A shining season brings a team – and a community – together.
Thursday, November 20, 2008
It’s an early Saturday evening in October, but the secluded south parking lot of Monterey Peninsula College is as crowded as it would be on a school day. Many of the cars are parked behind the Main Stage Theater. Many more, though, are parked higher, near the stadium that sits above the sprawling MPC campus like a crown. Behind those stadium gates, an athletic competition is about to unfold.
The people getting out of their cars and vans wear a peculiar smile – the smile of a cardplayer holding a winning hand. No one is blasting music or grilling on hibachis. No one sports painted faces, foam fingers or noisemakers. The only sounds come from the echo of a distant voice through the loudspeakers and the animated murmur of families and friends as they amble toward the stadium. They share relaxed, secret smiles that hint of confidence… of winning… of confidence in winning.
Blame the MPC “Lobos’’ football team for that. They haven’t just been winning, they’ve been dismantling their opponents: 42-13 (Merced College), 51-17 (West Valley), 38-14 (Gavilan). There have been closer games – the one-point win over Solano College and the OT victory over Yuba College. But a win is a win.
In the process, the streaking Lobos have risen to 8th in the Nor-Cal Division (out of 37 schools), 15th in the state’s Community College Athletic Association. And after trouncing their rival Hartnell Panthers this past Saturday night, they have completed their regular season undefeated. Now they are eyeing a state bowl game, in San Mateo, on Nov. 22.
“I don’t believe we’ve had a [perfect] season since I started watching the games as a kid,’’ says Athletic Director Lyndon Schutzler. “Maybe not in 40 years.’’
The buzz surrounding the team – a local newspaper called them “Monterey Peninsula College’s secret’’ in tribute to their unheralded talents – has gradually built excitement about their unlikely season.
A t home in their newly rebuilt $13.6 million stadium, the Lobos are playing a pretty good DeAnza team (4-2).
One of the stadium’s new facilities – a concession stand with an outdoor barbecue pit – is staffed by a small crew from MPC’s baseball team (also called the Lobos). Their coach, Daniel Phillips, grills hamburgers and jumbo dogs while meting out terse comments that may or may not be jokes. The aroma of grilling meat is irresistible and people fill their hands and arms with eats to bring back, teetering, to their friends and family in the bleachers.
Before the game begins, an a cappella rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” rings out of the loudspeakers, bringing almost all activity – except for some kids who keep chasing each other – to a halt. Near the end of the anthem, a trumpet noisemaker blares, like an eager opponent jumping offsides. It sounds like a war cry; it sounds right.
We’re still in Monterey County, but it’s an entirely different world from the gentry patronizing Carmel galleries, the bohos roaming Big Sur, the tourists clogging Cannery Row or Cachuaga’s defiant Main Street exiles.
The crowd is diverse. Not just white, black and brown, but kids, parents, singles and elderly folks. Mothers with little children orbiting about, guardedly escort their teenage daughters; fathers induct their children into a tradition (does anyone take a child to just one football game?). One dad bellows, “Who let the dogs out?!” and his little boy replies, “Who!? Who!? Who!”; stout older men in baseball hats sit in the bleachers like patriarchs among the tribe; teens seek and find each other’s company with feigned nonchalance.
Many of the spectators are related to the men on the field – as father and mother, aunt and uncle, brother and sister, friend and colleague. It’s fitting that the arena is called Community Stadium.
The group gathered here is in its own world – call it Football Land. It could be a Friday Night Lights contest in south Texas, though the atmosphere is less intense. Or a sandlot game in Anywhere, USA, but for the spiffy field, the freshly cleaned maroon uniforms and a team of underappreciated overachievers.
As the Lobos charge onto the field, the crowd roars its approval. This is the real deal.
First possession, Lobos. They begin the drive with a running play, a short shovel pass, a hand-off – then an interception. The crowd, not skipping a beat, cries, “Go defense!” The four Lobos cheerleaders muster their spirit, shake their pom-poms and chant: “Let’s go! Let’s fight! Let’s win!’’
As if in response, on DeAnza’s first drive, the quarterback is sacked. He’ll spend a lot of the evening on the ground.
The spectators huddle near the middle of the bleachers across from the 50-yard line of the immaculate artificial turf. The DeAnza fans, on the other side of the field, number less than half the home team supporters.
Later, during a change of possession to DeAnza, as the Lobos defensive squad assembles at the line of scrimmage, a Lobo offensive member returns to the bench and hollers, “Offense, get ready!” Translation: Our defense will shut them down and give us the ball again, so don’t get comfortable. It would be presumptuous if it wasn’t so true. DeAnza’s QB is sacked again on the first play.
The game takes on a rhythm: the brief silence of the huddle; the clap as the players break from the huddle; the quarterback yelling out the play; the collision of pads and helmets mixed with grunts; a hush as the ball sails through the air; an eruption when it is caught. The crisp crash of a tackle and the referees’ whistle signal a coda. Then the teams reset and take it from the top.
The light of dusk has been replaced by the bright stadium lights, which illuminate everything in a soothing, white glow. In the air above the field, bats and moths flitter about.
On the walkway at the bottom of the bleachers, three little kids break out with an impromptu version of football with a Nerf. One kid with a puffy blond Afro is named Satchel (after Satchel Paige). He takes command as quarterback, sending the two smaller boys out for passes. A little blond girl bashfully approaches and stands at the periphery of their group. By all accounts but her saying so, she wants to play. But will the boys accept her? Behind them, on the field, the Lobos punt to DeAnza.
The bonds between player and spectator reveal themselves in the course of the night. Petita Jefferson’s husband is an official who moves the chains on the field. She comes to every game. Rachel Sherman (mother of Satchel) has a brother in the game – Montana Russo, #5. She forgets what position he plays but her husband reminds her: linebacker.
Delana Haynes is the mother of Lawrence and Jeremy, #2 and #3, respectively. “I think I did a good job raising them by myself,” she says of her sons, who attended Seaside High. Jeremy scored the first touchdown early in this game, she proudly reports.
“I’ve been sick,” she says. “This is the first time I’ve been to [their] game.”
A fog comes in. Not as an all-encompassing blanket, but as a defined cloud that hovers over the field. Maybe the heat from the players is mixing with the chill and moisture in the air. The game has created its own community, but can it create its own weather?
At the bottom of the bleachers, Satchel is running the Nerf, chased by the little blond girl – she made the team after all. On the field, the Lobos are pushing the ball, moving the chains. A time-out is called and two diminutive waterboys scamper out to the Lobos players, eagerly handing them Gatorade.
Above the risers, a walking promenade runs the length of the bleachers and offers a panoramic view: the brightly lit field is surrounded by the dark night, like a biosphere in space. The promenade serves as an overflow area, wheelchair seating and a play area for kids.
Sometimes the crowd can get rowdy, heckling the refs with obscene, homophobic slurs. But tonight everyone is well-behaved, perhaps because of the preponderance of families, or the winning streak, or the absence of alcohol (though one sleepy-eyed young man and his friend confess that they’ve been surreptitiously drinking).
Half-time. Children overtake the emptied field, running wild plays, throwing footballs over the field goal; a man in an electric wheelchair zips around with them. Tessa and Lois stand near the gate between the field and the locker room, waiting to cheer on #20, Ian Hessey, when the Lobos return to the field. “He’s my boyfriend,” says Tessa. “He’s playing with a slight fracture.”
MPC grounds – keeper Art Henness sets up markers, cleans, tends to the flags and gates. He likes to watch the game from his utility cart. When Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” blares out of the loudspeakers, he lights up and says to no one in particular: “Finally, they’re playing some good music!”
The game starts up again. Kevin Danley watches from the fence near the nine-lane track. His head doesn’t seem to be in the game, but someone special to him is. When Danley was younger, a lifelong friend of his died at 18, leaving behind a son. When the boy grew up and started playing football, Danley promised, “out of loyalty” to his friend, that he would attend the boy’s games. Now a young man and a Lobo, his friend’s son is in the game tonight.
“[Back then] there wasn’t a lot of big brothers, fathers or uncles playing their part,” says Danley.
An older man approaches; he’s got something he wants to say.
“As good as this team’s doing, no one’s writing about them,” he says of the media coverage. His name is Richard and his son is inside linebacker Mark Mendoza, #55. “They don’t get the recognition they deserve. Their defense was ranked 24; now it’s number 3. It’s a good organization. Coach Rasmussen is a good man.”
Rose, in Lobos sweats and jacket, escorts her grandkids toward the bleachers. Her husband is Lobos special teams coach Tony Cortez Jr., her son is defensive coach Tony Cortez III, her son-in-law takes photos of the games for the coaches, one of her grandkids plays Pop Warner football and another is one of the diminutive Lobos waterboys. They are a football family.
“We’re retired military so we can endure the separation, the dedication [to the game] it takes. Monday through Friday is practice; Saturday, the game; Sunday, they break down the film. But I enjoy it.
“I love it live – the crowd – instead of watching it on TV.”
Athletic Director Lyndon Shutzler treks all over the concourse of the stadium during the game.
“I take care of the visiting team, the officials, timekeepers, announcer,” he says. “This is Community Stadium. It’s all new, in its second full year now. It’s a pleasant place to watch a game, it’s been a boost to our program – and it’s made my job a lot easier.”
Before the upgrades, he would run extension cords to get power to different places. And because the artificial turf is durable, the field is made available to local high school games, Pop Warner football and youth soccer. The track is available to the public every day except school holidays.
Suddenly his attention snaps to the field: “Here we go! Here we go!” He claps heartily. “That was a good pass.”
Airplanes slowly drift across the night sky. In the middle of the fourth quarter, the score is Lobos 20, DeAnza 3. The DeAnza fans are bundled up (it seems, somehow, colder in their stands than it does across the field); a scattered vocal contingent yell at the backs of the DeAnza coaching staff.
“Game’s all over the place! Put the first string back in!”
“Put a body on 99!”
“Put Russell in to stop 99!”
It’s prescient advice but too late. Next play, DeAnza’s quarterback is sacked on their own 2-yard line by Blake Pacheca – #99. The Lobos would rack up 11 sacks for the night.
Eventually, the DeAnza crowd succumbs to what the scoreboard and waning clock tell them. “One for the board!” They plead for a DeAnza touchdown to avoid a blowout. And it happens; DeAnza scores late in the last quarter to cheers from the faithful. But their brief celebration is extinguished when the extra point misses.
A minute later, the Lobos score again, taking the remaining air out of the DeAnza crowd. The Lobos fans taunt the opposing team: “Warm up the bus! Warm up the bus!’’
It’s over. Lobos: 20, DeAnza: 9. But the teams aren’t finished. Two things happen after regulation time expires. Nearly all the players and staff from both teams huddle near the center of the field and pray, kneeling and intermingled. It’s a quiet, solemn sight after the hours of raucous energy. Once the Lobos return to their bench to celebrate – and DeAnza to theirs to lick their wounds – the two teams file past each other, and slap five, each touching the hand of an opponent. Then they leave the field.
With a lion’s mane of an Afro cascading around his head, a tribal tattoo wrapped around his left bicep, and bleeding from both forearms, Lobos strong safety A.T. Aoelua is a formidable sight. But at the moment, he and a few of his teammates are smiling broadly while posing for pictures with some DeAnza players. They are all Samoan-Americans, in the midst of a large group of friends and family. Just a few minutes ago they were smashing into each other as rivals on the field, but off the field, they unite over their shared culture.
Aoelua’s smile is sincere, but strained.
“I can’t feel my shoulder,” he says, touching his left shoulder gingerly. He sustained the injury in the third quarter. A Lobos trainer advised him to sit out the rest of the game, but Aoelua downplayed the severity of the injury to his coaches.
“I gotta be with my bros on the field,” he says. “I heard the team say they needed me.” And so he finished out the game. He says the school provides insurance for its athletes.
In the locker room beneath the Community Stadium, the coaches have already had their post-game talk with the players, and the atmosphere is jovial.
Defensive coach Cortez is more stoic.
“I’ll tell them to enjoy tonight,” he says, clipboard still in hand. “Especially after a battle like tonight. [The other teams] all have their weapons. We have much respect for all the teams. But you play hard. To the end.”
As the teammates trickle out, Aoelua is still slowly getting dressed. But he has company – middle linebacker Obed Lologo, running back Achilles Savali, outside linebacker Ezra Smith, his half-brother Christian Aoelua, and two little boys who look delighted to hang out with their heroes.
Aoelua says he played high school football in his native American Samoa, for the Vikings in the village of Fagaitua. He’s deeply connected to the county’s Samoan community.
“After the game I go straight home to my family,” he says, referring to the home of his uncle (his parents are still in the Islands). He attends Malamalama Foy, a Samoan church in Fort Ord. (Logolo’s uncle is the pastor.) “School is big. Church, Samoan culture, respect for elders, family.”
“We see ourselves as brothers,” says Smith, who is African-American. “Family. A lot of us grew up together. We got players from Seaside, Monterey, North County, Palma, P.G., Salinas. The Islands – Hawaii, Samoa. It’s from being together so long, five to seven hours a day, at the library, outside, in class, practice.”
If football approaches something like a religion for these players and coaches, it doesn’t supplant their real religion. Though they can’t quite remember the pre-game chant, before the game the team prays together in the locker room. They are mostly Christian, and those who aren’t strictly religious, says Smith, “know God.”
“I just ask God for protection,” says Logolo, “for both teams. For wisdom, strength, to understand my assignment. Win or lose, we still praise God.” His teammates nod in agreement.
Recently they’ve needed all the strength that their religion and brotherhood can deliver.
“One of our friends just passed on Monday,” says Logolo. “One of our homies, in a motorcycle accident. It made us stronger. Lionhearted.”
“One brings the other up,” adds Smith. They attended the friend’s funeral days before the game. “He was from Yemen. They wrapped up his whole body. I don’t know… that’s their way. In the last two weeks we lost two friends. I wrote ‘RIP’ on my wrists so I could carry them out with me on the field.”
“Football is like life,” says Lologo. “It’s pain.”
“But Coach Raz motivates us,” says Smith. “Me and [Logolo] was hurting. Even though he’s a hard coach, he’s a great person to talk to.”
The intimacy, the commonality, between the players becomes clear after this departing reporter vigorously shakes Aoelua’s hand, causing him to wince in pain from the shoulder injury. By contrast, when Smith departs, he and Aoelua gently bump fists and Smith lightly touches Aoelua’s face. They all know, and respect, the pain that is the price of victory.
The next home game is the season finale, against their crosstown rivals, the Hartnell Panthers. On paper, the Panthers look overmatched. DeAnza, which fell by 11 to the Lobos, beat Hartnell handily, 20-0. But the Lobos coaching staff and players know better than to look past the potential spoilers at their upcoming bowl game, understanding that anything can happen in a rivalry game – and that Hartnell would like nothing better than to redeem a mediocre season and ruin a perfect one in the course of a single evening.
Because most student athletes stay at MPC for only two years, 40 percent of the current players will be gone next season, Schutzler points out. They have to make their mark as Lobos while they can.
But all that seems oddly irrelevant on a Saturday night in Monterey. Whatever the future might hold for these kids is far away. Tonight is frozen in time. They’re playing football and – for now – that’s good enough.
Last Saturday night was the season-ending conference game for the Lobos, who returned home to face the Hartnell Panthers.
The game starts poorly, with a dramatic opening kick-off when the Panthers’ receiver dashes up the middle for a touchdown. On their next possession, Hartnell scores again. The Lobos crowd is incredulous; there are worried murmurs in the bleachers about a possible upset. But then the Lobos go to work, putting numbers on the board while the defense clamps down on the Panthers, who are not allowed another point. With a final score of 34-13, the Lobos seal their perfect season, capture the President’s trophy and secure their place at a Northern California bowl contest against Mount Shasta (8-2).
The Lobos were ninth in total defense, second in scoring defense during the regular season. Only one team was higher in scoring defense – Shasta.
After the game, the coaching staff convenes at Knuckles sports bar for celebration and reflection.
“I’m proud of our young men,” says head coach Mike Rasmussen. “Our defense carried us in tough times, and our offense grew up during the season.”
This is the last season as a Lobo for the sophomores on his squad. Their immediate futures in football and college, he says, are secure. “Every guy who wants to go on [to a four-year college] gets placed. We’re proud of that. I spend a lot of time on academics.
“When people come watch us, they see our value system: unselfishness, sacrifice. We don’t just put together a team; we put together a family.”