The Culver City High School football team is down to its last three Smurfs.
Last year, Coach Fred Fuller's Centaurs had a kiddy corps of five players who were mostly wide receivers or defensive backs, or both, and three of them saw more playing time than the others. They were nicknamed the Smurfs after a television cartoon series about little people with that name.
But two of the three first-stringers, wingback/place-kicker/defensive back Hoon Hahn (5-8, 160) and split end-defensive back Pat LaGasse (5-6, 155), have graduated. On a roster that generally has fewer than 35 players each year, Hahn and LaGasse were vital elements of both the offense and defense.
Fuller is left with three senior Smurfs who are being counted on heavily this year on a squad that is once again light in numbers with 34 players.
The most experienced of the three is cornerback/place-kicker Robert Reyes (5-5, 150), who also played a little at wingback last year. Fuller said that Reyes, who also plays forward on the school's generally strong soccer teams, "is one of the best cornerbacks I've had."
The Culver coach said that the only time Reyes played poorly last year was against Hawthorne. "He had a strained hamstring, and Hawthorne beat him twice, deep" on pass plays, he said. Reyes pulled a hamstring again this year on the opening day of practice, missed five days of workouts, and has been a little late getting into top shape.
The other remaining Smurfs are Todd Kono (5-6, 140) and Napoleon Banks, the littlest of the little people at 5-3 (maybe) and 125 (again, maybe.) Fuller said that Kono and Banks will share most of the playing time on offense as slotback and wingback.
Banks, named for the 19th-Century French emperor who didn't allow his small stature to restrict his ambitions, is also Fuller's backup quarterback. Hahn had that duty last year, and Banks has been filling in at that spot in practice while this year's No. 1 quarterback, 6-1, 185-pound junior Darrin Dolce, a varsity newcomer, nurses a case of tendinitis in his right (passing) arm.
Dolce, who played mostly tight end on the sophomore team, is succeeding his brother, Frank, who has graduated and was considered by Fuller to be the best quarterback he's had in his eight years as head coach.
Fuller said Banks is his "disaster quarterback" and will step in for Dolce if he is injured and cannot play.
Even if Dolce plays every down at quarterback, Culver City is not expected to throw much and will probably rely heavily instead on the running of top senior tailback John Price and senior fullback Sam Manu.
But Dolce will have to pass once in a while so that defenses won't be able to concentrate exclusively on the running game, and so will Banks if he has to spell Dolce.
Can Banks do the job at quarterback? Fuller thinks he can, though Banks cannot throw the ball anywhere near as far as Dolce and would probably pass much less than Dolce.
Fuller said Banks is "a good ball handler, but at 120 pounds he doesn't have the strength to throw the ball downfield. He has to use his body to get anything on the ball."
But Fuller has a lot of confidence in Banks as a pass catcher, even though he did not play much last year and had only two pass receptions. Banks "has good hands, is aggressive and goes to the ball," Fuller said. "If he had size, he would probably be dangerous."
Throughout the history of football, there have been many small men who have been able to play what is basically a big man's game, even among the latter-day behemoths of the National Football League.
Eddie LeBaron, a small man, was a capable quarterback in the NFL a couple of decades ago, and the league has had receivers and punt and kickoff return men with nicknames such as "The Flea" and "The Ice Cube."
A Westside small man, Stephen Baker, was a third-round draft choice of the Super Bowl champion New York Giants at wide receiver this year. Baker, an exceptionally fast athlete who played for Hamilton High School, West Los Angeles College and Fresno State, has had to shake off some jarring tackles (when defenders could catch up to him) and has proved to be exceptionally sturdy against much bigger players.
Though he has not been prone to injury, Baker did have to sit out his first year at West Los Angeles College after he dislocated a shoulder while trying to make a diving catch in an informal summer practice session.
Are Fuller and his Smurfs concerned that the smaller players on the Culver team could be put out of commission by serious injuries? Apparently not.
Said Fuller: "Size doesn't make a bit of difference. . . . (Banks) is much less likely to get injured than a 270-pound offensive tackle."
He said that Banks, Reyes and Kono are quick and always on the move and that he is not as concerned about possible injuries to them than he is about "one of our down tackles, about someone who is in a stationary, contact position."
The Smurfs apparently feel the same way.
Reyes, for one, said that when a tackler or blocker puts a good hit on him "I just take it and get up. It hurts the same whether you are big or small."
Banks agreed with Reyes, and both said their parents have encouraged them to take part in sports. Banks said he has not been hurt while playing football, and Reyes said his only injuries have been hamstring pulls.
Banks did say that his mother's younger sister had not been eager to see him play football, but only because she would have to baby-sit more than Napoleon with his 8-year-old brother, Jermaine.
Although he is unafraid of playing with the big guys, Banks said he constantly tries to gain weight and that Fuller would like to see a few more pounds on him.
He said that he uses dietary supplements and eats a lot of potatoes, but nothing works. William (The Refrigerator) Perry would like to have that kind of problem.