Ordinarily a high school football team meeting is about the last
place you expect to hear the name Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Then again, the De La Salle High Spartans of Concord, Calif.,
are not your ordinary football team. So it was without a trace
of condescension that De La Salle athletic director (and
assistant football coach) Terry Eidson invoked the name of the
early-20th-century French philosopher while addressing the
Spartans before their Oct. 24 game against Liberty High of
"Always remember that Teilhard de Chardin wrote that anything
worth having in life is worth suffering for," Eidson advised the
players arrayed before him in the school chapel. The players,
obviously no strangers to the subject, articulated their
agreement in language mercifully devoid of the "likes" and "you
knows" we've come to expect from adolescents.
"Yes, it's the work that matters," responded Colin Ensley, a
burly defensive lineman and tight end. "Winning is just a
by-product of work. It is the journey that counts, not the
"Right," chimed in linebacker Carson Brown. "We have an
obsession here with going in the right direction. It is the
pride we take in ourselves and our work that's important."
November 17, 1997
That said, these boy philosophers went out and clobbered poor
Liberty 53-7. It was the Spartans' seventh straight lopsided win
of the season and their 71st in a row over the past six seasons.
On Oct. 31, De La Salle would beat Pittsburg High 55-7 for the
win that tied the alltime high school record of 72 straight, set
by Hudson (Mich.) High from 1968 to '75. And last Friday night
the Spartans victimized College Park High of Pleasant Hill,
Calif., 56-0, giving De La Salle the undisputed national record.
The Spartans haven't lost since Pittsburg edged them 35-27 in
the California North Coast Section Class 3A championship game on
Dec. 7, 1991, a date that will live in infamy. Before its
current record-breaking string, De La Salle had winning streaks
of 34 (1989-91) and 44 (1984-87). In 19 seasons at this Catholic
boys' school in the heart of San Francisco Bay Area suburbia,
coach Bob Ladouceur has lost exactly 14 games while winning 209
and tying one. In the '90s Ladouceur is a cool 98-1. His teams
have won 12 North Coast Section championships, which is as high
as they can go, since California has no state-championship
games. And Ladouceur is working his way through his 11th
How can this be? De La Salle is in most respects a typical
suburban high school. Granted, it is not coed, but a Catholic
girls' high school, Carondelet, is just across the street, and
the two institutions share many extracurricular activities and
some upper-class courses. The De La Salle student body, football
players included, is mostly white, mostly middle-class and not
entirely Catholic (75% this year). A full 99% of last year's
senior class went on to college. A year's tuition at De La Salle
is a stiff $6,080, and 130 of the 896 students receive some form
of financial aid. But such aid is based strictly on need. De La
Salle offers neither academic nor athletic scholarships. And to
make certain that no preference is given, the names of families
applying for financial assistance are withheld from an
independent financial-aid review board. Every prospective
student must pass an entrance exam.
So, despite the wails of envious rivals, this is no football
factory. Indeed, over these many winning seasons, relatively few
Spartans have graduated to football fame in college or the pros.
Three De La Salle alums play in the NFL: New Orleans placekicker
Doug Brien, Green Bay guard Aaron Taylor and New York Giants
receiver-kick returner Amani Toomer. Brien says he was the only
player in his 1989 senior class to play Division I-A college
football, "and I was a walk-on at Cal, proof enough that Coach
Lad has a rare ability to take just pretty good players and make
them into a great team." Taylor, who won the 1993 Lombardi
Trophy as the outstanding collegiate lineman at Notre Dame,
recalls that his 13-0 De La Salle team in 1990 was made up of
"small white guys"--with the notable exception of Taylor, who is
black and weighed 270 then. (He weighs 305 now.)
But De La Salle's beleaguered public school opponents have long
complained that as a private school De La Salle is not hemmed in
by the enrollment boundaries that apply to them and can
therefore draw its talent from anywhere within a reasonable
distance. And unlike the previous record holder, Hudson High, De
La Salle is not situated in a small town but virtually at the
center of a populous network of suburbs in the valley east of
the Oakland-Berkeley hills.
There have also been persistent, if ill-founded, rumors that De
La Salle recruits its athletes. Brother Robert J. Wickman,
principal of the school, rejects the notion. "We do not recruit,
period," says Wickman, who frequently lectures coaches,
teachers, parents and alumni on the evils of such practices. Any
violation of this edict by school employees, Wickman says, "is
grounds for dismissal."
Rob Stockberger, principal of nearby California High in San
Ramon and a former coach who has the rare distinction of having
won a football game against De La Salle, also scoffs at
recruiting accusations. "Bob Ladouceur doesn't need to recruit,"
he says. "His success alone is a magnet."
If De La Salle is guilty of any offense, it is nepotism, since
nine players on this year's team have had brothers precede them.
Regardless, all accusations against the school have been
rendered void at least temporarily by the Bay Valley Athletic
League's acceptance of De La Salle's proposal that it be
permitted to play as many as five games outside the league,
thereby making itself ineligible for the league championship.
Among the outside opponents already scheduled for next season is
Mater Dei of Santa Ana, a perennial power in Southern California
football. The two juggernauts will collide next September.
A good starting point to explain the De La Salle phenomenon is
Ladouceur himself, a coach who, on the testimony of players past
and present, may be as worthy of canonization as the school's
namesake, St. Jean Baptiste de la Salle (1651-1719), founder of
the Christian Brothers order. "I've never known an adult like
Coach Lad," says defensive lineman Matt Geldermann, whose twin
brothers played before him at De La Salle. "He's more than a
coach. He makes you look at yourself as a human being. He shows
you that football can be won the right way. We want to set this
record for him."
"There is no question in my mind," says former player Brien,
"that if five of his star players broke team rules before a
playoff game, he'd suspend them on the spot without giving it a
second thought. Playing for him was the athletic experience of
"I was going nowhere in this world before I came to De La
Salle," says Taylor, whose single mother enrolled him in the
school. "Coach Lad was a father figure to me. I needed the
discipline he gave me. Playing for him was football at its
purest." Both Taylor and Brien used their respective bye weeks
in the NFL this year to come west and root De La Salle on to the
The unassuming Ladouceur doesn't consider himself saintly, even
though until this year, when he accepted additional duties as a
school fund-raiser, he taught classes in religion. A dark-haired
man of 43 with riveting, deep-set eyes, he had limited coaching
experience before coming to De La Salle. He was, by his own
assessment, a mediocre defensive back at San Jose State in the
mid-1970s. After graduation he spent a busy year working as a
juvenile hall counselor while studying theology at St. Mary's
College and serving as an assistant coach, with his friend
Stockberger, at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif.
When the head coaching job at De La Salle, then a football
pushover, opened up in the fall of 1978, Ladouceur applied. "The
Brothers accepted me," he says, "more for my religious training
than my coaching experience, which was minimal." De La Salle,
which opened in 1965, had yet to have a winning season, and
Ladouceur inherited a sparse varsity squad of 24. He quickly
decided that because of his team's deficiencies in size and
depth, and because he had no skilled passer at quarterback, he
would use the veer option offense, which relies more on trickery
than on power. In his first season the Spartans finished 6-3.
Three years later Ladouceur had the first of his 10 undefeated
seasons. There has been no stopping him since.
With superior talent now, Ladouceur still uses the veer--mainly,
he says, because nobody else does, and that makes it harder to
defend. But the veer scarcely accounts for this unprecedented
success. No, the real reason is the coach's power to create a
true brotherhood from the disparate elements of his team. In
fact, team seems an inadequate term to define the bond these
For 10 weeks every summer, Ladouceur holds voluntary
conditioning workouts at the school that are open to youngsters
throughout Contra Costa County. All of his players show up,
sacrificing their summer freedom. The day before a game,
Ladouceur and Eidson conduct their philosophical seminars in the
chapel. The night before a game, the team has dinner at the home
of a player, along with some parents, and afterward the players
affirm, often tearfully, their commitment to each other.
On the field Ladouceur insists that his players show respect for
their opponents. There is no trash talking, no end zone
celebrating, no dancing after big plays and no bandannas or any
other sartorial adornment that might detract from the luster of
De La Salle's green-and-silver uniforms. "You look at the guy
next to you on the line," says Geldermann, "and he looks exactly
like you. We are all one."
The coach is ever present. "You know he'll always be there for
you," says tight end and linebacker Justin Alumbaugh. Ladouceur
has routinely rejected the temptation to forsake De La Salle for
the supposedly greener pastures of college ball.
"Leave?" he asks incredulously. "Why would I do that? I have
enough of a challenge right here. After all, I'm a coach, a
counselor, a trainer, an equipment man, even sometimes a kind of
father. I'm doing this because I want to teach kids. If I made
the jump away from here for money or recognition, I'd be doing
it for all the wrong reasons. I'm a teacher, and you can't teach
kids at a better age. It's a time of confusion for them, a time
of looking for a place to fit in. I think a team should have a
soul, and we're fortunate that in a Catholic school we can show
our players that there is a spiritual side to life. I'm not
saying we're saving souls here, because we're not. But we are
offering these kids an opportunity to go in the right direction.
Now, how do you put a price tag on that?"
The players sit on picnic benches in a secluded area near the
school gym. It is 15 minutes before game time, and the coach is
pacing before them, saying nothing. There is an eerie silence
broken only by the sounds of the nervous Geldermann being sick.
Some of the players appear to be praying. Every game now is a
big one, no matter how ineffectual the opposition. The players
have been cautioned to keep their focus tight--on every
practice, on every down, on every moment of the experience. But
they feel the pressure of the streak.
Ladouceur ends his silent march. He calls his team together.
"Remember to hustle," he tells them in a quiet voice. "I want
you to get your confidence up. You know what you've been trained
to do. Now is the time to do it. Don't look to me for help. This
is your thing. So let's play with passion. Have some fun. Enjoy
the journey.... Now go get 'em!"
And, of course, they do.