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A coach's loss, and a town's

A community is stunned when a player collapses on the practice field, because he was far more than a quarterback.

October 28, 2006|BILL DWYRE | Times Staff Writer

Willows, Calif. — BRIAN PARKS collapsed Aug. 21, on a scruffy field, in the shadow of a badly bent goalpost.

It was halfway through a Monday afternoon preseason football practice for the Willows High School varsity. Parks was a 16-year-old junior, a candidate to be the team's starting quarterback.

It was 92 degrees, a good 10 degrees cooler than at much of the previous week's practices.

The person closest to Brian when he went down, about an arm's length away, was the head coach. He was in his 29th year of coaching in the Northern Section of the California Interscholastic Federation, and the last 26 of those had been as a head coach. He also taught physical education, health and sports medicine at this school 75 miles north of Sacramento, and was the person best equipped to handle the crisis.

Brian had fallen face down, helmet slightly embedded in the dirt. His arms were splayed to his sides, hands resting awkwardly. One of his teammates yelled at him to "Quit screwing around."

When the head coach turned him over, he saw lifeless eyes.

The head coach ordered a 911 call, then started CPR. Brian's practice jersey was quickly cut off, then the shoulder pads. While an assistant searched for a pulse, the head coach continued mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, the procedure that he had taught and been taught.

It took less than three minutes for the paramedics to get there. In Willows, almost nothing is more than five minutes away. The sign at the city limits helps explain that: Population 6,250, Elevation 135.

When the paramedics arrived, they found groups of teenage boys, standing in small clusters, their faces blank with a sort of collective inability to comprehend. Nearby, an assistant coach was down on all fours, sobbing.

Once the head coach relinquished medical efforts to the paramedics, he thought of his wife, who had just driven up from their home, three blocks away.

The head coach's name is Curtis Parks, and he knew that he and Cindy had just lost their only son, a son whose middle name was Curtis.

JERRY SMITH, assistant principal at the high school, calls Willows "Mayberry." And he knows an unthinkable small-town tragedy when he sees one.

"This is your worst nightmare," Smith said. "A kid goes down in a practice session, you do the CPR and it's your own kid. That's a one in a million."

Willows is a 10-second exit off Interstate 5. In general, people who live here farm, teach, work for insulation manufacturer Johns Manville or in small businesses.

The streets are a collection of small homes that people buy to live in, not to see appreciate to $1.2 million in three years. There are the staples of life -- McDonald's, Denny's, Starbucks -- and on a weekday in October, the most expensive hotel room in town was $69.95.

Most of the families have loved ones buried in the cemetery just east of town. Brian Parks is there, but his family is still working on the headstone. The latest sketch has the words: "Brian Curtis Parks; Dec. 6, 1989-Aug. 21, 2006; Our beloved son, brother, friend." And then: "Psalm 117: The upright will behold his face."

As is the case in most of the small towns near here, football heads the Friday night social calendar in Willows.

The small businesses buy signs with ads that cover both ends of the football field, which is in the center of town and directly across the street from the practice field where Brian died.

The tiny press box commemorates two recent CIF division titles, in 2000 and 2003. Curtis Parks coached both those teams, making him part of the fabric of the city pride.

Smith said that emotions remain fragile.

His son is a quarterback at nearby Winters High, and when Winters lost to Willows in one of the early-season games only weeks after Brian died, he went down on the field after the game.

"My son hugged me and told me he loved me," Smith said, "and he told me there are things in life more important than football.

"Then I looked behind me and Curtis was standing right there, and I lost it. I'm thinking, I have my son and Curtis doesn't."

When Brian died, Curtis Parks was in the process of sanding his house to repaint. Quickly, friends took over, arriving in groups, donating the paint and finishing the work. It is shiny gray with red trim now.

A little later, another friend showed up with a refrigerator for the garage, saying that lots of people would be stopping by with food.

The flower bed in the front is new too. Some of Cindy Parks' friends arrived one day, redesigned the yard and encircled the flowers with rocks. Curtis said he planned on adding to those rocks by bringing some back, one at a time, from places he and Brian went to hunt and fish.

Around town, pasted on cars, are decals that read: "In loving memory, Brian Parks." The words circle a football with No. 2, Brian's jersey number.

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