There is little swaggering among the football players at Cypress High School. Unlike many football teams, excess bravado seems nearly nonexistent. Egos remain fixed to reality. The macho-quotient runs low.
Cynics might point out the reason for this is that Cypress--a team that is 12-24 in the past four years under Coach John Selbe and has not had a season above .500 since it went 6-4 in 1981--has had little reason to put on airs.
But that is not necessarily the case. Cypress finished 5-5 last year, fourth in the Empire League. Not a championship team, but not a pooch, either.
But one situation has taught the team more about maturity than any late-game, third-and-one situation ever could.
Three years ago, standout sophomore tackle Joe Toohey learned that his 15-year-old girlfriend was pregnant with his child. Shortly after its birth, the baby, Alyssa, was diagnosed as having histiocytosis x, a rare disease that affects the immune system. In infants, the disease is similar to advanced leukemia.
In December, after spending much of her first year in the hospital, Alyssa died.
Two weeks later, Toohey's father was diagnosed with cancer of the bladder. He has been hospitalized the past seven months, and has since lost his bladder to the disease and his right leg to complications. He will undergo more surgery Thursday.
Today, Toohey, 18, is one of three varsity assistants at Cypress. Along with two other standouts from last year's team, Ramon Reid and Jayson Bern, Toohey helps coach the offensive and defensive lines.
Reid and Bern, also all-league selections last year, have faced disappointment in their athletic careers. Last fall, Reid sustained a career-ending knee injury and Bern suffered a broken neck vertebra that left him temporarily paralyzed. But each admits Toohey's problems have put theirs in perspective.
During the season opener last September, Cypress defeated Kennedy, 7-6, with Toohey keying the defense on a late-game goal-line stand.
The following Monday, Toohey was awarded the game ball. Another ball was presented for his daughter, who had become the team's inspiration.
After the presentation, the players hugged Toohey. "They just wanted him to know they were there for him," Selbe said.
Selbe, who made frequent visits to the hospital to see Alyssa, has on his desk a framed photograph of himself with Toohey, his girlfriend and the baby. Alyssa died a month after the photo was taken.
The Cypress players and coaches attended the funeral.
"You would like to believe," Selbe said, "that all this stuff that we tell the kids about handling adversity has helped Joey in some way. . . . This is one of those situations where you really hope it has."
Patricia Toohey, Joe's mother, says her son's involvement with coaching has given him a sense of stability.
"Our home life is so torn up right now, at least he's got Coach Selbe and his friends on the team," Patricia Toohey said. "He's had his share of bad days, but thank God he has that team for support."
There's no question it has had an effect on the Cypress players and on the team as a whole. "It made us think," said senior lineman Youssef Semaan. "And it bonded us together even more than we already were."
Selbe says Toohey's tragedy gave them a sense of perspective.
"We're a family," Selbe said. "We've been with him through all his tough times. . . . What happened to Joey made them realize there's more to the football experience--there's more to life--than playing games and scoring touchdowns."
A moving thought for the football-frenzied weeks to come.
Add Cypress: For Selbe, the only on-campus coach on his staff, hiring three of last year's players as assistants was an unusual but necessary means of replacing three assistants who took jobs elsewhere.
"We really needed coaches, and when I asked them, the kids were interested," Selbe said. "Right now, I'm coaching coaches, and I'm coaching kids."
Certain adjustments had to be made by both sides.
Players cannot call Toohey, Reid or Bern by their first names, even though many consider the three their closest friends. And off-field socialization is to be kept to a minimum.
Said Semaan, one of Reid's best buddies: "We'll go to the movies, Coach Reid and me, but he still wants me to call him Coach Reid.
"During Hell Week, when it got real tough, I wanted to say 'Leave me alone! Get out of my face!' But Ramon--I mean Coach Reid--he'd push me even harder. That's when I knew I wasn't getting a break this year."
Trivia question: Which Orange County schools return more than one all-Southern Section football player?
Included in the Southern Section cross-country preview, a 15-page informative packet sent to all coaches, is a section titled:
"23-Point Defensive Game Plan for Lawsuit-Conscious Coaches."
What, no videotape edition?
Trivia answer: Newport Harbor (kicker Josh Klein and wide receiver George Greenwalt) and Santa Margarita (linebacker Mike Farris and defensive back Josh Ireland).