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ERIC SONDHEIMER

Football has become a teacher

August 29, 2007|ERIC SONDHEIMER

Opening weekend of the high school football season is perfect for reminiscing about what makes the sport so intoxicating.

There are exhilarating highs and rock-bottom lows, breathtaking moments of athleticism, horrific collisions, jubilation and heartbreak.

Then there's Brandon James, an inside linebacker at Chino Don Lugo, whose story of perseverance serves as a reminder that high school football is more than a game.

It's about learning life lessons.

"Football is like a father I never had," James says.

Near the end of a quiet cul-de-sac in Chino, James lives in a group home with five other teenage boys as a ward of the court. Taken from his father at age 10, James has been pretty much on his own, left to navigate the emotional highs and lows faced by any youngster without parents. And yet, he's still standing, his infectious smile perfectly intact.

"At first, it was difficult for me," he says. "I just realized there are more people out there who have worse problems than me. It would make me feel like a coward if I quit."

He arrived at Don Lugo as a freshman with poor grades and little vision for his future. Aided by social workers, teachers, coaches and friends, he enters his senior year wanting to succeed in the classroom, on the field and in his community.

His football coach, Greg Setlich, said seeing James show up at school every day, work hard and not make excuses about the past is a source of inspiration.

"What makes him so special is the fact he could have made the wrong turn many times," Setlich said. "This guy is a solid individual, a likable young man, a hard worker and is a pleasure to coach. Everyone loves him."

As an inside linebacker, the 5-foot-8, 220-pound James earned first-team All-Mt. Baldy League honors as a junior. Quickness and aggressiveness make him an ideal fit on defense. He also starts at offensive guard.

While James hopes to use football as a way to reach college, what he has learned from his athletic experience will stay with him no matter where he ends up.

"It helped me relieve a lot of anger," he said. "It helped me make a lot of friends. It's helping me learn leadership. It helped me develop integrity. It teaches you to work with people you don't like. It teaches me to keep trying."

James, 17, is driven to and from school by staff members at the group home. He has a curfew and is expected to do chores. He hasn't spoken to his father since he was 10. His mother lives in Fresno with five of her children, and he has occasional contact with her.

While teammates return home after practice to their parents, he returns to the group home, where he considers his fellow members as his family.

"I'm going home to see my brothers instead of my parents," he said.

James Brady, supervisor for the home, said James has been able to focus on making the right choices.

"With all the negative things around him, he's definitely stayed positive," Brady said.

During his group home stay, he has been taught how to repair a flat tire, how to iron and cook, do laundry, dress properly and present himself for a job interview. His aspiration is to become an architect.

James said he had a temper as a young boy and used to get into trouble in school. But those days are long gone. He's calm, friendly and goes out of his way to make others feel comfortable around him.

"I hope people like me," he said.

On the field, he becomes intense and passionate.

"I love hitting people," he said.

Quarterback Charlie Hinojosa has grown to know James as a player and person over the course of three seasons. He understands the challenges James has faced and admires how he has created a new life for himself.

"He's been my friend all through high school," Hinojosa said. "When I needed him, he'd be there. Football is the best thing in his life. He wants to go as far as he can."

With Don Lugo facing Alta Loma in a season opener Friday night at Chino High, James is excited his senior year has finally arrived.

"I'm playing with all my friends," he said. "From freshman year, we grew up together. We're all young men now. This is our year. The way we play as a team will determine how our season will go."

For James, football has given him hope and helped him find a path to success.

"Maybe God still believes in me," he said.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

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