Reading up on the Montana women's soccer roster for a game I was covering against Washington State, I came across a section of Mark Plakorus' bio that briefly mentioned his stint in the United States Air Force. Coming from a family with uncles and a grandparent who served in the military, I was immediately interested and bookmarked the idea for a potential Veterans Day feature.
When we sat down about one month later, he candidly spoke about his childhood, the heartbreak he experienced while trying to make the Air Force, breaking away from the family path to pursue a career in coaching and the importance of his older brother, who died while he was in his first season coaching Montana. In all, we had fascinating, engaging conversations for about 90 total minutes and fine combed details to tell several stories within the larger feature. -- Frank Gogola
MISSOULA — Mark Plakorus was 33 years old when he made his first major life decision.
Before then, the current Montana soccer coach had spent his entire life in and around the United States military.
He moved around with his parents on Air Force bases in six cities and two countries for 18 years. He selected the college he wanted to attend, but he had his major picked for him since he was on an ROTC scholarship. He then had his job chosen for him and was moved around from different bases while on active duty.
During those first 33-plus years, he didn’t have to focus on the little things, either. He never had to go shopping for clothes since he was required to wear military uniforms. He didn’t have to worry about selecting medical benefits or setting up a 401K. He wasn’t even allowed to grow a beard because he had to be clean-shaven.
So when he separated from the Air Force in 2002 and took an assistant coaching job at the University of Iowa, he stepped into a different world.
“It was pretty darn scary,” Plakorus said.
As another Veterans Day comes 15 years after he left the Air Force to get into coaching full time, he has no regrets about his decision to separate from the military.
He’s found a purpose and happiness in impacting lives on his stops at Iowa, the University of Tulsa and Texas Christian University. He completed his seventh season at the University of Montana earlier this month.
“Coaching is the one passion for me that is greater than serving my country and being in the military,” Plakorus said. “I’m helping the next generation of young people reach their dreams and goals and helping them to hopefully understand the value of hard work, the value of doing a job right, the value of being with teammates and treating people the right way and being a part of something bigger than yourself. So I still feel I’m making an impact in my country by serving it in this matter.”
A third-generation military man and fourth-generation American, he remains proud of his time in the military.
“This country means the world to me,” Plakorus said. “The things that we have, there’s no other place in the world that gets the opportunities that we have. Are we a perfect country? No. But the reason why we are progressing as a country and becoming better as a country is because the freedoms that we have and that people here are given the opportunities to make a life for themselves that no one else would think of. You have the freedom to do that.
"To me, that’s worth dying for.”
Plakorus was born in 1968 on the now-decommissioned Chanute Air Force base in Rantoul, Illinois. His family was off to Great Falls before his first birthday.
Then it was overseas to Tokyo for three years during middle school. He attended classes on the Air Force base and played on baseball and soccer teams in the summer, living with a host family and learning Japanese.
“The cool thing was when we got Baskin Robbins,” Plakorus said. “They put a Baskin Robbins store on the base, and it was like the greatest thing in the history of the world. The line was like three blocks long waiting for it to open.”
The moving intensified in high school. He spent his freshman year in Montgomery, Alabama, 2½ years in Knob Noster, Missouri, and finished his senior year in Omaha, Nebraska.
It was during high school when he got interested in seriously joining the Air Force. He wanted to be a pilot for quite a while, and that intensified by spending time around bomber and fighter planes when his dad, George Plakorus, oversaw the flight line as part of his Air Force duty.
“Just being around my grandfather and his career in the army, and my dad’s in the Air Force, what I learned and started to realize, this idea of being in the military and serving your country and being a part of something bigger than yourself and defending the freedoms that we have on a daily basis, it really appealed to me,” Mark said.
He applied to attend the Air Force Academy for college, and his evaluations were going fine until he visited the dentist. An X-ray discovered he had a cemento-ossifying fibroma tumor in his jaw.
"I'll never forget that term," he said.
He had two teeth taken out and part of his jaw scraped down to make sure the tumor was removed. The tumor grew back within two months and required a second surgery that he said caused his face to swell up and forced him to miss part of his senior basketball season.
He hasn’t had any issues since, but that tumor disqualified him from attending the Air Force Academy.
“I was pretty bummed,” he said.
From denial to dream
Plakorus was still medically eligible for an ROTC scholarship, which he accepted. He chose to attend the University of Kansas because he followed a girl there, although nothing ever happened.
"Not even a feel-good story," he said.
He lived in Hashinger Hall on the KU campus, which was the first time he didn’t live on an Air Force base for an extended time.
A three-sport athlete in high school, he walked onto the football team as a kicker and wide receiver his freshman year. He missed soccer and decided to drop football and join the club soccer team.
As a condition of his scholarship, he had to major in computer science. He was on track in ROTC to apply to be a pilot, but staring at computer screens caused his eyes to become “absolutely horrible,” he said.
He had risen to commander of his ROTC detachment, but his eyes denied him the opportunity to be a fighter pilot. So when he went on active duty in April 1991, he started as a space missile officer who controlled communications satellites and antennas in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
After three years, he got stationed in Great Falls at Malmstrom Air Force Base from 1994-99. He was a nuclear missile officer and then went on to work with launch and enable codes.
“I like to tell people my job was to wage thermonuclear war,” Plakorus said.
He was eligible for a career-broadening tour and took an assistant coach spot for the women’s soccer team at the Air Force Academy. He remained in the Air Force in that role and oversaw 4,000 cadets in physical education classes at the academy.
It was a dream move for Plakorus. He had played soccer from the youth through semi-pro levels, has been a director of the Flathead Soccer Camp since 1998, was the director of coaching and player development at the Electric City Soccer Club, started a boys’ soccer team at Great Falls High School and served as the director of the Montana Olympic Development Program for girls. He would coach the Colorado Rush Soccer Club and the Colorado Springs Ascent on the side while he was an assistant coach at Air Force.
When his career-broadening tour ended in 2002, he had a decision to make: accept a mission to Greenland or chase his dream of coaching college soccer. The choice was easy.
“I could always go back, but I had to try,” Plakorus said. “I don’t think I could live with myself going, ‘What if?’ So, I went for it.”
Family of One
Plakorus comes from a family of immigrants who gave back to their new country through military service. He had great-grandparents come from Greece, Italy, Germany and Ireland.
Mike Plakorus, Mark’s grandfather on his dad’s side, retired as a major in the Army after starting as a private. Mike was one of 13 kids and had six or seven brothers who served in the military, Mark said.
George Plakorus, Mark’s dad, retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
Mark's grandfather on his mom’s side, Richard Cooke, served in the Army.
“We’re immigrants who have come to this country, and it’s given our family so much,” Plakorus said. “The least we could do is serve it by giving some of our life to defending it.”
So when he decided to separate from the military to coach soccer full time since his military obligations were fulfilled, no one in his family understood him except for his mom, Patricia Plakorus, a dental hygienist on Air Force bases.
“My grandfather was like, ‘You need to grow up, quit playing a game,” he said.
Plakorus had risen to the rank of major when he left in 2002 after 11 years of service. Based on his quick rise, he was on pace to outrank his dad and grandfather as either a colonel or general, he said.
Despite that, and although he was nine years away from retirement in the service, he knew Division I coaching opportunities didn’t come along every day.
He filed his separation paperwork in February, separated at the end of June and didn’t get an offer to coach until the middle of July.
“I was freaking out,” Plakorus said.
After not getting a job at Iowa State, he accepted a position as an assistant at Iowa from 2002-03. He went to Tulsa for 2004 and moved to TCU from 2005-10 before coming to Montana in 2011 for his first head coaching job.
His dad came around to see his side when he came to one of his games.
“He left a voicemail, and he basically just said, ‘Son, now I understand why you do what you do,’” Mark said. “He said, ‘You impressed the hell out of me. You are really special at what you do. And I just want you to know that I love you.’
"I was a blubbering mess. I started crying.”
His grandfather gave him a similar message after seeing Mark’s passion in coaching.
“Following in their footsteps and then feeling like I let them down because I didn’t finish my career was hard,” Mark said. “But for them to tell me that they understood, and they saw why and they see the passion I have and how much it means to me and what I get to do and understand, it means a lot.”
In a twist, his dad ended up coaching soccer and being a teacher at Fulton High School in Missouri when he retired from the Air Force.
‘I want to be perfect’
While Mark came from a military family, he was the only one of his siblings who joined. He had one older brother, one younger brother and one younger sister.
He was closest with his older brother, Michael Plakorus, who died during Mark’s first season coaching at Montana. His brother fell, hit his head and had a brain aneurism, he said. It was the same thing that he said happened to his mom in 2008.
Plakorus still carries memories of Michael and the sports battles the competitive brothers staged, especially on the basketball court. Mark could never beat his brother in basketball until the day of his high school graduation, he said. He nearly missed the ceremony because Michael wanted to keep playing until he won. Michael never did.
His brother’s death came the morning of Oct. 7, 2011, hours before the Griz lost 1-0 to Sacramento State. Mark coached in the game — and didn’t tell any of his players until afterward — because of what he learned from his brother.
“He made me a better human being because he made me more competitive and pushed me and drove me, never let me have anything easy,” Plakorus said.
“I always hear him in the back of my head all the time telling me, because he always used to say, ‘Don’t let me beat you. Don’t let me beat you.' It used to drive me nuts. I hear him all the time.
“I want to be perfect. I want to be better than everybody at what I do. I want our teams to be better than anything and anyone has ever seen. He taught me that competitive drive. He pushed me, and it’s made me a better person because of how I want to do things better than everyone. I want to do it the right way, and I want to be great.”