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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

There's No Crying in Football at La Verne

September 01, 1996|Bill Plaschke

The former produce truck driver called the answering machine seven times.

He was a college football player now, an All-American player at the end of a wondrous unbeaten regular season, and he couldn't believe what he was hearing.

Seven consecutive times he called last November, and seven times he heard the same two sentences.

"We did not make the Division III playoffs. There's a meeting Monday at 3."

The next day, center Andy Moran of the La Verne Leopards joined his 60 teammates at their tiny locker room on their tiny campus in the San Gabriel Valley.

It was there that one of the only coaches in college football history to finish undefeated without a postseason invitation issued his official response.

"This won't be the first time in your life you are hurt by something out of your control," Don Morel said. "This is another good lesson.

"Now turn in your uniforms and see you next year."

That was it.

No official protests. No wild threats. No howls. No remorse.

On Saturday, La Verne held its first practice in pads since then.

There were only five offensive linemen because others were at freshman orientation, but they did not complain when they could not rest.

The starting strong safety had to get up at 5 a.m. to clean pools but showed up on time.

The 37-year-old fullback, Ken Powell, could barely walk because of sore shins, but said he was having the time of his life.

And not one person mentioned being the most cheated team in America.

"You have different creatures at this place," Moran said. "Very different creatures."

There will be better Southland football stories this fall, but none with a better moral than the one about this school that refused to cry.

"One of the things we are taught here is to take it like a man," said Anthony Rice, a running back/receiver from Pomona.

There are many similar sized programs in the area, from Cal Lutheran to Occidental to Whittier to Redlands to Claremont.

Ninety-nine percent of the time, they appear in our lives as an agate note. But every so often, they do something spectacular that makes us pause long enough to wonder whether we shouldn't be watching closer.

For La Verne, a school of about 1,000 with a team filled with potential teachers, that something was 1995.

The Leos, as players call themselves, went 9-0, outscoring their opponents 410-141.

After going unbeaten the previous year and making the playoffs for the first time in the team's 74-year history, they were certain to return.

Then something equally bizarre happened. They did not return.

Because of their 52-12 loss to St. John's (Minn.) in the first round in the 1994 playoffs, a group of college administrators figured they wouldn't be competitive and took four other teams from the West Region.

These teams included Wisconsin River Falls, with two losses, and two other teams with one loss each.

Imagine setting your company's sales record and not getting a raise.

And imagine swallowing it.

A week after last year's voice-mail announcement and meeting, the Leos held their annual banquet in the school dining hall.

Not once did their coach talk about, "Why me?"

"If I was going to say 'Why,' it would be, 'Why was I so fortunate to go 9-0?' " said Morel, a 31-year-old disciple of longtime coach Roland Ortmayer.

"It was weird," Rice said of the banquet. "It was like, 'Let's get on with our lives.' "

And so they did, marrying and having babies and getting new part-time jobs and all the other things that happen to non-scholarship students at a school where building a football team is secondary to building character.

"We tell the players that two hours a day, winning football is all that matters," Morel said. "But the other 22 hours should have nothing to do with football."

There is no off-season weightlifting at La Verne. There is no spring football.

When they began hitting Saturday, two weeks before their first game, Morel was seeing the strength of his team for the first time.

He was also seeing that what he had preached, they had absorbed.

There were no T-shirts or slogans promising revenge.

"There's not one player on this team who will make more than $35,000 a year in their lives, and we're dying for a chance to stick it to The Man while we're here," said Moran, 26. "But we're here to work on our lives."

There were no promises to run up the score on opponents this year, something that might have improved their chances last year.

"As much as we'd like to run it up, we never will," Rice said. "Too many guys here work too hard to not give them a chance to play."

The first day of hitting for the most pitied football team in the Southland, and there were players calling the coach by his first name. There were players leaving practice to buy cleats. There was laughing and smacking and nothing about winning. There was life, and it was a joy.

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