The Big Game is upon us, and now an explanation:
It is the most eagerly anticipated regular-season high school football game in Orange County in some time. It will be played at 7:30 tonight between Capistrano Valley and El Toro high schools.
Capistrano Valley officials expect anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 fans in the Cougars' 4,000-seat football stadium.
But The Big Game is not a big game.
The Southern Conference championship isn't until December; the playoffs are a month away. Each team, barring devastating injury, should make the playoffs.
The Big Game is The Big Game because Bret Johnson plays quarterback for El Toro and Todd Marinovich plays quarterback for Capistrano Valley.
They are considered two of the best high school quarterbacks in the United States. They have been Orange County's best the past two seasons.
Depending on whom you talk to, this one or that one is the very best ever to play for a team in Orange County. And it's because of that, because people seem more interested to compare, contrast and debate the great talent of each than to simply appreciate it, that Capistrano Valley's stadium will be carpeted with humanity tonight.
"It's amazing to me," said Bill Cunerty, the Saddleback College quarterback coach who has known and worked with each since they were in grade school. "Here are these two great kids, with the type of talent this area is not going to see again for quite some time, and all people want to do is argue about who's better.
"Who knows? Who cares? The kids are wonderful. It's too bad people can't appreciate that."
And as people have talked, the area's newspapers have written about the talk, eating up the comparisons. Their names seem to be constantly linked. If one does something, how does it contrast with what the other is doing?
As one veteran high school observer noted: "A rivalry gets more publicity. More publicity brings a lot more attention. More attention means the rivalry grows."
Which, depending on how you look at it, is either the natural progression of things or a very vicious circle. The fact is that they have served to make each other famous. Neither denies there is a rivalry. Yet, neither has really done anything off the football field to promote it.
"To be honest," Bret Johnson said. "I don't think Todd and I have ever met in a setting that wasn't related to football. You really can't get to know someone that way . . . I don't think this thing has built up because we don't like each other. It's just all the things other people write and say."
It has developed through the talk and arguments of friends, teammates, coaches and fathers.
Bob Johnson, the El Toro football coach, has been coaching at the school for 13 years, 10 years as head coach. Marv Marinovich played football at USC and for the Raiders. He has been a strength coach for the Rams. Each has taken an active part in his son's development.
"Let's face it, part of the fascination with these kids is their fathers," said Dick Enright, Capistrano Valley coach. "The way they've kind of molded these kids, some people think it's great, others don't like either one of them."
And having taken such time and interest, and having seen their children excel only to be compared to the other's child, each has become very protective of his son's reputation.
Marv Marinovich says Bret gets much more publicity than Todd.
"I'll tell you what," he said. "There's more written about Todd back east than there is out here."
Bob Johnson agrees there is an imbalance, but in Marinovich's favor.
"So much more has appeared in the paper about Todd than Bret," he said. "They've tried to build him up like he's some kind of perfect kid. The fact the papers write so much about the two is not for me to judge. I think any publicity is good publicity."
Yet, Bret, who remembers the initial excitement of seeing his picture in the paper, has become jaded.
"The first couple of times it was great," he said. "But now, I actually don't like seeing my picture in the paper or my name in the headline."
Even so, each father is aware of what the coverage can do.
Todd came home laughing one day from a photo session with The Orange County Register and told his father that he had had his picture taken eye-to-eye with Bret, who is three inches shorter than Todd.
Marv was angry enough to telephone the paper to complain.
"I was just upset that they were using Todd to perpetuate something that wasn't true," he said. "Everyone knows Todd is a tall kid, and that picture made it look like Bret was just as tall, and everyone knows that isn't true."
Which brings us to the perceptions of these kids. Because the majority of people who are interested in county high school sports can only keep up through the papers, many of their perceptions of Johnson and Marinovich have been formed without ever seeing either play.
Sunny Hills' David Chisum, currently No. 1 in The Times' quarterback ratings, has never seen either play.