It's second down and forever for the John Swett High School football team. The offense is closer to its own snack bar than it is to the St. Elizabeth end zone. A wounded duck of a forward pass falls mercifully incomplete, prompting the cheerleaders to launch into their most generic cheers. Third down is a busted draw play, which causes the assistant principal to wince while chasing down his little kids. The kicker comes on and the band strikes up a tune by Sublime. Cheerleaders dance, middle-schoolers shriek, and parents clap as the varsity punts.
On the sidelines, an 82-year-old man travels down the field with the first-down stick, just as he has been doing for 55 years. Two strides from the playing field, a handful of adults reminisce about their own glory days, paying no mind to the yellow rope designed to keep them away. Behind the goal line, middle-schoolers with a football loft passes as an excuse to launch themselves at one another. Somewhere near the baseball diamond, a guy plays catch with his six-year-old son. Meanwhile, up on Tightwad Hill, recent grads drink beer and get high.
Welcome to John Swett High School, the dominant institution in a city smaller than some competing East Bay campuses. The school isn't just a reflection of Crockett, it is Crockett — the sons and daughters of the libertarians and libertines who call this 3,100-person community home. Factory workers, artists, and longtime residents populate the school's football games. Some work the snack bar, others tear tickets, and still others man the band booster table, but most just do their thing: seeing and being seen.
John Swett High School stands apart by standing together. Partly out of circumstance but also out of design, the adults and teens of Swett spend time together. Theirs is a high school where all ages are welcome in a town that involves its school in everything worth celebrating. Rather than creating a separate city of teens like most high schools do, John Swett fills its campus with a busy adult presence. Consequently, the school itself occupies the town's physical and emotional center.
Big cities and big schools could take a lesson.
Ron Spini still remembers driving to Crockett for the first time in 1984. He is sitting in the basement, office, and storage closet of the John Swett gym, where he has coached, taught, and served as athletic director since his arrival almost a quarter of a century ago. Spini has the tanned good looks and permanent squint of a man who has spent a lifetime outdoors. He laughs when he remembers his earliest discussions about the school he calls home. "I tell them 'John Swett' and they say 'Where's that?' And then I tell them, 'You know, in Crockett,' and that doesn't help much either. It isn't until I get to the 'big factory' that you get people saying, 'I think I know where that is.'"
After all, Crockett was a company town long before it was a high school town. The C&H Sugar plant has been a part of the city since 1906. It ruled the city for decades and still dominates the skyline of this town hard against the Carquinez Strait. Most visitors describe it as a piece of Pennsylvania stuck right here in the East Bay. The plant is startlingly strange to a Golden Stater's eyes: red brick, smokestacks, and sirens that go off around the clock but don't seem to freak anyone out.
C&H has been refining sugar in Crockett for generations. Ships from Hawaii sailed into the bay, and the refinery worked day and night pumping out smells both sweet and scary. The way the locals spin the factory's history depends on whose side they are on. From the American Legion you get C&H as a paternalistic presence, putting on Christmas shows and passing out cards and gifts to all the little children. On the other hand, the Howard Zinn version portrays C&H as the crushing fist of capitalistic greed — creating a rule of "Bloody Sugar" throughout the 1930s and then stiffing the town when things turned tough.
But now, the factory sits as kind of a mid-narrative Willy Wonka edifice, looming over the town, still producing its product but largely a mystery to the people who live under its shadow. At one time, the factory employed nearly 70 percent of the city's adult residents; today it's just 6.5 percent.
As the plant's importance to Crockett gradually diminished, the town just grew closer to its high school. For a while, the children of factory workers were the bulk of Spini's athletic teams. But when the factory cut back employment from its peak, Crockett settled into the demographic groove it retains today: artisans, outlaws, and a handful of other folks who just stuck around. The one thing that remained consistent was the sense of belonging.
That's why Spini stayed. The sense of community that attracted him could be said to begin in his very office. The sound of squeaky gym shoes and pounding balls echoes off the walls as a handful of students, clearly at home, wander in for medical tape, congratulations, or just to shoot the breeze.
"I won my meet yesterday, Spini," says a slender girl who just barges in.
"Great," he says in a gravelly voice. "Then let's get out there and get ready to run two miles today."
"No, Spini, I won," she says, as if her coach didn't understand.
"Yeah, I know," he says with a wave. "See you out there. We're all going to run together today."
The athlete leaves with a mock pout, and Spini confides as she leaves, "Actually, I'm the one who needs the two miles."
Spini points to such interactions as one of his school's charms. "I'm not sure what I do here would work anywhere else," he says. "I've visited other schools and I imagine if I said, 'We're going a mile today,' the kids might just sit there and stare at me. Here, from day one, the students have the expectation that they're going to run. And that's what we do, first day of P.E., run a mile. And nobody says anything about it, they just go."
So what makes John Swett run?
"I think it has something to do with the fact that the kids see us here every day," he says. "It's not like the teachers all live in Crockett, but while they're here on campus, the school is small enough that they see us. I probably pass all of the kids in the hallway and if you're a team coach then you see the kids before a problem becomes a problem. Sometimes, I'll get a heads-up from somebody on campus to check on a student, and usually all I've got to say is just, 'Calm down. I know you're upset, we're just trying to see that you don't do something that gets you suspended.' Usually it works."
Crockett trusts its students to its educators. "There are a lot of single-parent families here now, and I think the kids are looking for structure, for a father-figure, and the town supports that," Spini continues. "When you missed practice you didn't play. So I told them, 'Come out anyway.' The kid would come out, wrapped in a blanket sitting on the sideline, even when they weren't feeling up to practice and I said, 'You know what, that's great — at least when you're here you're learning something.' We built a lot of great teams over the years, and even better people."
One of those people is John Angell. Angell is a native son who played football for one of Spini's championship teams. He's also the last man to coach John Swett to a football title. Among the dozen jobs he seems to do, today he's working as a site supervisor at the school. But the hallways don't seem to need much supervision, as evidenced by the fact that Angell and another supervisor have a half hour to talk.
Sports make a difference in a place like Crockett, Angell says. "It gives the town something to rally around." After Angell's team ran the table 11-0 and traveled to the state championship game, he took a job in Benicia, coaching a bigger school in a tougher league. "They had, like, 25 moms and dads show up to help," he recalls. "They really supported the team. And you know what? It wasn't the same feeling at all."
In 1989, when Angell himself played football for John Swett, the town bought the playoff winners jackets. "In '05 after we won, they opened the community center for us and a man from the town put on a banquet for the whole team and everyone connected to it. I think the guy bought dinner for 300 people. I don't think that happens anywhere else."
Nor do players elsewhere bond in quite the same way. John Swett is a tiny 1-A school with an enrollment of just 550 students. No other Bay Area school competes at that level. So out of necessity, Swett has to compete in a league filled with larger 2-A schools. And when it's time for the post-season, the Crockett kids travel far to compete. Non-league opponents are in places like Clear Lake, South Fork, Middletown, and other flyspecks to the north. Swett's team spends more time on the bus in one preseason road trip than the rest of its opponents do in their entire season. Angell's team finished up the 2002 season with an eight-hour trek to Ferndale, near Eureka. "They either get real close to each other or real ticked off," Angell says of the team.
Angell left as football coach in 2006, in search of a new challenge. Two years later, he came back. "I missed being around John Swett," he recalls. "I spent my whole life here." After all, the John Swett Unified School District has only one elementary school, one middle school, and one high school. When Angell was a student, forty seniors in his class had attended all thirteen years together. "By that time," he says, "you're a lot more like brothers and sisters than just friends."
Angell not only remains in contact with his old pals, he sees them nearly every day. All this togetherness is what he thinks made his team strong. "There's nothing to do here except play football. And we told the kids we need you in the weight room every day. Where else were they going to go? ... There's no fast food here, there's no store down the street, you're not going anywhere to eat lunch, so you bring your own. That's not such a bad thing. And there's just the school — and it's done pretty well, I guess."
But football was only part of what Angell tried to teach. "I mean, I was the guy lining the field, cutting the grass, really probably more of a dad than a coach." The kids saw his commitment, and when he called on them for the same kind of effort, he got it.
"We couldn't compete with De La Salle, but we had a good little program here. Some of the kids playing here didn't have a real stable family home, and maybe we provided that. We went on those bus trips and we'd spend the night after driving up to McKinleyville with three coaches and thirty ballplayers. The kids had to police themselves. We had a few team captains and they'd take care of things; never had a problem once."
Angell is prouder of that than he is of his winning seasons.
Dean Colombo serves as an informal historian of all things John Swett. "We were designed by the same guy who did San Francisco's City Hall. When they built it they imagined it on a scale of a small Ivy League college." Now, its red brick exterior prompts many outsiders to guess "prison" or "insane asylum" when they pass by without close inspection.
Looking around the campus, what strikes a visitor is not that this is one of the oldest schools in the East Bay but rather that it is one of the oddest. The demographics don't look that different from the neighboring schools in West Contra Costa Unified; the students here could pass for students in Hercules or Pinole. No ethnic group claims a majority on campus. White students make up a thin plurality, with black and Latino students each comprising about 30 percent of the school population. "There's not a lot of gang stuff going on," notes Kevin Doss, the junior varsity coach. "The different ethnic groups kind of all melt into one here."
In a place where a house can still be had for as little as $200,000, the students enrolled at John Swett are at the high end of the lower middle class. But in an age of high anxiety about schoolyards nationwide, the vibe here calls on a kind of faith. No one yells at students to get to class — and yet they do. The overall feeling is that of amiable cooperation. The sole copy machine has a hand-lettered sign telling students that they cannot run copies and yet, in an hour's time, more than half a dozen students come in and get permission to make multiple copies.
In addition to serving as the school's student council adviser, Colombo also is the assistant band director — one of two band directors at a school with fewer than 600 students. The school's trophy case makes clear what a vital role that band plays here. Band trophies occupy all the space, while the sports gimcracks are relegated to lower-profile hallway cases. Even Angell notes how important band is to the school. "When I was playing football, I was also playing in the band — I mean during the same game." Angell says there is no question that band is bigger than football at John Swett, and the former linebacker and drummer says his coach let him take off the pads during halftime and join the other musicians for their intermission performance. "I never let one of my players do that," he says with a laugh.
Being in the band was a phenomenal opportunity for a kid. "They really expected a lot out of you, but it paid off big-time," Angell says. "We went to Los Angeles, then the next year we went to Canada to play in the Victoria Day parade. If it came down to the choice between suiting up for a football game or for the band, I swear I think I would have chosen the band."
That's still a choice made by more than 10 percent of the student body. Experience is not a prerequisite. "We have kids show up who have never even played the spoons," says Colombo. "We take kids at all levels, and then we go out and compete against schools many times our size. I think that we're a real source of pride in the community."
In fact it's a rare town event that does not include the band. Tree lighting at Christmas will feature the musicians, as do visits to the senior center, the opening of a store, and welcoming home champions from the road. "It's about being a part of something bigger than yourself," Colombo says. "That's why kids do things together. Maybe we as a society have gotten away from that too much. That's why the kids walk in here and say, I want to be in the band."
Students who do participate are expected to show up after school, during vacations, and whenever there is a civic institution or curiosity to celebrate. "Being in the band is like being a part of a family. If you miss a performance it's like not showing up to a family birthday party." Colombo knows that there are parents who show up at football games to support the band, but there are others who might not even notice the musicians at all. "We're out here to entertain, but sometimes we'll finish a set and then we get half a handclap or a single person applauding, but for the kids there's pride in a job well done. When they know they've pulled off a wonderful set, they know they're playing for each other, they're playing to push themselves to do their best."
For some, the fishbowl existence of living in a community where people are all up in your business is reason to get out of town fast. Green Day front man Billie Joe Armstrong saw a fan at a local concert sporting a red John Swett T-shirt and spoke from the stage, "Hey, that's one of the schools I didn't graduate from!" Among the less successful parts of the East Bay singer's résumé was a freshman year playing football at John Swett. Armstrong once told Sports Illustrated that his first moment on the team might well have driven him into music: "I received the opening kickoff, and all of a sudden these monsters were running after me. I was just running for the fear of God. ... I knew I could play guitar."
School board candidate Jerry Parsons, a graduate of John Swett, says that spending some time in nearby Rodeo wasn't enough to keep the grown-ups in town from knowing his exploits in Crockett. "We rode our bikes to the pool right next to the high school and when we were horsing around the lady watching would yell, 'Jerry, you stop that right now!' And I think back and I'm glad that she was there to watch out for me, a kid who she had no ties to." Parsons is running on a platform to raise test scores and use the high school's auditorium for more community events. "I just think I'm living in the best city in the best place around. And the high school here is the soul of the community."
If John Swett High School is Crockett's soul, then homecoming is All Souls' Night. Parsons, who has no children and graduated more than twenty years ago, is still apologetic that he missed this year's game. "I was in LA for business," he says unhappily. His absence probably was noted somewhere, but should be mitigated by the fact that he did attend the other games this season.
After all, this season is not going to be one to remember. Swett is winless in league play and struggling to stay competitive. New coach Allen Talley is in his second year and still looking to fit in. The fact that he's an out-of-towner is probably not going to ease the transition. The coach looks with some surprise at the scene around his football field. "It's different here," he says, comparing the school to his former one in Marin County. "It's a fun atmosphere — we didn't get the kind of turnout they get here, and this is a pretty small school."
Talley is employed full-time off campus, and some Crockett folk feel that an off-campus coach is not going to cut it. Principal Bob Bass, also in his second year, bristles at the thought. "It is important to have your coaches on staff full-time, but we don't have the luxury to afford that right now. Allen is here afternoons and late into the night and that matters to the students. They recognize when you go out of your way to take part in their lives. Coaching is about building relationships, and our staff has done that."
Still, the balloons and glow sticks surrounding this evening's game against Moreau Catholic High School (also winless) don't hide a general unease with the program's direction. Swett missed the playoffs last year and the only way it's getting in this season is if somebody buys tickets. One player gripes that the team lacks direction and the discipline to compete. "I don't like that it's not organized, like it was before."
During a practice session one night, the varsity players huddled around their end zone waiting for their coaches to arrive and spent almost half an hour watching cheerleaders practice. Tonight the cheering squad is decked out in glitter and ribbons, excited by the large homecoming crowd. Head cheerleader Michelle Bow is going to be extra-hyped tonight — she's up for Homecoming Queen, and if she gets the title, then she can put her crown up next to that of her sister, who won it two years back.
On the sideline, in modified civilian clothes, there's another familiar name: Zampa. It's easy to detect because it's on the back of his jersey. Johnny Zampa introduces himself as the grandson of Al Zampa. That name is familiar because it adorns the bridge that looms behind the field and school.
When the state put up the latest version of the Carquinez bridge in 2003, officials decided to honor a working man. Al Zampa was a natural candidate. An Italian immigrant who left the C&H factory to start building bridges and tunnels, Zampa helped build both the Bay Bridge and the Golden Gate (which he fell off of and survived). In fact, he lived almost long enough to see the very first bridge he worked on replaced by the one named for him.
While living to be 95, Zampa became an integral part of the city he had helped scaffold: baseball coach, iron worker, and man about town. His sons followed him into the building trades, and now one of their kids plays for the home team.
"My family is definitely still around here; they hang out up on Tightwad Hill," the younger Zampa says, pointing in the direction of the cliff behind his namesake bridge. Is it strange to have the same surname as the road out of town? "Actually, it's kind of cool," the senior says. Zampa has been pretty disappointed with his team's record this season, but he is not at all down on his unique upbringing or his town. Kids in other areas might be a lot more mortified at the endless reminders of the adult world surrounding them than these kids with relatively few consumer goods but an endless glass of history. "I like this old stuff," he says. "There aren't a lot of places like here, I guess."
And with that, the latest Zampa, who isn't dressed for the game tonight and sports blue jeans and tennis shoes below his jersey, takes off with his crew toward his bridge.
Cheapskate on a hill/A thrillseeker making deals/Sugar city urchin wasting time/Town of lunatics/Begging for another fix/Turning tricks for speedballs one more night. — "Tight Wad Hill," Green Day.
At least on Homecoming night, the hill dwellers' fierce reputation is belied. Tightwad Hill is a surefire laugh-getter amongst the Crockett cognoscenti but Coach Angell puts a different spin on it after a nearby group mimics pot smoking and whiskey swilling upon hearing the subject introduced. "Those guys up there," Angell says as the giggles stop, "those are our parents and they are our community, and you know what? They're here and they show up for the game and the kids."
Indeed, inside the field after the floats have drifted by, some Harley heads and hippie relics pay their five bucks to mix in the stands. Throughout the entire first half, one biker with a black T-shirt and a blond pony-tail wanders aimlessly along the sidelines, neither molested nor accosted by any authority in attendance.
Tonight the Homecoming Court will be announced. The band is excited that four of the five candidates usually are seated with them. Drum major Katrina Wilson says tonight is a big one for the band, even if the winner is not a band boy. Wilson started playing flute as a sixth-grader at Carquinez Middle School just down the road, motivated even then with the thought of being in the high school ensemble. Chosen by her peers, the effervescent young woman is given considerable authority by band director Ted Foreman, who has led his group to many honors. Foreman demurs. "Really, competition day is the easiest one of them all," he says. "On those days it's all Katrina, and she's up for the challenge."
Principal Bass notes that in all his years in education, he has never seen anything like his current school's band. "What I especially admire is the way they break down barriers. A few weeks ago, they played a show in the auditorium where they had to perform ballads. The rockers, the ravers, the rappers, everyone. They have to play and engage in everybody's music. It was a beautiful thing." Wilson agrees. "We bring spirit to the school and that's why playing at the games is so much fun."
Under a canopy of balloons, the Homecoming Court awaits its fate in the style of a beauty pageant. Runners-up are announced first, while excitement builds among the fans of those still in the running. Despite their four-to-one advantage, the band guys all have to settle for prince. Football player Dominic Lopez is anointed king of the court. His queen is indeed head cheerleader Michelle Bow, who celebrates by taking a victory lap, then picking up her pom-poms again. In 2005, female football player Lizzie Ray (sister of a current football player) was named the queen, resulting in the startling sight of both members of the homecoming court in shoulder pads, plastic crowns, and eye black.
Tonight, John Swett's team is doing what homecoming teams are supposed to do. Having invited the weakest team in the league, they roll toward a 19-14 lead with seconds to go in the first half. The queen is readying her girls for a halftime dance number while the quarterback fades back and hits the king just before the gun.
Ultimately, for a night, all is right with the world, at least this very small part of it. The football team wins easily. The fifty-fifty raffle is won by a band mom who is immediately set upon by her daughter for cash to buy licorice. The Harley head looks like he is going to make it to wherever he is going and the folk on Tightwad Hill just disappear into the night. Kids shout good-byes and adults make plans for their next rendezvous.
John Swett High is the heart of Crockett, a place that doesn't have a movie theater, a restaurant row, a big grocery store, or much other local business. But it does have a hold on the hearts of those who live here, and they've found that if they invest in their school, they can keep a grasp on their past and build ties to their future.
Most adults start shying away from their children by the time they are in high school, believing that's what the teens want. But this community has chosen not to do so, and it's the richer for it. Grownups are everywhere at the school, and not only are the kids not sloughing them off, they seem to be hanging around. At John Swett, the adults have decided that their town is too small for them to walk on the other side of the street. So together with their kids, or at least in packs slightly behind them, they walk together, voices laughing, shouting, or singing.
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