The consternation on Mike Thomas' face was overwhelming.
He had risen long before the sun to make the hour-plus commute from his home in southern Orange County. Then he stood on the smoggy, humid practice field at Santa Fe High School and wondered if this would be another long season.
Only 24 of 32 varsity players showed up for the first of three football practices on this day, and the second-year coach--whose boyish features hide the fact that he'll soon be 40--was not pleased.
"I thought we'd get more out," he said during a water break on this steamy morning. "Sometimes we're getting kids that just aren't football players. They just want to be out here."
Few students have shown a serious interest in playing football at Santa Fe High in quite a while. Today's seniors were beginning grade school in 1978, the last time the school had a winning season. Its current 19-game losing streak ties Buena Park High for the longest in the CIF Southern Section. It is expected to continue Friday night when the Chiefs open against highly regarded Schurr High.
Santa Fe has won just three of its last 29 contests, averaging only eight points a game. It doesn't figure to get much better this year.
In other sports Santa Fe is no stranger to winning. From 1982-86 in the eight-team Whitmont League, the Chiefs and Bell Gardens ranked third in the number of team titles won in all sports, behind Montebello and La Serna.
Thomas is trying. He started a booster club and recruits at junior high schools. He has support from several city officials and the solid backing of the school's administration.
Declining enrollment is one stumbling block. Poor grades are another. Thomas claims that a third of the 1,700 student population is ineligible for extracurricular activities. Lack of parental support and a school district with limited funds are additional problems.
In this community where single-story, stucco homes hold large families under their asphalt roofs, potential players often take jobs rather than play football.
"We have a low-income, ethnic type of group," Thomas said. "They're great kids, but I don't think there is anyone at home pushing them to play athletics."
Consequently, Thomas said, more than 50% of his players come from northern Norwalk. In addition, some of the better city players attend neighboring St. Paul High if their families can afford it.
City Councilman Al Sharp, an ardent football booster, said he can't understand the low number of Santa Fe Springs youngsters interested in football.
"When I was growing up, playing football was the thing that made you part of the school," he said.
Santa Fe Springs is a city of 16,000 residents in transition. The railroad tracks that once crisscrossed the rolling hills here are disappearing, replaced by roads serving new industrial parks where oil derricks once reached into the smoky sky. The city has been aggressive and selective in seeking new industry. "Good businesses," Sharp said, are the keys to the future.
The city appears to be profiting from the renaissance. Among other public facilities, its gleaming park system could be the envy of any city in Southern California.
Santa Fe High isn't so fortunate. The varsity practice field, in the shadows of light poles from the meticulously manicured Lake Center Athletic Park, "was like dirt" a year ago, according to Thomas.
"I told (the district) to put some water on it," he said.
Someone listened. At the start of Hell Week, when practice opened this season, Thomas had grass--plenty of it. The field wasn't mowed for the first eight days of practice and it hasn't been lined since spring. Iron goal posts, painted white, are pockmarked with rust. Because its field does not have lights, Santa Fe plays its home games at Pioneer High School, a few miles to the north.
The ceiling of the locker room "hasn't been painted since the school was built," Thomas added during a tour of the room.
He also pointed to the deteriorating sinks and toilets. Some of the sinks did not have hot or cold water or would not turn on. Some of the plumbing did not work. The toilets just looked bad and the stalls were without doors.
"I wouldn't use them," Thomas said.
The city has sought to help the school whenever possible, according to Sharp.
District officials said that they are on a limited budget and do the best they can. They stress that football is part of the overall education process and is not treated differently.
Santa Fe is one of five high schools in the Whittier Union High School District, which soon after the passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 set a course that placed athletics at or near the bottom of its educational priorities, according to Sharp and others. Ten years later, that position seems to be softening, but its effects will be felt for years.
Thomas terms the district approach to facilities "crisis maintenance." The condition of the sinks and toilets is one example, he noted.
"They'll fix the roof when the roof is down on the floor." he said.