High school team's winning tradition
California's De La Salle Spartans had football's longest win streak - and still have something more.
CONCORD, CALIF — . - While America celebrated Labor Day, the De La Salle High School Spartans football team spent Monday in the school cafeteria, and for four hours watched an excruciating video reprise of the team's first defeat in 13 years, marking the end of the longest winning streak in organized football history. In the process, they kept alive another centuries-old streak, one that transcends football.
It's the persistence of a character-building system of education that has prepared these young Californians not just for gridiron wins but also for success in life and the possibility of losing with grace.
On this football squad, players who often come from impoverished and violence-prone communities are honing attitudes of success in the setting of a relatively affluent suburb 30 miles east of San Francisco.
And until last Saturday, their success on the field had been mythic - 151 straight wins for the kids from an all-male Roman Catholic Christian Brothers school in Contra Costa County, Calif.
On Seattle's Qwest Field, before a national TV audience and the largest crowd ever to watch a high school football game in Washington State, they were challenged to defend that status.
The Streak had produced dozens of Division I college football players, several NFL stars, half a dozen high school coaches, two books, a documentary film, and feature film that's in the works.
But, at the end of the day, a game had to be played. And the prospects for its outcome were placed heavily on the shoulders of a team that returned only three starting players from the previous year.
The opposition: The Bellevue Wolverines, three-time Washington State champions with a brawny, brutishly fast line, a blue-chip running back, and something to prove. Coach Butch Goncharoff would not be shy about saying he sought to infuse his own team with the very ingredients that had earned De La Salle coach Bob Ladouceur 287 victories and just 14 losses in 25 years. The Wolverines had spent eight months training for this game.
On Saturday night, before 1,500 shocked De La Salle fans in a crowd of 25,000, that focus channeled a pent-up fury. Fluid and ferocious, the Wolverine offense rolled up 463 total yards against a smaller and slower Spartan defense without resorting to a single pass. When the game and The Streak ended, the score was Bellevue 39, De La Salle 20. The kids from the public school on the banks of Lake Washington had come within six points of matching the total all 10 of De La Salle's opponents had accumulated in the entire 2003 season.
As the final seconds ticked off, with the Washington team celebrating, coach Ladouceur and his assistants called the De La Salle squad together. They reminded the players to shake their opponents' hands, congratulate them, act like gentlemen. He'd said more or less the same thing the night before when he huddled the boys and reminded them to be gracious to their Seattle-area hosts: "You are guests. Be grateful. Show your appreciation.''
The kids needed no reminding. They had been well coached, even in the hallways of their school.
"Never pass up a teachable moment, especially when it involves respect, integrity, and helping the kids figure out their roles in the world," says De La Salle dean of students Joe Aliotti, also an assistant football coach who starred at quarterback at Boise State College and whose two sons are enrolled at De La Salle.
Graduation rates run nearly 99 percent at De La Salle. SAT scores are well above the state average and nearly every year 98 percent of graduates attend four- or two-year colleges. Tuition runs close to $10,000, but nearly $1 million in scholarships fund the 15 percent of the students who live near or below the poverty line. The fact that most of those players are from the county's crime-plagued "Iron Triangle," has fed a widespread rumor that De La Salle's athletic excellence is based on recruitment of top athletes, regardless of academic ability.
But Terry Edison begs to differ. "Take a look as you walk through the corridors. Does this look like a football factory?'' asks the school's athletic director, assistant football coach, and, like Ladouceur, a religious studies instructor.
Indeed, except for the bulging trophy cases, the athletic facilities seem modest, and the roster reveals a squad that may be smaller than opponents' teams.
This is where the real Streak comes in.
"It is both a gift and a challenge we have here in keeping the Lasallian spirit alive,'' says Bruce Shoup, the school's president, explaining the school's mission as envisioned by the religious order's founder, John Baptist de La Salle. In more than 1,000 Lasallian schools, that mission is to provide the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual tools to cope in the world and enrich the lives of others.
Mr. Shoup and his faculty understand this may sound quaint. "We battle external media, marketing, social infractions, and the fact that they are just boys," he says.
That challenge was especially keen as practice began on the morning of Aug. 13. School was still out for the summer, but word had spread: Terrance Kelly, last year's team leader, an All American line backer, and a standard bearer of the Lasallian ethic, was dead.
Kelly, who for four years had commuted to De La Salle from crime-ridden Richmond, had written in his college-application essay: "Many people believe the life of a teenager to be carefree, but that is not true in the city I live in."
Nick Aliotti, the University of Oregon defensive coach (and brother of De La Salle's dean of students), had recruited him with a scholarship offer. On Aug. 12, three nights before Kelly was to depart for college, as he sat in his car outside a friend's home, he was shot at point blank range. Police are holding a 15-year-old suspect whom they believe held a long grudge against him over a playground dispute.
The next morning, De La Salle's chapel filled quickly as word spread among students, the football team, former players, and the community. Coach Ladouceur urged against invectives and reminded those gathered of the goodness in the room and their duty to protect it.
But the moment may have been most remarkable for what it was not: a devastating loss to mark the new season. In a way, the team was used to it. Already that year, two players had lost their fathers, and in the past three years, three other teammates had died. Ladouceur himself had suffered a near-fatal heart attack in January. Dedicating the season to "TK" would be too simple.
The self-effacing Ladouceur, a former youth guidance counselor, reminded everyone in the chapel that this was a test of faith, one of many they were preparing for together. The challenge was to put things into perspective.
Three weeks later, on the morning of the game, he reminded them again: "You're high school kids,'' he said. "But you're also capable of great things. Sometime you're going to find that it may not involve walking home with a 'W.' But you have to be open to getting better.''
Before the meeting ended, the players exchanged commitment cards, essential codifying their goals - not solely for the game, but for the team's future - with the promise that the boys would hold each other to account. Incorporated into the exchange, at Ladouceur's insistence, were the words, "May peace be with you.'' The boys formed two circles, one inside the other, and moved in opposite directions. As they passed each other, they embraced - comfortably - and said, "Peace."
After the game, near midnight in the locker room, when Ladouceur had doled out his congratulations to every Bellevue player and coach, he praised the opposition and appraised his own failings and those of his team.
"We all share in this together,'' he told them. "Today, they were a better football team. They took it to us. That's the game of football. Let's keep this in perspective.... The character of this team will be determined by how you come back from this.''
Moments later, he was equally frank in a press conference: "We were outplayed," he said. "I was out-coached. They were better prepared."
At the team's hotel, 100 or so parents and diehard fans waited well past midnight for the buses to return, tossing out words like "relief." The team and the parents too had, in a sense, grown up together: Some had been kindergarteners when The Streak began. And as the players stepped off the bus, all those years of practice, victory, and bracing for defeat poured out of the crowd. They applauded in unison. The applause built and didn't stop until every young man was off the bus and in the hotel door.