Lani Machado received no ultimatums from the Tustin High School football coaches last spring.
Tiller Coach Marijon Ancich and his assistants didn't monitor Machado's homework or force him to attend class, even though they knew his grades were slipping.
They didn't harass Machado about his poor training habits during track practices and his failure to set a good example for other football players on the track and field team.
They didn't punish Machado for not cooperating with the coaches during off-season conditioning workouts.
Ancich didn't treat a discipline problem with discipline. Instead, he simply sat Machado down in his office and told him: We want you on the football team, but we don't want any players who are going to hold the team down.
Ancich didn't want it to be a shape-up-or-ship-out kind of ultimatum. He just wanted Machado to make his own decision. "That woke me up to reality," Machado said.
So did the prospects of life without football, the sport he had played since he was 9. Machado knows what would have happened had he not stayed with the team.
"I probably would have been a toad," Machado said. "I would have been a bottom-of-the-barrel type hanging around in the smoking lounge. But I knew I didn't want to sit in the bleachers during the games. I wanted to be playing."
So play he did.
Machado improved his attitude on the practice field, in the weight room and in the classroom.
His grade point average improved from a 2.2 out of a possible 4.0 in his sophomore year to a 2.6 so far this year. He didn't ditch any more classes or practices. He trained seriously in the weight room and in practice over the summer and did everything the coaches asked.
Machado has emerged this season as an inspirational leader and the team's leading rusher. Going into tonight's Sea View League showdown against Saddleback, the 5-foot-8, 165-pound junior ranks seventh in Orange County with 859 yards in 152 carries. He has scored eight touchdowns to help the Tillers to a 3-0 league record (7-1 overall).
And, most important, he is no longer a discipline problem. Instead, he's the type of player who will sacrifice anything for the team's good. Machado will run with the scout offense during practice if it will make the defense stronger. He'll give advice to the team's other running backs.
This is quite a change.
"I was pretty much throwing my whole opportunity as far as football away last year," Machado said. "Now that I look back on it, I was being a real jerk. What turned me around was the fact that I was important enough that they (the coaches) didn't want to let me go.
"The coaches helped me a lot, but it was still up to me to turn it around. I'm glad I went this way instead of the other way."
Machado has been running every which way this season. He averages 19 carries per game and even ran the ball 29 times against Newport Harbor three weeks ago. He's an elusive, durable back (he has fumbled once in eight games) with good speed.
"He does an excellent job of picking the holes, and the offensive line has done a great job of blocking," Ancich said. "That has really made the difference. He's gotten behind the guards."
Machado said that Tustin's two offensive guards, Mike Audet and Mike Baird, are excellent blockers in front of him on the sweeps.
"They're getting to the point where every day when they wake up, the first thing they do when they get out of bed is pull," Machado said. "All of our linemen are real good and real smart. Like they say, you're only as good as your line."
Machado started five games last year but is a much better back this season, thanks to a few tips from Kevin McNair, UC Irvine track and field coach, and some extra effort in the weight room.
By refining Machado's running form, McNair helped cut his time in the 40-yard dash from 4.9 seconds to 4.72. He also taught him how to burst past the line of scrimmage and how to be more of a slashing runner.
It also helps that Machado is in better physical condition this year. He continues to lift weights on Saturdays and twice during the week.
"Last year, I took a rest from lifting during the season and it caught up with me at the end of the year," Machado said. "But this year, I practically make myself puke every time I lift. So far, it's helped a lot."