On December 7, 1991 -- nine years and 299 days before the first high-school national championship game -- the Concord (California) De La Salle Spartans suffered what they still refer to as their own "day of infamy": they lost a football game. With two minutes and nineteen seconds to play, Percy McGee snatched an interception and returned it for a touchdown, giving the Pirates of Pittsburg High School a 35-27 lead and putting them in reach of an upset over the Spartans, who hadn't lost for thirty-five games.
The Pittsburg Pirates were the underdogs. Pittsburg is a gritty, blue-collar, racially mixed port town on the windswept outlet where the Sacramento Delta empties into Suisun Bay, a distant and distinctly unglamorous backwater of the San Francisco Bay. De La Salle -- private, suburban, Christian Brothers-founded -- was going for its fourth consecutive California North Coast Section championship and had future New York Giants star Amani Toomer among its standouts on the field.
More than any single player, though, De La Salle had Robert Ladouceur, then thirty-seven years old and completing his twelfth year as Spartan head coach. Before taking the job, only the second coaching position he'd ever held, Ladouceur had been a juvenile probation officer at age twenty-five, moonlighting as a high school football assistant. As De La Salle's coach, he became a legend. Not right away, of course; but soon enough his reputation as a perfectionist started to precede his team onto the field. Seeing him on the sidelines -- intense, unsmiling, deep-set eyes -- opposing coaches and players found it easy to ascribe a sort of supernaturalism to Ladouceur to explain away their losses to what had been a doormat of a team.
And handing out losses was becoming automatic; Ladouceur's Spartans showed a knack for putting together winning streaks. Five in a row, six in a row, an entire season. Then a twenty-four-game winning streak -- interrupted by one loss -- followed finally by a thirty-five-game run, which was on the line tonight.
But if De La Salle had a legend coaching that night, Pittsburg had a windfall of talent, including future Oakland Raiders lineman Regan Upshaw, who pounced on a De La Salle fumble in the last minute to secure the victory. For Terry Eidson, who had taken over as the De La Salle defensive coach just three games before the championship when an assistant abruptly left, the memory is indelible -- if coded in football jargon. "They came out with a five wideout set and surprised us," he says, self-recrimination straining his voice. To be a Spartan is to be prepared. "I vowed to myself to never get beat that way again."
Upshaw went on to become, after college at the University of California at Berkeley, a first-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. For the last three seasons as a Raider he has played on the same Oakland (now Network Associates) Coliseum turf where the Pirates had won. But for him, a pro lineman, nothing compares to that night: "Playing the game with all the buddies you grew up with," he rhapsodized in a newspaper interview nine years later, "playing for the glory of football."
While Upshaw's memory is of glories past, De La Salle and Ladouceur have continued to gather new glories every year: since Upshaw and Pittsburg's big night nine years ago, the Spartans have not lost another game. In late August, when the 2001 season opens, their streak will stand at 113 consecutive victories -- and counting.
Ever since the December evening in 2000 when the Long Beach (California) Polytechnic High School Jackrabbits had won one of the most thrilling Southern Section championships anyone could remember, they had been sitting on top of the world; there was no other way to put it. It was more than just a game -- it was a vindication, a celebration of community, and a kind of exorcism as well. One man in particular had good reason to be floating. Long Beach Poly coach Jerry Jaso had heard the doubters for an entire year following the outcome of the 1999 championship game, against perennial nemesis Mater Dei of Santa Ana.
The rivalry between the two teams mirrored the social divisions in California education. Poly represented a return to public school glory from the days preceding Proposition 13, which had devastated the state's tax base in 1976 and led to plummeting test scores and the limitation, or in some cases, the elimination, of most extracurricular programs. Private parochial powers like Mater Dei benefited from Proposition 13, able to pick and choose their students, feeling no responsibility to the unprepared, the unparented, the unruly, the physically or mentally challenged, the migrant or the poor. Furthermore, as a private institution Mater Dei could also skim the cream of the crop of local athletes, and local was a pretty fluid term in the sprawling five-county Los Angeles Basin, home to almost 20 million.
By the late 1990s the Mater Dei Monarchs would crow over being the undisputed kings of Southern California football, voted number one in the U.S. twice in national year-end polls. The Poly Jackrabbits had vowed to topple Mater Dei, but for an entire decade had always fallen just short. Yet there can be lessons in losing, and even inspiration, too. Under coach Jerry Jaso, the Jackrabbits would finally learn that winning on the field means becoming a winner off it.
In the 1997 California Southern Section title game, Poly had surprised a favored Mater Dei. Then it was Mater Dei's turn, stealing the 1998 final from Poly and what some are still calling the most talented high school team in history. In 1999, it was Mater Dei again, invoking that old Catholic school hoodoo and keeping the Jackrabbits off balance -- and off the scoreboard. It came down to a last-minute drill; Poly scored a touchdown with zero seconds left on the clock and trailed by one point. There was no provision for overtime in the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) rules, so everyone expected Jaso and the Jackrabbits to go for a two-point conversion and victory. Who plays for a tie, anyway? "A tie is like kissing your sister," as Alabama coach Bear Bryant once said.
Coach Jaso sent the kicking team out: stunned silence and even some boos. The kick was good, but the cheers were muted; neither school could really celebrate. And Poly caught the flack afterward. People said that Jaso's going for the tie had tarnished the championship; that he didn't dare go for the win because Poly's public school kids just weren't disciplined enough -- that is, white enough -- to pull it off. Those Poly Jackrabbits were chokers.
But Jaso stuck by his decision; at least that's what he said. He knew the Poly haters would find something to say no matter what, especially if he had gambled on the two-point conversion after the touchdown and then lost. At least Poly had come away with its second championship in three tries over three straight years, and they'd thwarted Mater Dei. Give it time, and that's all anybody would remember: a historic run in the 161-team CIF Southern Section, whose Division I is the largest and strongest football division in California, and arguably in all of America.
But then came last December's game -- against Loyola High School of Los Angeles, another Catholic school, another old foe of Poly's (as what Catholic school wasn't?). For Poly the rivalry wasn't individual so much as Inquisitional: if it wasn't Mater Dei torturing the Jackrabbits, then it was Loyola. Or Bishop Amat, or Servite or Saint Paul.
And the game had indeed been torture for the green and gold of Long Beach. At halftime the underdog Cubs had made 15 yards and no first downs compared to 152 yards for Poly, yet the score was 0-0. A field goal put Loyola up 3-0 before Poly linebacker Marvin Simmons blocked a punt into the end zone, which junior Darnell Bing fell on for a 7-3 lead. With less than two minutes left in the game Loyola got the ball on their twenty. All Poly had to do was hold for four plays. Everybody in the stadium with any sense of history knew to expect a surprise, so there was no way the Poly defense was going to fall for any Catholic schoolyard tricks. Right?
Wrong. Here comes the fumble-rooski, a play so old the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse might have chuckled over it. The quarterback calls the signals, the center snaps the ball but holds on to it. Then he falls over, hiding the ball between his legs, while the rest of the Loyola team fakes a sweep right -- except for this one player who dawdles, then trots over to the center, picks up the ball -- which has technically been fumbled -- and dashes left for 60 yards, down to the goal line.
The fumble-rooski hadn't been tried in CIF football for fifteen years, which is probably why it works. Loyola scores to take a 10-7 lead with 1:12 left. The anguish on the Poly side is existential. Here it is again, the nightmare from last year's championship -- Poly has to try to put something together and score with time running out.
What does Jaso do? He pulls the starting quarterback, a senior, and puts in the junior, Brandon Brooks. The senior has the experience, he started last year, he's 6'4"; Brandon is a shade over 5'9". He's played in tandem with the taller quarterback all season, but still, you don't pull a senior with a minute twelve to go and the championship on the line. Not when Brandon came in at the end of the first half and, after taking the team down to the Loyola goal line, threw an interception.
Jaso has long had a feeling about Brandon. He's looked past the 5'9" body and sees, as he puts it, "a six-foot-six heart." He knows this kid's story: no biological father in the picture; Brandon's mother dying when he was eight; how he's moved from his grandfather's house to his stepfather's apartment depending on his ailing grandmother's condition. He's consoled Brandon after he's made him ride the bench, letting a senior have his shot at starting. And Brandon has responded to the years of Jaso's coaching -- coaching about leadership and life as much as about football. "I'm better as a person, better as a leader, on and off the field, because of Coach Jaso," he says. "I've maintained a 3.2 average because of Coach Jaso. Quarterback is a lonely position: on top one minute, next minute you're down. I needed someone to believe in me."
Into the game he goes. After Loyola kicks off, fifty-six seconds are left. On the first play, dropping back to pass, Brandon is sacked for a ten-yard loss. Forty-eight seconds. He throws a quick dart for a thirteen-yard gain, hitting the receiver, Mike Willis, just as he goes out of bounds to stop the clock. On the next play, Brandon tries to hit Willis again; a Loyola player tips the ball, but Willis grabs it anyway and runs for thirty yards. Brandon quickly lines the team up on the new line of scrimmage and spikes the ball to stop the clock. Next Brandon hits Joshua Hawkins across the middle: first and goal from the ten. Poly has four chances left. The first pass is too long. The second goes to 6'7" Marcedes Lewis, leaping over a 5'9" cornerback.
No, the ref calls: Marcedes had gone out of bounds. The third misses, too.
Fourth down. Here it is, pretty much an exact replay of last year's final play. Four seconds are left and a field goal will tie the game.
But one thing is different this year: overtime. Because of the outcry following last year's tie game, the CIF has changed its rules to allow for an overtime period. Now that a field goal for a tie won't look like such a cop-out, Poly should just kick it, right?
Not so fast. Jaso has a problem. His kicker, Javier Torres, hasn't attempted a field goal all year. Can the coach turn over the fate of this game, the legacy of this team, to a walk-on soccer player?
Everybody is second-guessing Jaso -- something of a pastime in Long Beach. Nobody can stand the suspense. What if he misses? Go for broke, go for the touchdown. Get it over with.
In comes Javier. He kicks the field goal.
In overtime, the teams get to start on the opponent's 25-yard line; Loyola wins the coin toss, goes first, and after three tries can't get anywhere against the monstrous Poly defense, led by linebacker Ray Tago, Darnell Bing, and 6'6", 290-pound junior defensive tackle Manuel Wright. Loyola kicks a field goal. It's Poly's turn, and Brandon gets the call again. The coaches select the play "right open pass waggle," and Brandon elects to skip the safe short pass to the fullback and instead throws down a deep seam to Mike Willis, open again.
Now Poly is on the 11-yard line and Brandon remembers what Jaso told him last year: "You're the quarterback. It's your call, your team. If we get there, I promise you we'll win the championship for you." They've been using their star junior halfback, Hershel Dennis, as a decoy in the passing attack. Now Brandon makes the call: 50-BYU, straight out of the pass-happy Brigham Young University playbook. It's designed to spread the wide receivers out and isolate the halfback on a linebacker.
Brandon drops back, pumps, then throws short to Hershel, who dances in for the touchdown, the 16-13 victory, and the exorcism. The stands erupt in celebration; the party afterward in the parking lot of Edison Field -- home of the Major League Baseball Anaheim Angels -- is wild. A whole corner of the lot echoes with the Poly sound track, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Nate Dogg and Warren G, the kings of the Long Beach sound. Lowrider Jackrabbits are making their cars dance; classic Jackrabbits in their minivans and RVs are handing out popcorn; and everywhere you look are all the many nations of Jackrabbit students -- African-American, Cambodian, white, Hispanic, Thai, South Asian, and the Pacific Islanders, Samoans and Hawaiians and Tongans -- draping candy leis on the players until their heads are almost disappearing.
That was December 9, 2000, a night to remember. Over Christmas break the national end-of-season polls came out: USA Today ranked Poly number two in the country, Fox Sports Fab 50 put Poly second, and the Dick Butkus Football Network ranked Poly number one in America.
"It sure feels better than it did a year ago," Jaso said to local reporters.
The warm and fuzzy feeling lasted a month. Around New Year's Day, rumors came down about a possible new preseason opponent for the upcoming season: De La Salle, up in the Bay Area, town of Concord. Everybody had heard of De La Salle, of course; the Spartans were the other number one national championship team in the polls. Nobody knew much else about them, except for the obvious: another Catholic school. Here we go again.
But not just yet. For the moment, Long Beach Poly is sitting on top of the world.
Copyright © 2003 by Don Wallace