To fuel his competitive fire, Franklin High football Coach Armando Gonzalez once fought the real thing as a member of the Los Angeles City Fire Department.
Gonzalez coached at Franklin for nine years before he left the teaching and playing field after leading the Panthers to the City Section 3-A championship in the 1983-84 school year.
He was tired of the kids and the monotony. A case of job burnout.
Gonzalez applied for a firefighting job and thought he might hear from the department--which has a legendary waiting list--in a year or two. Instead, he was contacted almost immediately to begin training.
Within months, Gonzalez went from calling the button-hook pass pattern to riding on the hook-and-ladder. Instead of saving timeouts, he was saving lives.
But a year and a half spent fighting fires only fueled Gonzalez's desire to return to coaching.
"I didn't like working for the Fire Department as much as I thought I would," said Gonzalez, who worked out of the Encino, Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys stations. "I missed being on the field and in the classroom. I missed being around the kids.
"A lot of people only look at the negative side of teaching and coaching--the headaches and the problems. But there's plenty of positive things, too."
At the same time Gonzalez was quitting the fire department to return to teaching, Franklin Coach Rick Gamboa was vacating the position to become an assistant coach at Cal State Northridge.
When Franklin Principal Ed Rosas asked Gonzalez to return, he didn't hesitate to accept.
"I was very, very lucky to be in the right place at the right time," Gonzalez said. "It's rare that a teacher leaves the profession, then returns to the same school in the same position he left. I feel very fortunate."
So do the players on the Franklin football team, who are enjoying a successful, although somewhat up-and-down, season.
Franklin, 6-2 overall and 2-2 in the Freeway League, will play Garfield (7-1, 4-0) Friday night in a game that will help decide the league's playoff representatives.
It is a must-win game for Franklin which is located in Los Angeles. Franklin is tied with Wilson and Locke for second place. Garfield has already clinched the league championship.
The Panthers are led by senior quarterback Ricky Lopez, who has passed for 1,212 yards and 5 touchdowns. Lopez's favorite receiver is Eric York, a senior who has caught 32 passes for 464 yards and 3 touchdowns.
Torace Ragland, a 5-8, 155-pound senior tailback, has gained 906 yards and scored 8 touchdowns with help from an offensive line anchored by senior Anthony Navarro.
"We beat them last year when they were all juniors," said San Pedro Coach Henry Pacheco, whose defending league-championship team lost to Franklin 19-0. "They came back this year and they were all grown up."
Franklin, which began the season 5-0, lost to Narbonne after its big win over San Pedro.
The Panthers rebounded the next week with a win over Wilson to put themselves in a good position to contend with Garfield for the league championship. But last week, Franklin lost to Locke.
"I try to tell the kids that we can't have peaks and valleys," said Gonzalez, whose team has averaged one turnover a game in wins and five turnovers a game in defeats. "Being consistently sharp is the key to winning year in and year out."
Gonzalez is a coach who is used to consistency--and to winning. He began teaching physical education at Franklin in 1975 and coached the B team to a two-year record of 17-1.
Gonzalez spent the next three years as a varsity assistant before taking over as head coach in 1980. His teams compiled 5-4 and 6-3 records during his first two years, then went 10-1 in 1982, losing to Marshall in the City semifinals.
In 1983, Gonzalez's last season before joining the Fire Department, the Panthers went 10-1-1 and won the city title by beating Sylmar, 14-0.
"A lot of the players had older brothers who played for Coach Gonzalez so we knew what we were getting when he came back," said Navarro, 6-3, 240 pounds, who is being recruited by Oregon and Colorado. "The big difference, though, is the attitude of the players this year. Everyone is a team player."
Gonzalez preached the virtues of teamwork before he became a firefighter and his experience with the department--"where one wrong move can cost a life"--reinforced his belief in the team concept.
"The kids in this area are aggressive, but I'm glad I'm back teaching and coaching here because if you get them to work together, you can be successful," Gonzalez said. "I feel I can motivate kids and I do it by being honest and sincere. When you do that, they'll play for you."