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Football and Community Service a Winning Combination at Colton

November 10, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A renaissance is taking place at Colton High. On the football field, the team practices to become better. Off the field, the team grows.

Pulling together on and off the field, the Yellowjackets' commitment to community service seems to have forged a change in a program that, two years ago, was not expected to win any games for its new coach.

It won five.

This year, it has won eight.

For Harold Strauss, second-year coach, football is important, but has its place--and it's not atop any list of priorities.

"It's just an avenue for us to become better people," said Strauss, who seems to have his program headed in the right direction.

"I know what a coach did to influence me. If you can get your life in the right order, you're going to win, the program's going to win. I told the kids we were going to have youth camps, build the booster program, have community service and go to camps ourselves."

It is the community service that makes Colton unusual, and those involved with the program seem to think it has played an important role in on-field success.

Sometimes, it's as easy as participating in a parade, such as this weekend's Veteran's Day parade through Colton or the town's Christmas parade last December.

Other times, there's more elbow grease involved. The football team has cleaned up two dilapidated homes for elderly women in the community, and helped remove part of a gymnasium floor from Cal State San Bernardino for the high school to use.

"When [Strauss] told us what we were going to do, he said the way to get a community to support you is to support the community," said junior linebacker Dean Romero.

"By us showing our pride in our community, it gave the community a reason to be proud of us."

One of the homes in disrepair belonged to Helen Wilson, 79, a widow for 28 years who suffers osteoporosis.

"My husband and I were both packrats," she said, admitting the lumber piled in her backyard was there before her husband, Dick, died in 1973.

The Colton Police Department cleared much of the debris from Wilson's house over two weekends as part of a Christmas in April volunteer program. But there was so much, said Lt. Frank Coe, that off-duty policemen couldn't continue going to Wilson's house.

Without the cleanup, Wilson--who describes herself as "basically handicapped" because of her bad back--could have been subject to fines up to $500 every day the nuisance existed.

"What good would that do?" Coe said. "She would never be able to pay it. I don't even think we cited her. The challenge was to find a way to help these people.... Harold stepped up to the plate and said, 'I make my boys do community service."'

Players pulled weeds, cut grass, raked leaves and filled dumpsters. They painted walls and ceilings as best they could, fixed a faucet, erected a clothesline and unearthed a long-forgotten backyard brick patio.

Wilson had lived in the house for 46 years, and last month moved to Santee to live with her son, Richard, and his wife Linn.

"Living alone, you get to where you appreciate most anything anyone does for you," Wilson said. "Those kids were so nice, they were all courteous and friendly."

If it made an impact on Wilson, it also made an impact on Colton's players.

"When I heard about it, I wondered, 'Is this lady special?"' said Mark Vingua, a running back and linebacker who is considering attending Harvard next year. "Then coach told us her situation. Coach says we take a lot of things for granted, and we showed that we can think of other people instead of ourselves."

John Martinez, a senior offensive tackle, said, "I'm going to remember that for a long time."

Coe said it was a pleasant surprise meeting Strauss, who didn't seem to fit the stereotype.

"I see a football coach as someone who coaches football," Coe said. "When I started talking to him about what our community needed, he said, 'We can do that, we can help you.'

"Generally, when you see a football team doing any type of community event, it's to earn money for the booster club to buy equipment for themselves.

"What these kids did was help someone knowing that there was nothing coming back but appreciation."

The Yellowjackets made two trips to Wilson's home, and when Coe gave Strauss a second property to clean, Coe indicated he needed only eight players to do the job because of the confined working space.

"We took 28 because they all wanted to come," Strauss said, marveling at the way his team responded. "I believe it has brought us together and formed a family atmosphere. Get your life in perspective, and winning takes place."

Make no mistake. There's more to Colton's success than community service.

When Strauss took over, he created a summer youth camp and used his players as coaches, taking advantage of one of his philosophies: Players learn by teaching. That youth camp grew from 50 to 100 over two summers.

He also made two rules: Lift weights hard and eat six meals a day. Martinez has gained 70 pounds--to 290--and increased his bench press by 100 pounds.

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