There were about 200 sheriffs and police officers gathered at Camarillo High last weekend, making Ackerman Stadium either the safest spot in the County or the most unsafe, depending on your perspective.
If you happened to be on the football field, it was a dangerous place, indeed.
For the past six years, members of the sheriff's department and officers from five County police agencies have played in the Pride Bowl, a tackle football game to benefit a local charity.
The object of this year's game was to raise funds for the Tri-Counties Chapter of Make-a-Wish Foundation, a nonprofit organization that helps fulfill the wishes of critically ill children. The other goal was to win.
Frank Gankas, who was serving as coach of the police team, perhaps best described the priorities of those involved when he said before the game, "We're here because of Make-a-Wish. It's a good cause. But the first time I met with these guys, they said, 'Coach, we really just want to kick the . . . out of them.' "
"Them" being the sheriffs, of course.
Niceties aside, Pride Bowl--which has been tabbed as a matchup of "The Good Guys vs. The Good Guys"--is simply a chance to bop a cop. The only catch is that you also have to be a cop to play.
Saturday's game, won by the sheriffs, 26-12, featured several scuffles and more talk than a Wrestlemania promotion.
Referee Pete Rogalsky, a man caught in the middle of this intense rivalry, said he guessed it was simply an officer's nature to be competitive.
"Some tempers have flared, but they're pretty much in control, I think," Rogalsky said while watching "Max the police dog" pounce on a make-believe hoodlum during a halftime exhibition. "They spout off and say things and push and shove a little, but they're police officers, they know how to control themselves."
One person exercising control was John Crombach, a 6-foot-6, 245-pound offensive tackle for the police team.
"There's always a lot of talking," he said. "Sometimes you forget you're cops out there. You'd just as soon reach out and grab the guy across from you by the throat.
"But we're friends afterward."
Said Willie Howe, center for the blue-clad sheriff's team: "We work together and have a lot of respect for each other, but right now there are no friends in white. And the more tired we get, the more talk there is."
Howe (6-3, 235 pounds) is one of several players from both teams with amateur football experience. He played in the Army and in the semipro California Football League.
Some played in high school and junior college. A few had never played at all.
"Some of them sort of develop into football players," said Jim Bittner, head coach at Moorpark College and offensive coordinator for the sheriffs.
"I thought maybe we were coming out here for a game of flag or something," said Art Pena, who has coached the sheriffs for six years. "I had no idea what kind of talent was out here. There are some good players."
And they take the game very seriously.
The sheriffs, who played a tune-up game the previous week in Phoenix, practiced every Sunday for three months. The police practiced twice a week since late January.
"I have great admiration for these guys," Bittner said, "but some of them are a little crazy, I think. Some pull shifts, then only sleep three hours before getting up and going to practice."
All that for charity? Yes. And out of fear.
"I couldn't bear to lose," said Dave Wareham, a linebacker for the sheriffs. "My friend is playing center on the other side and we've both been talking a lot of dirt. We'll be reminding them of the score, that's for sure. And it lasts a year. That's the best thing about it. We can rub it in all year long."
The taunts hurt a losing player's ego only slightly more than bruises hurt his body.
"Tomorrow," Tom Cady, an offensive lineman for the police team, said, "it's aspirin every couple of hours. It'll take three or four days to recover."
Howe, the game's oldest participant at 41, would gladly settle for a quick recovery. Howe, whose assignment is the East Valley area, suffered broken ribs in the previous two games and a knee injury the game before that.
"Thank God you didn't get hurt this time," his wife Ellen said while hugging him.
Howe just smiled, happy that his team had won for the fifth time against only one loss.
Later, the public address announcer thanked the crowd for attending and reminded them, "There were no losers tonight. Only winners."
A uniformed sheriff, positioned near the locker room, didn't believe it.
"Yeah?" he said. "Try and tell that to the police."