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Kindred Spirits : Agoura's Ryan Capretta Embodies Humble Nature of Late Father

November 04, 1994|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

AGOURA HILLS — He died five years ago, yet Steve Capretta's presence is felt firmly, undoubtedly, by sober and rational school administrators, people for whom the supernatural normally has no place amid their strict regulations, suits and ties.

The feeling is especially acute on Friday nights at the Agoura High football stadium. The team's top player is Ryan Capretta, a receiver and defensive back with a knack for making big plays.

Ryan was 11 when his father died at 39 of kidney cancer, ending a life dedicated to teaching, coaching and making children feel good about themselves.

"Steve was a pied piper with kids, they just gravitated to him," says Terry Donahue, UCLA football coach and a neighbor of the Caprettas.

Donahue eulogized Capretta at his funeral, which was attended by nearly 1,000 former students and 1,500 overall. "He was fun and energetic and had an absolutely magnanimous personality," Donahue says. "Anyone who spent time with him liked him."

Capretta was a 6-foot-4, 240-pound bearded bear of a man, a gentle giant known for his long, loud laugh and a knack for tapping into the emotions of even the most reserved around him.

He hasn't stopped, to hear his friends tell it.

Ryan scores a touchdown and tears stream down the faces of those sober and rational administrators whose feelings normally are hidden under the stern veneer of authority.

"I get very emotional thinking about him still," says Jim Christianson, Agoura's principal. "When Ryan catches a pass, I take notice because who knows if Steve can't see it happen through my eyes."

Ryan's first varsity touchdowns came on receptions of seven and 22 yards in a victory over Channel Islands a month ago.

The next day he received a handwritten letter from Don Zimring, assistant superintendent of the Las Virgenes Unified School District and a friend of Steve Capretta's since they were hired by the district on the same day in 1975.

"I must have written eight drafts before I said it the way I wanted to," Zimring says. "I wanted Ryan to know, from all of us who knew his dad, that his dad was there that night. He was there ."

School spirit reaches a peak tonight at Agoura, when the Chargers play their homecoming game against Camarillo. Ryan is part of the homecoming court and will take part in festivities at halftime.

His date is Jennifer Donahue, an Agoura sophomore.

Her father approves.

"Ryan is at our house a lot," Terry Donahue says. "He's a lot like his dad, a little quieter. For all his laughing and joking, Steve had a tremendous humbleness. Ryan is the same in many ways."

Those similarities delight Tammy Capretta, Ryan's mother. A reporter approached Ryan after his electrifying 67-yard touchdown run with a screen pass ignited Agoura to a 17-15 victory over Thousand Oaks three weeks ago.

"You broke six tackles on that play. It was your touchdown that turned the game around," the reporter exclaimed.

"No, it was the team as a whole that did it," Ryan replied.

Tammy, standing within earshot, was overwhelmed with pride.

"Suppressing your ego for the good of the team was what his dad taught his players, and there it was, coming out of Ryan," she says.

Ryan also finds himself surrounded by children after games, just as his father had been as a freshman and junior varsity coach at Agoura and Calabasas.

Steve seemingly knew every child in town, if not from Lindero Canyon Middle School where he taught, then from the swimming lessons he gave during summers or the Cub Scout outings he regularly organized.

"I remember him as the biggest guy I'd ever seen in my life," says Agoura receiver Maurice Moore, a friend of Ryan's since preschool. "He was really nice, warm and sensitive. He taught me CPR and how to swim.

"In my mind, Ryan's dad was a super hero."

Kids would tug at the pant legs of the man they called "Mr. C" as he walked down the aisle at church.

After tonight's game, kids will run to the field and tug on the uniform of Ryan, who served as an outdoor school counselor for fifth-graders last year.

"I can always find him after the game because he is the one surrounded by children," Tammy says. "Kids want to be around him."

During games, it is defenders who must keep track of Capretta, the Marmonte League's second-leading receiver behind Westlake All-American Billy Miller.

After missing five games last season because of mononucleosis, Capretta (6 feet) has rebounded to make 30 catches for 429 yards and five touchdowns.

"I've never seen a kid work harder during the off-season, and I would say he is as good as any receiver I can remember at Agoura," says Dave McLaughlin, the team's offensive coordinator and a former Agoura quarterback. "I think Ryan definitely can play college football."

Capretta's pair of touchdown receptions helped Agoura upset Simi Valley, 22-20, two weeks ago. After the game, a Simi Valley coach Capretta had never met gave him a hug and whispered, "Your dad would be very proud of you."

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