens, not naming names out of respect for fellow coaches and not wanting to undermine schools that reached out to him in their football search. "I just felt like this was the right move for me. This was the perfect move for me and my family (wife Nicole, daughter Reese, 11 next week, and son Rocco, just turned 8).
"Here's what I've been so blessed with and I'm so honored to say," Mertens added. "Because of the relentless work ethic of all these Lakes kids through all these years, I have never had to apply for other jobs. I've had people call me that had interest in me because they have seen the progress that program has made. That's a tribute to the kids. I've always believed that the most important job you have is the job that you're in."
At Lake Zurich, Mertens inherits a team that saw highly respected head coach David Proffitt resign after a hazing scandal walloped the North Suburban Conference school last fall.
"What do I expect when I walk in?" Mertens said. "I expect a lot of hurt. I expect a lot of anxiety. I expect a lot of curiosity. There's going to be a flood of emotions. It's all understandable. But I definitely look forward to meeting people. I'm going to meet people and not just form judgments."
Mertens played his high school football at St. Patrick (Class of 1994) and went to Northern Illinois to play football before an injury during doubles ended his career. He eventually graduated from Valparaiso.
"I got into this business of teaching and coaching because of relationships that I developed with teachers and coaches that I had through the years," he said. "They had such an impact on my life. First and foremost, I (coach and teach) because it's a business of people, and I really enjoy working with people. I really enjoy the relationships that are made."
So that's where he'll start at Lake Zurich with his new players and prospective new assistant coaches. He understands it's a process.
"That wall doesn't go down right away," he said. "But it's going to need to go down and especially in this situation for me."
At Lakes, once Mertens' program got rolling (the Eagles missed the playoffs three of their first four years), the team dominated the old North Suburban Prairie Division. Lakes produced several Division-I players, including current Wisconsin linebacker T.J. Edwards. More importantly, conduct and character always mattered more than victories.
"Of course we want to win," Mertens said. "Of course we have big goals. We all want to be playing Thanksgiving weekend. But that can't be the focus, because if that is the sole focus, we're all going to leave this experience empty, and we're still going to be searching for something."
Lake Zurich's search for the new leader of its football program has ended well. The Bears will continue to win lots of football games. But establishing a winning culture will be top priority.
"Probably one of the coolest things is the amount of text messages that I've received from former Lakes players that have showed genuine appreciation and happiness for this opportunity for me," Mertens said. "That's better than any state championship ring I ever could get."
He gets what matters most.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeAguilar64