When James McAlister was first hired as football coach at Marshall Fundamental High last spring, he didn't mention a word about his athletic past to his players.
But the coach said one member of the team was a little more intrigued than the rest.
After all, McAlister, 38, still had the appearance and physique of somebody who could hold his own on the field.
So the player went to research his coach's past at a public library. He found that McAlister had starred as a running back at Blair High, UCLA and the Philadelphia Eagles and New England Patriots of the NFL.
"After he looked it up he told everyone who I was and what I'd accomplished and, naturally, they were all very impressed," McAlister said. "I also found a lot of parents who remembered me."
For McAlister, the attention is something he has always enjoyed but rarely sought.
He would prefer to focus on the task ahead of him. It is a challenge that could be greater than any he ever faced as a player.
In his first season as a head coach, McAlister's mission will be to rebuild a team that struggled to a 1-9 record last year and has always been in the shadow of Muir, Pasadena and Blair high schools.
"It's a heck of a challenge but I've always been the kind of person who never underestimates my opponents," McAlister said. "I just did what I had to do to get it done and that's what I'm going to do here."
He said much of the challenge will be breaking down mental barriers that might have formed in players in the past.
"I think I have to show these kids that they're just as good as anyone else," McAlister said. "I think it's important that they get last year out of their minds. This is a new coach with a new coaching staff and we don't have anything to do with what happened here before."
McAlister said he also has to build enough interest to keep top players in the program.
"The biggest thing is to keep the players interested enough to stay in the program instead of transferring to Pasadena, Muir or Blair," he said. "We're trying to establish a winning tradition and hopefully, with my name and background, we can start to establish a tradition and not only have three good schools in Pasadena but four."
His first project in establishing a football tradition at the school is to build an on-campus weight room.
"That will make a big difference," he said. "We also need to instill pride like other successful programs have and we also need to have dedication. Hopefully with pride and dedication we'll start winning like other schools do."
He is also hoping to develop a rivalry with Blair akin to the annual Muir vs. Pasadena game in the Rose Bowl. The teams meet in the second game of the season on Sept. 14 at Pasadena City College, but McAlister hopes there will be enough interest to play the game in the Rose Bowl by the 1991 season.
McAlister has already received high marks from administrators at Marshall with his strong, positive attitude.
"I appreciate his brand of enthusiasm and it's very contagious," Marshall Athletic Director Paul Bodenshot said. "I'm highly optimistic about the program. I'm looking forward to seeing what happens."
Said defensive coordinator Anthony Taylor: "Just because of him, the interest of the kids has changed. He's got them much more excited about football. He's always been a hands-on manager and he's been able to bring a lot of kids back who either quit or didn't want to play."
That was evident during spring practice, when he had between 25 to 30 players participating. It was a pretty good turnout when you consider that the Eagles finished last season with only 14 players.
The results on the field were also promising during the summer.
"We've had pretty good success with it from what I've seen so far," McAlister said. "We had our summer (passing) league and went 7-1-2. We improved 100% from last season and I've had other coaches tell me that, too."
He also noticed an improved work ethic in his players during the first day of practice Monday.
"We told the kids that practice started at 8 a.m. and most of the kids were here by 7:30," McAlister said. "Some were even out running before 7."
The coach said the early success stems from persuading the players to believe in themselves.
That is a trait that McAlister developed early in his high school career after a motivational discussion with a 10th-grade counselor at Blair, Jessie Beguay.
"She was the one that opened my eyes to the fact that I could be somebody if I just kept trying and was willing to work at it," he said.
McAlister played at Blair from 1967 to 1970, leaving behind several CIF Southern Section records.
His best season was 1969, when he combined with running back Kermit Johnson. The Blair Pair led the Vikings to a 13-0 record and the school's first and only Southern Section championship.
"To be 13-0 is incredible," he said. "It's hard to duplicate that kind of a season and as players we knew we had something special."