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ERIC SONDHEIMER / ON HIGH SCHOOLS

When politics was sidelined

Sixty-five years ago, courage took the field as Manzanar High -- the children of Japanese American internees -- played its only intersectional athletic event, a football game against Big Pine High.

October 19, 2009|ERIC SONDHEIMER

When politics, race or religion prevents people from talking or even shaking hands, it's left to sports competition to save the day.

And so it was, 65 years ago, in the middle of World War II, that courage and what was right came through on a makeshift high school football field in Manzanar, Calif., in the Owens Valley.

Manzanar High School, made up of sons and daughters of Japanese Americans interned by Executive Order 9066 signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, played their first and only interscholastic athletic event, a football game against Big Pine High on Oct. 25, 1944.

"I thought it was a great story and is what prep sports is all about," said John Dahlem, who has been documenting the history of the CIF Southern Section and persuaded the section to honor Manzanar and Big Pine during a ceremony scheduled for Thursday at a meeting of Southern Section Council representatives in Long Beach.

One of those at the camp was Henry Nakano, who at 13 was forced to leave North Hollywood with his family and arrived at Camp Manzanar, where for three years he lived behind barbed wire with armed guards in watchtowers. A sprawling high school developed, with lots of sports activities between the students. But not until Big Pine agreed to play the football game did the kids get to face opponents outside their camp.

Manzanar used its speed to defeat Big Pine, 33-0, in front of 1,000 fans. They played six-man tackle football.

"There was no taunting, no fighting," said Nakano, who played in the game and is now 82 and living in Fullerton. "It went off very smoothly."

"It was one of the sad times in our history," said Dahlem, who spoke to several participants during his research. "This was one of the bright, shining lights. These kids were locked in full time. They couldn't leave the camp for three years. All they could do is play each other, and they wanted badly to play another team, but nobody wanted to come and play them."

That's why Big Pine, which still competes in the Southern Section, will also be recognized Thursday. A side note: Manzanar was scheduled to play its second interscholastic event, a basketball game against Bishop. But a few hours before Manzanar was to leave for the game, the Bishop school board refused to allow its team to play. That prompted the Bishop student body president, Mickey Duffy, to write a compelling letter of apology to the Manzanar students.

"When we were informed that the game with your basketball team had been canceled, we did our utmost to change the school board's decision through a petition signed by the entire student body," Duffy wrote.

"It has been taught to us in school that a democracy and Constitution such as ours guarantees every American equal treatment. Certain members of the board, however, refused to acknowledge our efforts."

Dahlem said of the letter, "That's called courage."

Manzanar and nine other relocation camps were disbanded in 1945. Manzanar was designated a National Historic Site.

Dahlem said the sportsmanship and camaraderie displayed on that day 65 years ago serves as an example of what's right about high school sports.

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Streakbuster II

First Lakewood ended Long Beach Poly's 80-game win streak in Moore League play. Now there's a chance for Anaheim Servite to end an 0-19-1 drought against Santa Ana Mater Dei on Friday night at Santa Ana Stadium.

"I don't think it gets much better: Mater Dei-Servite. Let's go," Servite Coach Troy Thomas said.

It should be an interesting week of trash talking at USC's practices, where former Mater Dei quarterback Matt Barkley and former Servite linebacker Chris Galippo should be having some conversations about the big game. Of course, Barkley never lost to the Friars.

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Watching Tartabull

Valencia (6-0) keeps on winning, and one reason is that the Vikings have one of the best two-way starters in receiver-defensive back Zach Tartabull. Whether making acrobatic catches or running down ballcarriers, Tartabull is a Pac-10 prospect.

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Date to remember

Mark Dec. 5 on your calendar. That's a Saturday night and the championship game of the Westchester basketball tournament, where the defending state Division I champion Comets should face Woodland Hills Taft in the final.

That's better than Lakers-Clippers.

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com

twitter.com/latsondheimer

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