The City Section spring football season finally was in full swing when LAUSD teams joined the charter schools with games on Friday.
Here is a glimpse of what transpired across the Southland:
Return to play
Ronald Coltress gathered the Hawkins High team in the end zone, a place none of his 18 players had visited in the first half of their game with Manual Arts on Friday afternoon.
“Don’t worry about the score!” Coltress shouted, unaware some players had no idea they were down 27-0 at halftime since the scoreboard at the other end of the field was dark, the lack of a spare part rendering it lifeless.
“Today,” Coltress insisted, “it’s not about the score!”
That described the game, — which ended in a 27-0 Manual Arts win. It was about everything but the score. It was about beating back adversity. It was about the seniors closing out the final two months of their high school experiences. And it was about a return to normal, however tenuous, in a year in which proms, graduations, homecomings and even football games were wiped out by a deadly virus.
“It’s really about being on the field and playing and letting the community know that things are coming back,” said Hawkins principal Patricia Hanson, whose nine-year-old school is less than two miles south of the Coliseum.
With COVID-19 limiting attendance to two members of each player’s family, only about a dozen people were scattered throughout the aluminum grandstands at kickoff — which Manual Arts’ Jamari Flowers returned for a touchdown.
Hanson was nonplussed.
“I don’t see empty seats,” she said. “I see loved ones.”
Kelly Bedford was one of those. Her son, junior linebacker Patrick Reese, is one of the few college hopefuls on the team. But the game Friday, Hawkins’ first in 17 months and the first of an abbreviated four-game season, wasn’t about impressing scouts.
“They’re on the field. That’s what’s most important,” Bedford said of her son, who sat out the second half because of a neck injury. “It gets them to adapt to what they were used to before the pandemic. There are little hiccups here and there, but I’m OK with it. And hopefully they are as well.”
Across the field, Quaison Wiley rested on the bike he pedaled over to watch son Tyler Brown, Manual Arts’ lockdown cornerback and one of 19 healthy players on the Toilers’ roster. Brown had aspirations of playing at the next level too but when his final season was all but erased by COVID-19, so were those college dreams.
“This isn’t really a return to normal,” Wiley said, the missing band and absent cheerleaders leaving eerie quiet. “But it gives you some aspects of normality in your life. You’re out. You’re at a public event. You [couldn’t] go to a public event last year.
“We’re progressing. But we’re not there yet.”
At the break, Coltress continues to challenge his team.
“Do your job!” he said. “Win the second half.”
Afterward, the coach tells his players he’s proud of them. Winning, it turns out, isn’t the only thing.
“Some of you got laid out,” Coltress says, “but you got back up.”
“I tell my kids football is a way to get on the field and do something. But it’s also a way to live your life,” the coach continued quietly, speaking through a cloth facemask as his players pulled off their black jerseys, some for the first time and some for one of the last times. “At the end of the day everybody’s not going pro. But everybody’s going to do something else afterward. And if you can handle yourself here and take all the adversity given to you, when you walk out of the school, I’ve done my job as a coach.”
— KEVIN BAXTER
Rivalry in pandemic times
At the conclusion of the game between Western League rivals Venice and Palisades, players and coaches of their respective teams gathered in opposite end zones. Masks on, and none of the usual handshakes or hugs at midfield.
This hardly has been a typical season, one in which every school and athletic program has had to cope with myriad issues along the way.
For Joseph Rotimi, a senior defensive back and wide receiver for Venice, the off-the-field challenges were more difficult than the ones on the field.
“Everyone played their part, but on their own,” Rotimi said. “It’s been hard, it’s been different. Some of our players bus to school but with the online classes you don’t see people as much.”
Senior linebacker Raejion Baker added: “The off-the-field stuff has been harder to deal with, because there isn’t the face-to-face factor. Meeting over Zoom we’re not actually seeing our classmates, so it’s harder to hold each other accountable if we’re not getting our work done.”
Another senior, running back and strong safety Darion Tyler, who was the Gondoliers’ rushing leader in their 36-0 victory, mentioned that things like workouts and studying are different when not done on campus with peers.
“The hardest part was all the stopping and starting,” Venice Coach Angelo Gasca said of the twice-delayed season. “We get all ramped up to practice, then we stop. We would’ve had a really good team and I felt bad for the seniors in particular, but at least now they’re getting a chance to play a few games.”
For Gasca, getting kids to practice has not been as big an issue as players choosing not to play for fear of getting injured, hindering their chances of being recruited, or because they will have less time to prepare for next season, which is only four months away.
“Some critical guys opted out for various reasons,” Gasca said. “We have about 50 kids total and 16 or so on JV that weren’t able to play because it’s only varsity."
Palisades Coach Tim Hyde has felt the sting of COVID-19 as much as anyone. All but a few seniors decided not to play while starting quarterback Forrest Brock transferred to Lake Balboa Birmingham right before the start of camp. In fact when the Dolphins stepped on the field Friday, it had been 511 days since their last game — a loss to Banning in the quarterfinals of the City Open Division playoffs.
“What’s made us competitive is our offseason training,” said Hyde, whose team won the a league crown outright for the first time in 32 years in 2019. “There’s so much stuff that we haven’t been able to do. We’ve had no normal routine, we have temp checks and stretching and by the time you do all that, you don’t have much time left, plus we have to share with softball, so we haven’t been able to practice full field. We haven’t been able to meet or even watch film as a team.”
— STEVE GALLUZZO
Missing more than a game
With four hours before Roosevelt High’s first game of the season, Jimmy Romero’s helmet hung on his bedroom wall. A sticker was plastered on the side, a maroon ring. White letters spelled out a four-word slogan, curved around the circle: “All Work, No Glory.”
Roosevelt’s offensive linemen used to hear those words all the time from assistant coach Richard Guillen before he died from COVID-19 complications. Their season, beginning with this first game in more than a year, is dedicated to “Coach Dicky,” as he was affectionately known.
At least, it was.
As Romero’s helmet lay idle, he sat in his kitchen, shoveling down a pregame meal of chicken and pasta. His phone lit up with an Instagram notification from the team’s account. Their game was postponed because of a COVID-19 case.
Romero, a senior for Roosevelt, was “in shock,” he said.
“I’m just really bummed out about not being able to play,” Romero said, “and not being able to honor our Coach Dicky.”
He was a “damn good friend,” Roosevelt coach Aldo Parral said of Guillen, who spent 22 years as a Roosevelt assistant.
Guillen knew Boyle Heights, the community surrounding Roosevelt, was affected by gangs and poverty, Childress said, so if Guillen knew a player wasn’t eating, he’d buy them food. If he knew they needed a ride home, he’d take them. He’d get them supplies; Vicente Zepeda, a senior, said Guillen was collecting players’ shoe sizes to buy ankle braces for the team before he died.
“I’m thinking of him right now, and it’s hard,” Parral said. “I miss him. I know he’s watching out for us.”
The road to Roosevelt’s planned four-game schedule this spring has been long, filled with nonstop potholes. Other coaches of City Section teams gave up on a season, Parral said.
In the team’s initial experiment with Zoom — a club-like scenario that often featured players venting about their situations — only about 25 players from a 75-man roster would show up. Workouts were unorthodox. Players would put books in backpacks and treat them like weights, with coaches watching across a virtual divide.
The team’s roster has dropped to 55, with players leaving to pursue jobs to keep themselves and families afloat during the pandemic. Roosevelt has only seven freshmen, Parral said. Normally, there are 20.
“It was bad,” Parral said. “That’s going to hurt us, three years down the line.”
The way forward is cloudy now.
“I feel terrible for these guys, because they worked so hard for this moment, for [their] senior year,” Parral said. “When you graduate from high school, you’re no longer a kid. And for these guys, that window is closed now. We’re hoping that we’re going to be able to get back on the field, but I don’t know.”
Roosevelt, the Guillens, Boyle Heights — they’re all rebuilding now.
“We’ve survived this. We took a hard hit. But we’re still here,” said Virginia Childress, one of Guillen's four children. “Our family is still here, we’re still helping, we’re still a part of the community … [carrying] on our dad’s legacy of helping.”
— LUCA EVANS
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.