COTTAGE GROVE – For someone who grew up dreaming of being a filmmaker, Garrett Bridgens sure has endured plenty of plot twists in life. The Cottage Grove High School athletic director has gone from a reluctant educator to substitute teacher to coach to overseeing the entire athletics department at his hometown school. Along the way, he married and began raising a family of four children. In 2022, his wife, Heather Cunningham Bridgens, died after a battle with cancer. She was a beloved figure in Cottage Grove education as well, and an entire community shared Bridgens’ grief – and provided immeasureable support, he said.
“That was obviously super hard and traumatizing, and just really hard to go through,” Bridgens said. “She got diagnosed, they told us she didn’t have very long to live, but we went through some treatments, and she made it about a year. That was a hard, really hard, year.”
One way the community demonstrated its support was donating to the Heather Cunningham Bridgens Fund, an endowment set up with the goal to raise money for Cottage Grove’s youth sports programs.
Heather had helped create the fund befor her death, and one year into the fund, he said the community raised roughly $125,000.
“The goal of the fund is to raise enough money that we can start covering participation fees for families. We’ve got it at the middle school already. So middle school athletics are free right now,” Bridgens said. “In middle school, you do not have to pay a participation fee thanks to the endowment.”
He has continued to oversee the fund since Heather’s death on April 8, 2022.
Garrett was the communications director for the school district from 2013-18, and Heather taught English at CGHS from 1999-2014 and then served as principal of Bohemia Elementary School until 2021. Heather also coached swimming and water polo, winning two state titles and earning two state coach of the year awards.
“She was diagnosed with cancer in 2016. She had breast cancer. And, you know, went through everything. Chemo, radiation surgeries, did it all and was doing really good. She was recovering from all of that, if you can recover from that. But she was amazing,” Bridgens said.
The cancer returned in 2021.
“In 2021, she just got blurry vision in her eye one day. We thought that was strange, and then she had some numbness going on. We were worried that she was having a stroke, so we ended up in the emergency room,” Bridgens said. “They did some scans, and then they found that there was cancer in her brain and in her spine. And it was the type of cancer where there wasn’t much we could do.”
A dream job emerges
Heather’s second bout of cancer was what brought Garrett back to Cottage Grove. Garrett was living in the Grove but working in Eugene from 2018-21. With four children, three biological and one adopted, and a sick wife, Bridgens knew he needed to be closer to home.
“My wife got sick again. And the athletic director position came open here. It was perfect timing because I knew I needed to be closer to home with the kids,” Bridgens said. “We were still living here because my wife was the principal at Bohemia, and the kids were all going to school here. I was commuting every day to Eugene, but I knew when all that happened that I needed to come home to Cottage Grove.”
Professionally, it was a dream being realized. Bridgens said that once he decided to pursue a career in education, being an A.D. was what he’d wanted.
“I was really excited about the job because I’ve always wanted to be an athletic director when I went into education. I tried skipping the teaching route and going right to admin,” Bridgens said. “Schools were like, ‘You need to get some experience teaching,’ but I just wanted to be an athletic director.”
For those around him, the A.D. job wasn’t a surprise.
“Garrett’s always been a leader. Even when we do things with friends where we’re gonna group people together, he’ll make that plan because he’s good at that type stuff,” said Matt Thornton, Garrett’s best friend. “Garrett likes to lead; he wants to make decisions.”
Thornton and Bridgens met in 3rd grade, and by 5th grade they were “essentially brothers.” Both were the best men at each other’s weddings.
Neither saw themselves as career educators.
“I rejected education for the longest time. My parents are both educators. My brother was an educator,” Bridgens said. “I was not going the education route … but I started doing some substitute teaching and started liking it a lot. I was coaching track and coaching basketball. And I was like, ‘OK, I think I can do this.’ I was really excited about that.”
Bridgens was born in Beaverton, lived briefly in Alaska, and moved to Cottage Grove in 1st grade, enrolling in Bohemia Elementary School.
Bridgens, the youngest of three boys growing up, said he was an athlete from the get-go. He lettered in five sports at CGHS: football, soccer, cross country, basketball and track & field. Track was his best.
He was good enough to run for a year at Lane Community College and one year at Vanguard University in California, but his body couldn’t take much more.
“College hurdles beat me up pretty good. I was like, ‘I’m done with that.’ So I came home and transferred to U of O,” he said. His brother, who was the head track coach at CGHS, hired him to coach sprint and hurdles. After a brief time away from Cottage Grove, Bridgens was back.
Building a culture
In two years at the helm of CG athletics, a lot has changed. Bridgens said that while he loved coaching, being the A.D. gives him the ability to enact change on a much larger scale.
“I love everything about sports and what it teaches us, so the idea of being able to be in charge and help create a vision and an athletic department for Cottage Grove High School and to be the leader of that … that speaks to me,” he said.
Much like building a championship team, a great athletic program needs balance. Bridgens said one of the most important parts of enacting his vision is a good team around him.
“We’re trying to create a true athletic department, and to have our coaches working together on things, and to share similar team expectations, similar coaching strategies,” Bridgens said.
Making the department connected is one of the reasons Bridgens was hired.
“He did a really good job creating a vision for what he wanted the athletic department to be. And it really connected with what we’re doing here at the school by establishing a mission statement, a vision and values that we are committed to as a staff,” said Kevin Herington, CGHS principal and a member of the hiring committee. “He laid out a really good vision, and that just resonated with me and the committee. This is what we want to build to; now we have something we want to build toward.”