Here, in the hills fanning east from the San Francisco Bay, perch some of the most pleasant suburbs in all of California. Temperatures float between mild and balmy. Crime rates are low. Complaints tend towards such trivialities as traffic on the freeway or the length of the checkout lines at Trader Joe's. Central Contra Costa County is often called the East Bay's quintessential bedroom community, and the description seems apt. It's a comfortable, sleepy place; "a land of lotus eaters," jokes local guidebook author Don McCormack. Folks, for the most part, rest easy. ¬∂ For anyone lulled by the mellow rhythm of these suburbs, the scene at one particular Contra Costa high school can be a shock to the senses. In a small, poorly ventilated weight room tucked into the back of the school, three dozen boys are training with a ferocious intensity. While half of the group rotates among a crowded assortment of barbells and hand weights, the other half is moving through an exacting circuit of push-ups, sit-ups and other calisthenics on a walkway between the gym and the weight room. Every so often a young man supervising the workouts blows a whistle, and the boys, sweat soaking their white T-shirts and green gym shorts, hustle to the next station. Because his charges continually urge one another to keep up the tempo, the supervisor has little more to do.
It's March, and this is an "off-season" football workout at De La Salle High in Concord, where, from the middle of January through the start of preseason practice in late summer, players attend voluntary workouts that last up to three hours a day, four days a week. While football may start with the school year elsewhere, it's a year-round preoccupation for a team that is shouldering perhaps the heftiest expectations in all of sports. By the end of the 2003 season, De La Salle had won 151 straight games, a record for an American football team at any level. That streak will be on the line when the Spartans, with only seven returning starters, go into Seahawks Stadium in Seattle on Sept. 4 to face Bellevue High, the reigning Washington Class 3A champion.
So while other De La Salle students step around the exercising athletes on their way to their Jettas and Jeeps, chattering about the usual teen distractions--homework, girlfriends, music--the football players push on, their thoughts flickering to a game that is still far off.
There are those who will cluck disapprovingly at this tableau. They'll talk about tunnel vision, about how teenagers are more susceptible to overuse injuries because their bones are still growing. But coaches who have faced De La Salle can only marvel at the effects of this year-round training. Delbert Tengan, for instance, is the former coach of St. Louis School of Honolulu, which played De La Salle in September 2002, in the Spartans' first-ever foray outside of California. He remembers only too well how his Crusaders, enjoying a decided home field advantage at Aloha Stadium, were defeated by the mainlanders, 31--21--a score that didn't reflect the lopsidedness of the game--relegating the pride of Hawaii to No. 127 in a mounting list of De La Salle's victims.
August 22, 2004
Alone in his coaching office after the loss, Tengan popped a videotape of the game in his VCR to find out why his team had failed, despite detailed scouting reports, rested starters and even new uniforms for the game. He watched as the California kids took their three-point stance in military unison and then reacted to the snap as if jerked by a single leash. He noticed how their undersized linemen charged without fear into brawny Hawaiians who outweighed them by an average of 48 pounds, and how their running backs protected the football as they zipped into the end zone. Tengan pushed the rewind button again and again, searching for the mental errors that every high school team--hell, most Division I college teams--make. He found none.
Tengan sighs heavily when asked to sum up what makes De La Salle special. Where to begin? "I've seen more purely athletic teams," says Tengan, "but you're not going to see a group more precision-oriented, more disciplined. It's incredible."
How is it that of the more than 13,000 high school football teams in the U.S., none has attracted as far-reaching a following as this Catholic school of 1,007 boys? Perhaps it's the sheer dominance that the team displays. Since the Spartans' last defeat, on Dec. 7, 1991, they've won those 151 games by an average score of 49--7, and the vanquished have included some of the nation's most storied programs. Besides winning 12 straight North Coast section titles (California, because of its size, does not have a single state championship), De La Salle has twice toppled Long Beach Poly, a Southern California pipeline to the NFL, and has also beaten Louisiana's mighty Evangel Christian while finishing No. 1 in USA Today's high school rankings five times in the past six years.
Though De La Salle's success naturally fosters some jealousy among local rivals, most everyone who follows high school football is fascinated by what is simply referred to as the Streak. In the past two years it has inspired two books and a feature-length documentary. Spartans games have also been aired nationwide on DirecTV and ESPN2. "When they've been on television, most people I know were watching," says former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who wears a Spartans jacket that was given to him when he spoke at a recent De La Salle banquet. "Is this unusual? Sure. This is a high school team that plays like a very good college team."
Even more remarkable than such endorsements is how unimpressed the school seems to be with itself. De La Salle is among 45 U.S. high schools that are operated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order that follows the teachings of St. John Baptist de La Salle, the 17th-century saint who emphasized the importance of faith and community service in education. In the spirit of that mission, the school's facilities are deliberately unassuming. The De La Salle receptionist often fields calls from confused tourists who have driven right past the squat brick school building, convinced that the mighty football factory must be farther down the road. The football field, squeezed between a quiet boulevard and a private home, has only a modest set of bleachers. There's no roadside marquee to promote football games, and the locker room and gymnasium have not been renovated in 39 years (though there are plans afoot for a schoolwide renovation, including the lockers). When De La Salle's parking lot isn't filled with boys bustling from car to class, it's likely being swept clean by one of the Christian Brothers teachers and administrators.
"What amazed me immediately about De La Salle is how low-key football is, at least away from the field," says Brother Christopher Brady, the principal since July 2000. He doesn't care much for football but knows a thing or two about its rabid fan culture thanks to his nephew Tom, who has quarterbacked the New England Patriots to two Super Bowl wins. "These players are humble enough to keep striving year after year."
On the eve of a big game, cheerleaders from Carondelet, De La Salle's sister school across the street, might hang signs in the school courtyard. But they do the same for other Spartans teams, many of which have risen with the tide of the football program. De La Salle's basketball team, for instance, won California's 2003 northern district championship.
The football team's staunchest supporters are the students' parents, including a group called the White Coats, who sell tickets and direct traffic on game day. They, too, are cognizant that De La Salle's mission is more about building a healthy learning environment than building a football power. "Sports parents and football alumni have been generous in contributing to the school, but they rarely earmark [their gifts] for football," says De La Salle development director Erin Jones.
Fittingly, in attitude and appearance, the players don't have the aura of blue-chippers. The team is mostly white, with a handful of African-American and Asian kids, a mix that loosely reflects Contra Costa County's demographics. Aside from a couple of beefy linemen, the football players aren't much taller or stouter than the average peach-fuzzed student. This is why the Spartans are rarely the focus of Division I recruiting wars. Last February, when four players signed with Oregon and one with Illinois, it was considered an unusually successful scholarship haul.
"We'll usually have a few really talented skill guys, but this year, for instance, we won't have a single player who can run a 4.5 40-yard-dash," says senior quarterback--safety Anthony Gutierrez. "Our strength, our quickness, our knowledge of the game has everything to do with the hard work we put in." All but a handful of football players have voluntarily dropped second sports to work on football full time. This level of training scares away exactly the kind of player who wouldn't easily survive the rigors of a De La Salle season. For many middle schoolers, on the other hand, the off-season workouts make De La Salle more appealing than the public schools in the area. Senior center Scott Hugo remembers walking by the weight room as an eighth-grader and being struck by the energy that seethed inside. "I knew I had to come here," says Hugo. "I mean, you know they're not doing this at Ygnacio Valley."
There is, as might be expected, an air of intrigue surrounding the man who has conjured this sort of dedication from such a distractible age group. For the past quarter century, the most celebrated high school football team in America has been coached by Bob Ladouceur, a man known by his staff as the Ghost. "You turn around and Coach Lad is there," says offensive coordinator Mark Panella, one of four assistants who used to play for Ladouceur. "It's like he has a trap door," adds Danny Ladouceur, the second of the coach's three children and a senior wide receiver at De La Salle. "And when he appears, he just commands everyone's attention. I've had people tell me that they think he's, like, a higher presence."
And why not, with a coaching record that appears to be a typo? At 287-14-1, Ladouceur has had more undefeated seasons--17--than losses.
Like the campus itself, the coach seems an unlikely wellspring of gridiron greatness. Ladouceur, who also teaches religious studies at De La Salle, has a low-pitched voice and a contemplative way of speaking that seem better suited for an NPR morning show than for calling out coverages from the sideline. When out-of-towners come to a De La Salle game, they often look past Ladouceur--who considers headsets, like hollering, a pointless affectation--and assume the fidgety, gruff-talking Terry Eidson is the head coach; he's actually the athletic director and assistant coach. Off the field, though, there's no doubt about who's in charge: It's clear in the bone-chilling glare Ladouceur turns on a player to convey that, yes, the offensive line will work on a simple footwork drill for yet another hour; or in the quietly powerful motivational speeches he delivers at the homes of the families that host the team's Thursday night spaghetti dinners during the season.
Ladouceur is so committed to his players and program that he has turned down offers from colleges to leave Concord and improve upon his five-figure salary. "The man has no ambition other than to help those boys be successful," says Walsh, who tried to hire Ladouceur as an assistant at Stanford when Walsh was coaching the Cardinal from 1992 to '94. Ladouceur, 50, has thought about retiring from coaching, but the impulse fades as anticipation of the next season begins. "I always ask my players and students what they're passionate about," says Ladouceur, "and I don't want to hear that it's shooting baskets. I want them to learn that it's not so much what you do as how it affects the world. I'm passionate about coaching, but it's not about football. It's about being important to those kids."
If he had any immediate desire to escape the long Saturdays and the countless hours of midweek film work, this winter might have been the ideal time to go. A big senior class was graduating. Young, eager assistants like strength coach Justin Alumbaugh, a former Spartans linebacker who is being groomed to someday take over the program, seem committed to De La Salle's future. And then, on New Year's Eve, after a jog around his San Ramon neighborhood, Ladouceur laid down on his bed with tightness in his chest. Beverly, his wife of 28 years, came into the room to discover him writhing in pain. "Next thing I knew, there were EMTs standing over me," says Ladouceur, who had suffered a heart attack caused by a blocked coronary artery.
Ladouceur spent five days in the hospital, where he received stent implants. When his son Danny visited him, he saw his colorless complexion and the tubes trailing out of his body and asked the question that was buzzing throughout Contra Costa County, "Do you think you're going to keep coaching?"
"Well, yeah," said Dad, bristling a little.
"Like there wasn't even a question," says Danny.
Upon coming home, Ladouceur tossed out his last-ever pack of cigarettes, and six weeks later he was back teaching and studying film in his cramped coach's office.
A Detroit native who grew up in the East Bay, Ladouceur fought hard and played smart through an injury-plagued career as a tailback and defensive back at Utah and San Jose State. He got his coaching start in 1977 as a part-time assistant at Monte Vista High in Danville, Calif. (During the week he worked as a probation officer at a juvenile detention center.) A year later De La Salle, then a 12-year-old school with a reputation for strong academics, needed a new football coach, preferably one who could also fill a religious studies teaching vacancy. Ladouceur had a degree from San Jose State and was taking night classes in theology, and though he had no teaching experience to that point, he got the job. When he arrived on campus, he found a handful of smallish boys with scant football knowledge. The program that would become the most dominant in high school history had never had a winning season.
De La Salle saw no reason to pour funds into a team that was generating little interest, so Ladouceur, then 25, served as head coach, offensive coordinator, strength coach and equipment manager. The first thing he did was to have his players bring in whatever weights might be lying around their houses and, at a time when off-season workouts weren't standard even in college, instituted a running program he thought could give his undersized players an edge late in games. Then he taught his players a split backs veer offense, still the basis for more than half of De La Salle's plays. In Ladouceur's mind the simple system, which depends on quickness and execution, would help level the playing field against bigger opponents.
In 1979 De La Salle was shut out twice but finished 6--3. In each of the next two years the Spartans had two losses. Then, in 1982, they went 12--0, with a 48--0 pasting of Salesian, a school that had beaten them 32--0 three years before. During that first undefeated season, Eidson, who was also teaching religion at the school, joined the coaching staff. He soon became Ladouceur's righthand man, providing an excitable yang to the head coach's cool, calculated yin.
As the program improved, better athletes began to arrive. Many of their parents had picked up stakes to move closer to the school or took extra jobs to afford the tuition (now $9,950). Aaron Taylor, who would go on to be a standout offensive lineman at Notre Dame before spending six seasons in the NFL with the Green Bay Packers and the San Diego Chargers, was a self-described 14-year-old drug dealer in Marin County when he and his mother, Mardi, saw a news segment about the Spartans on television in 1986. Knowing that her son's sole healthy ambition was to become a football star and that De La Salle offered a stronger academic program than the school Aaron attended, Mardi found a job and a house in Concord and set about trying to enroll her son in the school.
The Taylors' experience belies the periodic rumors that the Spartans recruit top kids in the area. "I was a 280-pound 15year-old when I came to De La Salle and announced that I wanted to play," says Aaron. "You know what Coach Lad said? Take an entrance exam, talk to admissions people, and then maybe, if that went O.K., we could talk about football." Like all of Ladouceur's players Aaron also had to agree to a team rule and promise he wouldn't drink or do drugs as long as he was on the squad.
Admission to De La Salle is awarded by a panel that does not include any football staffers, and financial aid is determined by an independent, off-site service. Says Brady, "We regularly turn away strong football players who we think won't make it academically."
Even the coach of De La Salle's biggest rival, Concord's own Clayton Valley, thinks most rumors regarding the Spartans' recruiting stem from jealousy, that the school's success has been its most effective draw. "Has an assistant coach or two talked up De La Salle to a prospective student? Certainly," says Eagles coach Herc Pardi. "Have alumni done the same? I believe it. But that happens at public and private schools everywhere. I am certain neither Bob Ladouceur nor Terry Eidson has actively recruited a single player."
At De La Salle winning isn't everything; it's the only thing you don't talk about. "Everyone asks me how I've won 151 straight games," says Ladouceur. "My answer is always the same: 'By not concentrating on winning.' If you work hard enough, the wins will just come."
But those wins have attracted attention, much of it unwelcomed by Ladouceur, who has done his polite best to dodge reporters for as long as they've hovered around De La Salle's cramped sidelines. Sixty-seven wins into the Streak, Eidson went to the chalkboard in the locker room and scrawled 72 in big numbers. "If you don't know what this means," he then told the players, "you're gonna soon find out."
The number referred to the previous high school football record for consecutive wins, set by Hudson (Mich.) High from 1968 to '75. On Nov. 7, 1997, De La Salle, led by future Miami linebacker and 2004 Denver Broncos first-rounder D.J. Williams, shattered the record with a 56--0 win over regional rival College Park High of Pleasant Hill, Calif. The New York Times, CNN, ESPN and SI were among the news outlets that covered the game. The following year the Spartans showed up on Cheerios boxes, one of which is tucked in a dusty corner of a neglected trophy case outside the school gym.
It was around this time that De La Salle began to get scheduling requests from teams that wanted a shot at snapping the Streak. Ladouceur was uncomfortable with the idea of parading his players around the state but realized that a strictly local schedule was unfair to his team. "You wouldn't feed kids algebra," he says, "when they're already on calculus."
One of De La Salle's first powerhouse challengers was Mater Dei of Santa Ana. In four games from 1998 to '01, the Spartans outscored their Southern California counterparts 135--55 before bringing a halt to the series. In '01 they took on Long Beach Poly, which has produced more NFL players (50) than any other high school. The first time the teams met, Poly, with 24 players who would land Division I scholarships, was ranked No. 1 in USA Today and De La Salle was No. 2. The Spartans won 29--15. The following October the Spartans prevailed again, 28--7.
Two years ago De La Salle's competitive circle widened further when the Spartans agreed to go on that trip to Honolulu, but only when the game's Hawaiian sponsors offered to foot the bill for the trip. Last year brought Evangel Christian, which agreed to come to Concord when De La Salle declined to make the expensive trip to Shreveport. For their trouble, the eight-time Louisiana state champions were handed a 27--10 loss that was watched by more than half a million viewers on ESPN2. It wouldn't have been that close if the Spartans hadn't taken a knee on their opponents' one-yard line three straight times in the final minutes. "That," said Evangel coach Dennis Dunn afterward, "was class."
In an NPR broadcast the week of that game, Concord resident Murray Sperber, the former Indiana University professor and author of several books on the corruption of amateur athletics, offered a less rosy commentary on the game. "There's never been this kind of national schedule [for high school football] before, and particularly between high schools who travel great distances to play each other," said Sperber. "There's a kind of inevitability to this, but you don't have to like it. I personally think it's terrible."
Patrick Walsh, who played for De La Salle in the early '90s and now coaches at Junipero Serra High in nearby San Mateo, wishes detractors could spend a year with the Spartans. "For those [De La Salle] coaches, football is a platform for teaching you how to work hard, how to grow into an upstanding man. How to commit."
Of all the people who worry about how De La Salle's celebrity might affect the players, none frets more than the religion teacher who built the program. As the Streak grows, Ladouceur concentrates on keeping his charges focused and grounded. Each week during the season, players must write their goal for the next game on an index card and hand it to a teammate, who will remind him before, during and after the contest of what he'd written. On Thursdays the Spartans gather in the school chapel to listen to inspirational readings from their teammates. In one such meeting last year, star wide receiver Cameron Colvin, who was declared academically ineligible for five games, tearfully apologized to the team and expressed how lucky he felt, having lost both of his parents, to be part of this football family.
"It's an amazing scene," says Contra Costa Times columnist Neil Hayes, who spent a year with the team to write a book about De La Salle. "I would drive away from those sessions saying, What am I doing for my fellow man? What am I doing that's important?"
For the time being, De La Salle refuses to play more than one out-of-state game per year and strictly limits both expenses and lost class time related to that game. Eidson says he is on the verge of working out a game with Union High in Tulsa for 2006 and may one day look to talent-packed Texas for opponents. "We're not a traveling circus," says Eidson. "At the same time, I'm a competitive person. So's Bob Ladouceur. We don't want people to think that we're protecting this [streak]."
Some players admit to a fear of being the first to lose. "My brother played on the team that started it, and when I came along, all his friends would call and say 'Don't you dare blow it,'" says Alumbaugh. "Thankfully, Coach Lad keeps you so busy you don't have too much time to dwell on that stuff."
And if they do lose? Surely it would only stoke the Spartans' fire, the intensity of which is evident on this March day. Never mind that Alumbaugh, the team's off-season supervisor, has gone for the day, or that Ladouceur, the voice inside their heads, long ago left the building. Their muscles sufficiently exhausted in the weight room, the Spartans are working on pass plays. At one point, an injured sophomore defensive back drifts off to chat with someone. When he returns, he gets an earful from Gutierrez, the senior quarterback who is just doing what his brother Matt, now the quarterback at Michigan, would have done three years ago when he was at De La Salle.
Mottled gray clouds hover in a darkening blue sky. A cold rain starts to fall, and most people milling around campus scurry for cover. The football players stay. They stay because that's what the Spartans who came before them would have done. They stay because Coach Ladouceur, through sickness and health, stayed for them. They stay so they too can say what Oregon-bound receiver Colvin said to one of the many reporters who visited Concord in the past year: "I can leave here knowing I did my part to keep the Streak alive."
"I've seen more athletic teams." says a rival coach, "but you're not going to see a more precision-oriented, MORE DISCIPLINED GROUP."
"What amazed me is how low-key football is here," says Brady. "These players are HUMBLE ENOUGH TO KEEP STRIVING year after year."
"I'm passionate about coaching," says Ladouceur, "but it's NOT ABOUT FOOTBALL. It's about being important to those kids."