One of the biggest high school football games of the year in California will happen Saturday afternoon in San Mateo, when Valley Christian takes on Serra, the latter ubiquitously known as Tom Brady's alma mater.
There is a long, bitter rivalry between these football factories, and both teams are undefeated in the powerhouse West Catholic Athletic League. The field will be dripping with talent: Valley Christian head coach Mike Machado estimates two dozen kids in the game will go on to play some level of college football. Befitting the Brady heritage, Serra has a highly sophisticated passing attack, with the Padres averaging 52 points per game in their four league victories this season. Valley Christian plays a different brand of football, grinding down opponents with a running game Machado calls "old-school, tough guy football that's won in the trenches."
The winner will become the de facto favorite for the Div. 2-AA state championship. (Valley Christian lost in the title game last year.) "It's a huge game, we can definitely feel the energy around it," says Daniel Machado, VC's 6'3", 270 lb. right guard. "It's gonna be a crazy atmosphere. But that's kind of what we live for."
While a packed house is expected at Serra's stadium, one interested observer will be monitoring the proceedings from 2,000 miles away, in Nashville. Brian Thure (rhymes with flurry) has deep Northern California roots, having played high school ball in Salinas and then earning a full-ride to Cal, before enjoying two seasons as an offensive lineman for the Washington Redskins. It was a remarkable career for a guy who was so clumsy as a high school freshman he used to routinely trip over the free throw line during basketball practice. I was on that team, too. So was our mutual friend Chad Gieg. During football season I would sneak their names into my game stories for the local newspaper, The Salinas Californian, for which I earned the princely sum of $25 per story. As yearbook editor during our senior year I also featured them prominently in the football spread — Chad was a hard-nosed linebacker who went on to play for St. Mary's — though there are still some hard feelings about a snarky caption I wrote, which began, "Despite a missed block by Brian Thure…"
Where does the time go? We're now so old that Chad's son Zack is a 6'1, 275 lb. junior offensive lineman for Valley Christian. Brian has become his long-distance mentor, though the thought of him molding America's youth is hysterical to those who know about our high school hijinks, which included smashing mailboxes with a baseball bat while hanging out of the passenger-side window as Brian's red Mustang roared down country roads at absurdly high speeds. But we all grow up eventually, and even as he toils at a desk job in Tennessee, Brian is happy to impart his knowledge to Zack on the dark art of blocking. Chad emails him film of every game, and shortly thereafter Zack's phone pulsates.
"There have been times when I was a little afraid to answer because I felt a like I played bad and I might get toasted," says Zach. "But he always finds the positive. We talk a lot about technique and I pay attention to everything that is said. I didn't think Thure would be this invested in my success. Growing up I just knew him as a guy telling funny stories about my dad. But now I feel like I have a big advantage because I have an NFL guy teaching me NFL stuff."
It's been a steep learning curve for Zack, who didn't play organized football until his freshman year. By his sophomore season he was a starter on varsity. Now he is a key part of the unit that gives Valley Christian its identity, alongside Daniel Machado, a cerebral team leader, and tireless 6'0", 255 lb. center Zach Barnao. Bone-rattling Conner Edgar is one of the best fullbacks in Northern California and he has an up-close-and-personal view of the havoc wrought by the offensive line. "They're big but they're fast," says Edgar. "Most of all, they're mean, nasty beasts. Watching them destroy other guys, you're just happy they're on your team."
The beneficiary of this carnage is quicksilver running back Charlie Bostic, who recently signed with San Jose State. He is averaging a silly 12.8 yards per carry and has 13 touchdowns in seven games. Bostic's longest run of the season is 91 yards, three feet longer than a touchdown sprint by his occasional sub D'angelo Mckenzie, whose work at free safety has earned him a ride to Washington State. While fans fixate on the blazing speed in the backfield, Brian's eyes always go to number 66 at the line of scrimmage.
"What I like about Zack," he says, "is that he plays the position the way it's meant to be played. He's aggressive, he battles through the whistle, and he likes to finish guys. He's a hellacious run blocker who will pancake your ass in a heartbeat."
Indeed, Zach's mid-season highlight reel is like a football snuff film. He's hoping to catch the eye of college coaches who can appreciate his athleticism and attitude and won't fret that he's not a couple of inches taller. Here, too, Brian has a valuable perspective. After a neck injury ended his NFL career in 1996 he got into coaching, including a three-year stint at Idaho as the tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator. "I know that every kid in Zack's position is worrying about getting to the next level," Brian says. "But I tell him all the time, don't stress about that and just enjoy and appreciate what you're doing right now, because it's the best time of your life." Brian has put his Cal degree to good use, rising to president of Taylor Farms Tennessee, Inc., but he says, "I'd give it all up if they'd let me go back and play high school football again."
I know that feeling – I still have on my office wall the team picture of the 1990-91 Salinas High Cowboys hoops team, which happened to go 24-3 to win the Monterey Bay League championship. I've never had as much fun as I did during those practices. Chad and I played the same position, and every day we would pair off for free throw contests in which the loser had to run line-drills. Whoever wasn't shooting would try to distract the other guy with X-rated woofing – I recall that for weeks I employed a filthy monologue involving his kindly grandmother – and Brian usually set up at a nearby basket so he could chime in, too. "When I talk to Zack about developing mental toughness I don't bring up anyone's grandma," Brian says, and thank goodness for that.
This Saturday, Zack and his talented teammates will play a football game that figures to define their season, if not their lives. Chad will be in the stands, texting updates to Brian. The post-game analysis will go on for decades. "I love hearing my dad's and Thure's old stories," Zack says. "The games happened twentysomething years ago but they talk about it like it was yesterday."