Servite High School defensive back Jake Slemmer with his daughter, Mackenzie.
Jake Slemmer's face was covered with eye black. A steady stream of tears rolled down both cheeks. The Anaheim Servite defensive back, known as his team's emotional leader, was in the middle of a rain-drenched Angel Stadium last weekend not only celebrating a Pac-5 Division championship but remembering that his father wasn't there to share the moment.
"After the game, everything hit me at once," he said. "I was crying for a few good minutes. It was bittersweet, being able to share the victory with my teammates but still not have my dad there."
Larry Slemmer died two years ago of a heart ailment. He was 42 and it happened right before his son's sophomore year at Servite. Coach Troy Thomas was asked by Slemmer's mother to come by their house to help break the news.
"We went over and tried to be there for him," Thomas said.
Thomas knew what Slemmer would be going through. His father also died when he was a football player at Encino Crespi, so after the game the coach and the senior looked each other in the eye, each feeling the pain and joy.
"I gave him a big hug," Thomas said. "I felt his dad was watching and was proud of him, just like I hope my dad was seeing me play and was proud of me."
Slemmer, a three-year starter for the Friars, gets to end his high school career in Saturday night's CIF state championship Division II bowl game against Rocklin at the Home Depot Center.
These last two years have tested Slemmer far more than any teenager could imagine.
At 16, only six months after losing his dad, Slemmer became a father when his daughter, MacKenzie, was born. So understand the pressures and responsibilities he has faced.
"Emotionally and spiritually, he's well-advanced beyond his years," Thomas said. "I told him to be a good dad. I knew he would be. The guy is a very loving and caring person. I thought Jake, of all the guys I've coached, would be able to take on that responsibility and do it the proper way."
MacKenzie's mother, Gina Rietberg, a college freshman studying to become a nurse, and Slemmer split time taking care of their daughter with help from their families.
They are no longer dating but have a good relationship and make sure they do what's best for their daughter.
"He's a great father," Rietberg said. "He's so good with her."
There are so many stories of families disowning sons and daughters over pregnancies, but Slemmer stayed on a path to graduation with the support of his coach, teammates, friends and family.
"This is not a reason to drop out," his mother, Tammy, told him.
It was an emotional roller-coaster for Slemmer. His father and mother had separated when he was 4, but his father stayed in touch, and Slemmer went to live with him for a year in Virginia when he was 13.
One of Slemmer's regrets is that he never told his father that he was about to become a grandfather. He had intended to fly to Virginia to tell him in person.
Enter Thomas, 40, a father with two boys and two girls. Five years ago, he left Crespi to take over the Servite program with the intention of turning boys into men and using football to teach character. Slemmer needed Thomas. And Thomas needed Slemmer.
"We went through this whole thing," Thomas said. "He's actually helped me. He's an incredible guy. He has his focus right. He has an extremely strong faith in God.
"He's a physical guy with a lot of passion and heart. The guys rally around him. They feed off him. He talks with his pads."
Football became Slemmer's therapy.
"Football has gotten me so much," he said. "The friends I've gained, the coaches being such good mentors to me . . . whenever I was going through hard times, everyone was there to back me and support me."
Winning a championship was thrilling for Slemmer, but surviving the road to get there was a bigger achievement.
The family considers Thomas a second father.
"I love him," Tammy said. "He's been an inspiration personally for my son. To watch him, the seniors and juniors grow up is amazing. They're teammates, friends, brothers."
Slemmer gets to play one more game in a Servite uniform in what could be the final football game of his life.
"Football is sort of my escape back to childhood," he said.