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Talk Beneath Bleachers: 'Should I Play? Will I Die?'

September 29, 1996|Bill Plaschke

During breaks in their sun-baked practices along a noisy street in the San Fernando Valley, members of the Reseda High football team seek refuge under a section of bleachers.

Lounging in shaded concrete and steel, helmets off, faces so young, they talk of girls, parents, punks.

And, these days, of other things.

Should I see a doctor for this cramp?

I have a twinge in my leg, should I come to the bench?

I lost my breath for a second, what does that mean?

What about this headache? Should I be having this headache?

"Basically," said safety Tony De La Torre, "everybody is scared."

It has been more than two weeks since the mysterious death of teammate Eric Hoggatt, who died in his sleep shortly after playing in a game during which he complained of dizziness and loss of feeling in his legs.

It has been less than one week since the death of Coronado High's Adrian Taufaasau, who was knocked out by a tackle and never regained consciousness.

And here they come . . .

Studies about the safety of high school football equipment. Debates about the role of sideline doctors. Investigations involving the responsibility of high school coaches.

None of which can alleviate the fears that are suddenly so real to the thousands of Southland high school players and their parents.

Do we still play?

And if we still play, do we die?

Statistically, the chances of any youngster dying as a result of participation in a high school football are minuscule.

Tell that to 17-year-old Tony De La Torre before he goes to bed after a hard practice.

"I used to pray about everything at night," De La Torre said. "But now, I pray to God that I can wake up in the morning."

While his mother is in the other room, praying that he would decide to quit.

"I see what happens to the others and I say, 'Tony, you must quit,' " said Tomasa Gonzalez. "He says 'Momma, please, no, this is what I love.' I respect his wishes. But I wish he will change his mind."

Apparently, none of them will.

Perhaps the most amazing statistic in this recent spate of tragedies is this:

Since Hoggatt's death, not one of Reseda's 34 players has quit the team.

They have sweated with every cramp. They have run to water with every short breath. Every bruise is examined, every bump is felt for long minutes.

At each ensuing game, parents crane their necks after each play to see if their son can still walk.

"When my son is down, I say, 'Get up, get up,' " said Jeanne Harrison, mother of senior linebacker Jeremiah Harrison. "I constantly pray."

Yet when a loudspeaker summons the players back to the field after their mid-practice breaks, out from under the bleachers they come, back into the hot sun, worries tucked away like a hip pad.

"You get hot, you don't feel good, you get scared," said Mike Martin, Reseda senior receiver. "But you stay out there. You think, if something happens, something happens."

And when something happens, well, it depends on who knows about it.

De La Torre was recently given a doctor's note that excused him from practice for a week because of a leg injury.

His mother pressed the note into his palm and demanded that he give it to his coach.

A week later, she found the note on top of the TV.

She would have taken that note and taped it to the front door and locked that door and forced Tony to stay in his room . . . but she works at a factory afternoons and evenings and does not have the luxury.

"Basically, I like to hit people," Tony said. "I've tried other sports, and nothing feels like football."

"I am so afraid," Tomasa said.

Some would call this so much foolishness. If there is even a chance of dying during an extracurricular activity, why take that chance?

What is the mortality rate in the French club?

Other might explain it differently.

Others might say that part of growing up is learning that sometimes there really are monsters under bed.

A boy becomes a man, perhaps, when he learns to make a deal with those monsters.

In the last two weeks the 34 remaining players of Reseda High have made that deal.

And their parents are not just afraid, but proud.

"The sheer determination of these kids is amazing," Jeanne Harrison said.

"This is better than my son being on the streets," Tomasa Gonzalez acknowledged.

A couple of neat things happened to the Reseda High team recently.

The Regents won their first game after Hoggatt's death, 21-20 over Cleveland, when their defense prevented a two-point conversion in the final seconds.

And Tomasa Gonzalez received the results of the X-rays on her son's leg.

"It is fine, no problems," she said. "I still ask him to quit again. He says, 'Momma, I am almost 18 years old, I am almost an adult.' "

She sighed.

"I said, 'Yes you are.' "

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