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ON CALIFORNIA

Sis, Boom and Bah Humbug

September 15, 1993|PETER H. KING

RICHMOND — First thing you notice are the girls on the sidelines. They stand and laugh and wave at the players. There never were girls at any high school football practices you remember. The sideline was for blocking dummies and discarded ankle wraps and tubes of a burning ointment called Atomic Balm.

Next you see the player in street clothes. As his comrades push and grunt on the field, this young man perches on a railing and chats with the girls. "Caught an eight-yard touchdown pass," he is overheard telling them. An assistant coach spots the hero and jogs over.

"Aren't you going to practice today?" he asks.

"Nope," the player says. He looks as though he is about to yawn. The coach stares at him for a moment, shakes his head, trots away. The distraction removed, our reluctant gladiator resumes his conversation with the girls, a study in leisure.

*

These are changing times at Richmond High, a public high school located in a rough corner of San Francisco's East Bay. The rules are changing: No longer are the 1,300 students permitted to stray off campus during lunch--too many stray bullets, too many distractions. The demographics are changing: Newcomers from Mexico and Central America and Southeast Asia have poured into the neighborhood. As always, the students themselves are changing--their fashions, their interests and, to hear some tell it, their attitudes. "You Can't Shut Us Up" was the title of the last yearbook.

No change, though, has received as much attention as one that made front-page headlines here last week. For the first time in 66 years, for the first time as best anyone could tell, at a public high school in California, varsity football at Richmond High was canceled for a lack of interest. Not enough players turned out, and several of those who did lacked the required grades. Media accounts cast the cancellation as a defining moment--another dismal setback for public schools, California, Americana.

Perhaps this is so, but it certainly wasn't reflected in the mood of the campus Monday. There were no protests, no weeping in the halls for lost traditions. In fact, it was downright sanguine. "I couldn't be happier," chirped one teacher. "You have to be pretty stupid to play football." Principal Al Acuna said football ranked "pretty low" on his list of concerns, and he wondered where the cameras had been when his music and drama programs were threatened. More than one student said the only real complaint was being cast as "lowlifes and dope dealers" on television.

All sorts of explanations for the loss of football were floated. Immigrants have come with other athletic passions; they'd rather play soccer or badminton. The football program had fallen too deeply into disrepair; the last time the Oilers made news was when they dropped a record 31st consecutive game. Students in this hardscrabble town need to work after school to help families squeak by. And finally, and most interestingly, there was the coach.

"The coach," several players complained, "didn't respect us."

*

Now here was an arresting concept for anyone who passed through high school a generation ago. Football coaches were supposed to be tyrants, torture experts. Respect? Forget about it. The best that players could hope for was a water break. Darrin Zaragoza, who came to coach the Oilers last year, certainly remembers. A short, muscular man of 34, he grew fairly nostalgic talking about his high school football days, the two-a-day practices in the summer, the contact drills. "One of the best experiences of my life," he said.

These players today, he said, are different. They confuse disrespect and discipline. They don't want to practice--spring, summer or fall. "On the last day of spring practice," he said, "we had six coaches out on the field, and four players." And he has grown tired of begging. "It's not about football," he said, "it's about commitment." And so maybe he didn't exactly beat the bushes looking for players this season, and maybe he wasn't exactly disappointed when only a few turned out. He has decided to devote his attentions to the freshmen and sophomores. His hope is that maybe the young ones can be molded to accept football and its regimens his way, the old way.

He had about 40 of these players out for practice on Monday. As the girls watched, they worked on pass routes and handoffs and cadence counts, all the old drills. And when they messed up, Zaragoza would shout "give me 20," and when they spoke out of turn he would shout again: "You guys are not coaches, just players. I control this." And he sounded like every high school football coach you ever heard, but then that was a long time ago.

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