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El Toro Football Had a Season in Spotlight

Preps: Documentary 'It Happens Across America' chronicles the Chargers' 2-8 campaign in 1998.

May 24, 2001|BEN BOLCH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

His eyes dreary, his face strained with the frustration of a 2-8 season, El Toro High football Coach Mike Milner addresses his weary team one last time after it has lost its sixth consecutive game to close the season.

"Life doesn't always offer you what you want or what you aspire to do," Milner says, prompting blank stares all around. "Life is hard and you've got to rebound. Hopefully as a result of not getting what you wanted, you may have gotten stronger."

Milner's address is one of many gripping scenes in "It Happens Across America," a documentary on the 1998 El Toro football team directed, filmed and edited by Meng Johnson, a recent graduate of USC's Cinema Production Graduate Program.

The low-budget film provides a riveting look inside high school football. Every torn and bloodied toenail, every sideline rant and every over-the-top pregame speech is documented in this 95-minute production.

The buzz over the documentary is already intense. The film received a standing ovation at its April premiere in a private screening at Paramount Pictures, and Johnson has engaged in preliminary discussions with USC's first-year football coach, Pete Carroll, about making a full-budget documentary on the 2001 Trojans.

"I definitely think it's a legitimate film," said Jacy Lidell, executive assistant to Hutch Parker, president of 20th Century Fox Films. "There is a dimension to the characters that you sometimes don't get in a documentary or even a feature film. For a documentary, it really tells a story."

"It Happens Across America" makes its Orange County debut with three screenings Sunday at the 399-seat social sciences lecture hall at UC Irvine. Tickets for the 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. matinees are $5. Tickets for the 7 p.m. show are $7.

Players featured in the film will have the opportunity to see it for the first time. Milner and his assistant coaches were treated to private screenings in April.

"I thought it was done very well," Milner said. "It was a valid portrayal of what high school football is all about."

The production quality is closer to "The Blair Witch Trial" than "Hoop Dreams," but its unpolished finish encapsulates the chaotic Friday-night-under-the-lights scene. And its original score packs an emotional wallop, especially as the Chargers' defeats mount after a 2-2 start.

El Toro was coming off a losing campaign heading into the 1998 season but had a proud tradition. The school won its most recent Southern Section championship in 1995 and had produced NFL quarterbacks Rob Johnson and Steve Stenstrom.

In 1998, though, the Chargers had quarterback problems. Incumbent Mike Strand received the lion's share of playing time but struggled, while Evan Whitaker, his understudy, lamented his backup role.

The quarterback saga is the film's primary story line and provides its most poignant scene, after Whitaker replaces Strand in the season finale and rallies the Chargers with two touchdown passes in the second quarter.

Outside the locker room at halftime, Whitaker breaks down in tears over replacing Strand in his final high school game. "I just don't want to take his place," says Whitaker, then a junior. "Not today."

Strand, visibly unnerved by being replaced, gathers his composure to comfort his teammate. "Don't worry about it," Strand says. "Go out and lead this team."

Whitaker can't close the deal, though, throwing a pass that is intercepted in the third quarter as El Toro goes on to another defeat.

While there is plenty of game footage, Johnson captures the essence of the entire high school football experience. He interviews cheerleaders, attends coaches-only meetings and even follows linebackers coach Robin Marquez, a mortician, into a refrigerated room filled with dead bodies.

"We gave him free access to everything, which at times was a little bit intrusive," Milner said. "But I agreed before the filming started that he could have it."

The first feature-length documentary produced by an active USC film student, "It Happens Across America" was a painstakingly assembled project three years in the making. Johnson, 28, spent the first year shooting the footage and the second and third years editing the material.

The former Reno (Nev.) High wide receiver chose El Toro football mainly out of convenience. The school was around the corner from his parents' house, and filming the team allowed him to capture his younger brother Larry's senior season, in which he was expected to be the team's star running back.

Meng Johnson didn't have grandiose expectations for his project; his plan was to make a 15-minute highlight video for himself and his brother. He borrowed a video camera, bought one tape and showed up for the first day of orientation.

"I didn't know it was going to be this big thing," Johnson said. "I was like, 'Oh, I'll do some high school footage, I'll do some highlights and put some music to it' . . . it just kind of turned into a movie."

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