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LIFE AT THE TOP OF THE WHITMONT LEAGUE . . . : Dave Newell: The 'Tough Buckaroo' of Bell Gardens

September 10, 1987|DICK WAGNER | Times Staff Writer

On a late-summer morning, Dave Newell faced his team on the Bell Gardens High School football field. The players, standing at parade rest before this former Marine lieutenant, wore helmets--Newell calls them war bonnets--while Newell wore a straw hat to protect his forehead from the sun.

"It's not hot," Newell told his players.

His T-shirt clung to his powerful back. The brown arms of his maroon-jerseyed players glistened, and the field itself--marked with dew-dampened weeds and slightly curvy yard lines of lime--seemed to sweat.

"Look at those snow-capped mountains," Newell said. The view, though, held only towering electrical transformers and smog. "Can't be a better place to be than right here, right?"

"YES, SIR!"

Convinced, the players went out in front of the dusty grandstand that is filled for every game and started practicing toward their goal of repeating as Whitmont League champions.

Newell participated in the drills by popping his quarterbacks on the head with a blocking pad as if he were a defensive lineman.

"If I yell or swear at them or kick them in the ass, it's because I love them," he said later.

Starting his 11th season as head coach at Bell Gardens High, Newell, 41, uses military methods to mold winning players from unexceptional athletes from one of the most financially-deprived areas in the nation.

The Lancers, who were 10-1 last year, have made the CIF Southern Section playoffs every year since 1978. Newell has turned what was once a defeatist attitude at the school into a 10-year 82-30-3 record.

Having once led combat patrols in Vietnam, Newell sees himself at Friday night games as leading troops into battle. His passionate speeches bring tears--then fire--to his players' eyes.

"(The military approach) works," Newell said. "People like to have limits and the feeling that there's control."

In the mid-1970s, Newell said, "You had to make (players) fear you to respect you. Now that they respect you, you don't have to be so ornery. I've probably mellowed a little. Throwing 'em up against a wall is not as necessary anymore."

Ed Rifalato, who is among the Lancer assistant coaches credited by Newell with much of the team's success, played for Newell in 1979-80.

"He was intimidating then because we knew he just came out of the war," Rifalato said. "He looked like the kind of guy who'd deck you. He's still tough as nails. Everybody is intimidated by him. I still am. But I think he tries not to blow his top now."

Out on the practice field, Newell raged at players who made mistakes as mercilessly as a drill instructor would rage at recruits.

The Lancers have achieved success despite the lack of any of the imposing 6-feet-4 or taller players that large universities look for.

"I haven't had a kid get a major-college scholarship since I've been here," Newell said. "These are above average high school players who are motivated to be good. A lot of them are over-achievers. They're tough kids; we won't be out-hit."

Newell never expected to stay at the school this long.

"This is where I was going to start," he said. "I was going to coach in pros and college. I've been here 15 years. I guess I don't want to leave. Every year I say, 'I can't leave these guys.' "

Newell is well acquainted with the perils of growing up in Bell Gardens.

"These kids have unbelievable problems," Newell said. "The lack of proper food. Sometimes no food. The parents move and the kid doesn't want to, so he stays in town and we have to figure out how to feed him."

One of the biggest problems, Newell said, is teen-age sex. "We teach abstinence," he said.

On the 30-yard line was a discarded box that had contained Embrace Her condoms.

"They don't always listen to me, either," Newell said with a smile.

He starts practices by reading a Bible verse. "If you can get them spiritually aware, that will solve a lot of the problems," he said.

Three-year starting tackle Rudy Torres, Newell proudly points out, has a 3.0 grade-point average and is president of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

Torres said each day under Newell is "like being in a war zone."

"He wants us to be winners," Torres said. "He expects us to look up to our superiors and don't talk back. He's a real tough buckaroo. Next to my parents, I respect him the most."

After practice, Newell announced: "We're going to hit the ol' weight room; that's like our second home."

"YES, SIR!"

In stocking feet, the players invaded the weight room. Clanking barbells were hoisted for a frenzied half-hour. Inspired by an Elton John song and commanded by Newell's whistle, the Lancers strained, shouted and worked to get tougher.

They moved from the weight room into the swimming pool where they ran in shallow water to strengthen their legs. The atmosphere became more relaxed. Rifilato pushed Newell into the pool. The cheering players splashed Newell.

"You've got to have some fun," Newell said while changing clothes. "Football's too hard.

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