Life really wouldn't be worth livin' if you didn't have a high school football team to support."
-- From "Friday Night Lights," the best-selling book (recently made into a movie) about football in the late 1980s at Permian High School in Odessa, Texas.
It's 15 minutes before kickoff -- the last regular-season home game, against San Clemente -- and Friday night lights are shining brightly on the Mission Viejo High School football team. The jammed school lot forces people to park on residential streets and hike blocks to the stadium, where all 5,000 seats on Mission Viejo's side soon will be filled.
"Food, fun, football -- Diablo style -- after the game at Gini Garner's," says easy-on-the-ears public address announcer Harvey Ohman. Garner, it turns out, is a longtime booster who hosts an annual "meet the coaches" gathering. One hundred forty people showed up this year.
If this all sounds more like football-nutty West Texas than Orange County, there's a reason: This isn't an ordinary high school team. On this evening, Mission Viejo would polish off San Clemente 48-0 and then, last Thursday, complete its fourth straight undefeated regular season by beating Dana Hills 42-10. The Diablos won CIF sectional championships in 2001 and 2002 (runner-up in 2003) and currently are considered the best team in California and ranked No. 3 in the nation by USA Today.
Those are Permian-style credentials, the kind of success that could bind a town and spawn communitywide football mania.
Except that ... Mission Viejo isn't Odessa.
Perhaps more to the point, Orange County and Southern California aren't West Texas. For people with large sports menus on the local table (think Lakers, Angels, Dodgers, USC, UCLA) and everything under the sun to do with their spare time, is it reasonable to expect that even a nationally ranked team can be on the lips of everyone in town?
The answer in Mission Viejo is no, despite Gini Garner's insisting to me that "We are our own mini-Texas" and that the team's success affects the community's morale. "Everyone in town says, 'See you at the game,' " she says.
On the night I watched the Diablos clobber San Clemente, I made a side trip down the street to a service station and told night clerk Ruben Fernandez that the No. 3 team in the country was playing a long spiral away from where he was standing. "Oh, really?" he says, genuinely surprised. He likes sports, he says, and follows the Lakers and Dodgers.
I'd gotten the same reply a few days earlier from the manager at a local print store who'd worked there for 12 years but had no idea the Diablos were a national powerhouse.
Those two don't represent a scientific survey, except for this fact: There would be no one in Odessa in 1988 who didn't know that Permian was a powerhouse.
If you don't believe the two clerks, surely you'll believe a minister. Ryan Rosenbaum is a youth pastor at Mission Hills Church, not far from the school. It's asking too much in Southern California, he says, for a town to unite behind one team. "I think the community, as a whole, doesn't really care," he says. He knows a lot of students from the school and says, "The combination of other things to do and the culture, especially the youth culture, is almost anti-mainstream sports in a lot of ways."
Many teenagers, Rosenbaum says, are drawn to individual sports, such as skateboarding, surfing and snowboarding. Rosenbaum says he even picks up resentment from Mission Viejo students about the attention the football team gets. Some, he says, were "kind of hoping it would happen" last year when the team's winning streak ended in the playoffs.
Dan Joseph is a former Mission Viejo city manager and big-time sports fan. Acknowledging that it's hard to quantify, Joseph says there is "some of the same flavor" that existed in Odessa in the late 1980s, "but I don't know how far it extends." He surmises the team's fan base extends beyond the immediate high school family "but not a whole lot."
This is not to say that the team doesn't excite people. "Let's put it this way, we talk quite a bit about it around here," says Elks Lodge treasurer Newt Seal. "I watch all the reruns of the game when I can't get to them." When I ask who talks about the team, he says, "Just the Elks themselves, when we're sitting outside, enjoying ourselves."
If all of Mission Viejo isn't nutty about the Diablos, I say hooray. "Friday Night Lights" depicted a town that, in many respects, drew its identity from its prep footballers and placed inordinate pressure on them to succeed.
Kolbe Meier, 39, took his young son to the Mission Viejo-San Clemente game. A former coach at another school, Meier enjoys good prep football. But while Permian football represented to some players "their ticket to get out of there," he noted wryly that "Southern California is not a bad place to live." As a result, football success isn't linked to future success and is kept in perspective.