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Finally, a Home Field of Their Own

After 44 years, Salesian High in Boyle Heights has a football stadium, thanks to a big gift.

November 08, 2002|John Ortega and Mike Hiserman | Times Staff Writers

For months, they've looked at it, long and wistfully, as they trudged past on the way from the locker room to the collection of dust and rock that is their practice field.

Fresh paint. New goal posts. A big, bright scoreboard. Imagine.

An opening night with lush, virgin grass under their cleats and bleachers crowded with friends and family, some standing as they watch from one of the plazas overlooking the new stadium. Their new stadium.

Football heaven, smack in the middle of gritty, crime-ridden but still-hopeful Boyle Heights.

Tonight will finally be one of dreams for the football players of Salesian High.

In its 44-year history, the tiny, all-boys Catholic school has never played a game on its own campus, a streak that will come to an end about 7:30 p.m., when they are scheduled to kick off against a team from Daniel Murphy High.

"As freshmen, we were told that we would have a football field in a year or so. But there were a lot of former players who said they heard the same thing years ago," said Aurelio Covarrubias, a senior who is one of the team's quarterbacks. "I still couldn't believe it was happening when they first started [construction]. But now ... it's real."

For that, Salesian can thank John and Dorothy Shea, who have contributed $7 million toward a $9.2-million construction project that includes the 1,350-seat lighted football and soccer stadium, plus a three-level athletic building that has a gymnasium, two locker rooms, a weight room, a physical therapy and training center, and coaches' offices. Refurbishing a multipurpose wing that is home to the school's thrice-weekly lifeblood -- bingo -- and creating concrete verandas as community gathering places completed the endeavor.

The Sheas, who live in Pasadena, do not have a direct connection to Salesian, but they have a decade-long record of philanthropy at urban Catholic schools.

The J.F. Shea Co., a Walnut-based construction firm that John owns with his cousins, Edmund and Peter Shea, built a library, cafeteria, multipurpose center, gymnasium and football field at Verbum Dei High in Watts in the mid-1990s. In 1998, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony inducted John and Dorothy into papal knighthood, the highest recognition the church can bestow on a layperson.

"We have always felt that the best way to help society is to help the inner city," John Shea said, "because the inner city is where there are the most problems."

The Eastside neighborhood that is home to Salesian certainly qualifies. The area is gang-infested and notorious for crime. Most homes and businesses have bars on their doors and windows. Every dwelling, it seems, is subject to graffiti -- and not just on walls; windows too.

Across the street from the school's main office on an afternoon this week, four young men loitered on the porch of a home, one smoking from a pipe and another taking the last swig from a bottle before lobbing it toward bustling Soto Street.

The school, with high fences and locked gates, is a sanctuary not entirely isolated from trouble. When a new brick retaining wall went up on the south side of the football stadium, it was tagged with graffiti on the first day.

"It was painted over right away and it hasn't been tagged again," Lalo Mendoza, Salesian's football coach and athletic director, said this week. "Hopefully, that's a good sign."

Salesian's enrollment, which reached a high of nearly 1,000 in the late 1970s, has dropped to less than one-third of that in recent years as annual tuition and the cost of books climbed to about $4,400.

It is hoped the new athletic facilities will rejuvenate interest in the community and perhaps lead to an increase in enrollment "because it's such a good school and they do such a good job with the students," Dorothy Shea said.

Mendoza said he is aware of about half a dozen eighth-graders who say they want to come to Salesian next year -- up from the usual zero.

The football field and gymnasium, which look "like a cathedral" to Mendoza, should help the school attract athletes. As for the current crop, they have endured a lot.

The school has never had a regulation-size football field, and its old gym was demolished because it didn't comply with the city building code.

Unable to practice on or near the campus last year because of the construction, members of the football team scrambled to cars after school and braved traffic to meet for workouts at the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area, 10 miles away.

"Home" football games have been played at Roosevelt and Los Angeles Wilson highs, East Los Angeles College and, for the past several seasons, Downey's St. Matthias High.

"We've been like nomads," said Bob Mendoza, Salesian's plant manager, Lalo's brother and, until this year, the school's athletic director. "Even when we were playing home games, we had to get on a bus to get to the game."

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