Tilting at Goalposts 

More than 90 percent of high school football players will never suit up in college, let alone the pros. But that doesn't stop them from pursuing their dreams.

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Fans were half-watching the football game between jostling each other and trying not to sit on a dirty napkin. It was late last summer, and the Gauchos of El Cerrito High were losing. Yet senior cornerback Rodney Washington, Jr., and Darius Powe, a junior wide receiver with the same name as a Cal junior, weren't about to give up. They were intent on making plays that would later catch the eye of some college coach tasked with watching hundreds of highlight films. Washington and Powe are among thousands of young students fighting each year for college scholarships that will change the course of their lives — most for better, some for worse.

Washington and Powe know that few Gauchos will get scholarships — only 126 D1 schools (the highest level in college athletics) award full scholarships, up to 25 per year to incoming freshmen (each school has a maximum of 85). That means the entire Pac-12, one of the premiere conferences in the nation, gives out fewer than 300 scholarships to high school senior football players each year. Sites such as Scout.com and Rivals.com rate the top players on a scale of one to five stars, with five being the highest. More than 300 five- and four-star athletes annually vie for scholarships, while three- and two-stars, the vast bulk of recruits, number in the thousands. To be ranked at all means you're a star on your high school team. The math is daunting.

Blame the internet. When Rodney Washington took off school to play in an all-star game in Southern California last year, and when cornerback Arrion Archie paid his own way to participate in a seven-on-seven camp at Harvard, they were just doing what must be done in a day and age when the laser beam of publicity is on players as young as fourteen.

All-American rankings start with high school freshmen. While scouts still attend high school games, the onus has shifted to the player (and his parents) to get those all-important looks. Often that means spending big bucks to hire consultants who may or may not be on the level, spending hours and more bucks making highlight reels and keeping up with social media, and paying to attend camps. The camps, websites, and consultants are the big winners; they score no matter who gets recruited. And they have a captive audience.

Consider this: According to the NCAA, only 6.5 percent of high school players go on to play college football on any level, including community colleges. Everyone needs an edge.

How is that different from parents forking over for piano or ballet lessons? A student who wants to go to Julliard doesn't have scouts hovering over her shoulder at recitals, her prowess isn't rated on websites to be pored over by rabid fans, and she isn't risking brain damage from banging the keys. Still, if she manages a career in music, she won't earn an NFL salary. But she's more likely to perform someday at Carnegie Hall than a high school football player is to play at Lambeau Field.

Again according to the NCAA, only a very fortunate .08 percent of high school players end up in the NFL, while fewer than 2 percent of college players suit up as pros. One might think such odds would discourage athletes from attending seven-on-seven high school football showcases, but the opposite is true: Told from Day One to pursue their dreams, young men battle through hell or high water. Astoundingly, according to the NCAA, 52 percent of college D1 players think they can make it in the pros — so delusions survive high school.

Critics decry the emphasis on sports in high school and college, as if athletes get an undeserved free ride. Yet luck and happenstance intrude the education system in myriad ways: Teachers give bad marks to prove a point, art classes are axed for lack of funds, students write great essays but test poorly. High school is a crucible in which some melt away, and emerging whole may have little to do with inherent talent.

Indeed, most achievement is quixotic: full of luck and hope, dependent upon talents dealt out randomly. This person is good at taking tests, he has a great voice, she can do a backflip on ice skates. Each skill demands drive, persistence, work, fortune. And courage. It is easier not to try.

But among the smartphones and video games and parents divorcing and too little money and too much fast food come the opportunities that define a life, moments of clarity in a bombardment of distractions. When Powe and Washington execute astounding leaps and touchdown-saving tackles, they eke out a few moments of beauty in a moonlit night.

In an effort to chronicle some of that clarity and beauty and to better understand the long odds young athletes face, I decided to follow the Gauchos for eight months. Here is their story.

August

A cacophony of white and yellow lines drawn on the bright green artificial turf serves a multitude of sports: soccer, baseball, field hockey. Fields laid out at 45- and 60-degree angles intersect each other; six or seven soccer nets hunker here and there while backstops anchor two corners.

Football players stand about in pads, dashing from one set of yellow lines to another, while twenty feet distant an adult soccer coach shouts at girls no older than nine. Wide receivers run routes around students practicing soccer kicks. Defensive and offensive linemen gather at the far end of the field, prancing through squares of rope ladders stretched across the ground. "Right foot in the right square, left foot crosses behind, go, go!" head coach Kenny Kahn shouts over the roar of bulldozers and trucks laboring in mountains of dirt behind a chain link fence. Diesel fuel billows over the players as they scamper through the ladders, cheering each other's fancy footwork. "It was supposed to be finished in 2009," says Kahn, motioning to the mounds of fill that are El Cerrito High's football field. He shrugs. "We make lemonade."

Or champagne. In 2013, the Gauchos finished 12-3, winning the North Coast Division III title (California has ten divisions) before losing to Atherton's Sacred Heart in the state final. Five seniors from that team got full-ride scholarships to Pac-12 schools. The stars are replaced by a plethora of up-and-comers: One ECHS player gained All-American honors as a freshman, placing him among the top 44 frosh in the US. This year, 6-foot-7-inch sophomore Aaron Banks, all 340 pounds of him, is one of those kids plowing through the ladder steps. Add in a couple three-star seniors, and you've got a team likely to attract college recruiters.

"Oregon State keeps saying, 'Send us the three-game film,'" says senior Rodney Washington, Jr., referring to player highlights of the first three games of the 2014 season. '"Then you'll hear from us.' But I got other choices, too" — such as Cal, USC, Arizona State, and UCLA.

Washington is a three-star prospect, a heady brew for a young man who figured his football days were finished. He began playing football for the Richmond Steelers when he was six years old, and as he puts it, "I was not one of the best talents." Undersized, he mostly rode the bench. When he did play, every down was a battle against larger boys. Freshman year, at Hercules High, he started to grow. The following year, his mother wanted him to go to Bishop O'Dowd, a college prep school in East Oakland. "I had to get up at 4 a.m. to get there," he says. "And I just wasn't ready for the academics. It was very stressful." The next year, he switched to El Cerrito, but as a two-time transfer, he had to sit out junior year. "I figured it was over," he says. Dreams of a college scholarship, making a difference as a player, all of it.

Though he couldn't play in 2013, Washington spearheaded the practice squad, helping teammates improve. "A big character piece," comments coach Kahn. "Most kids wouldn't have stuck around the whole season knowing they couldn't play." During the summer, Washington attended several football camps, at UC Berkeley and Chabot College. Film from these events is eye-opening: Washington, a cornerback, sticks to wide receivers like a shadow, inserting a hand at the right second to pop a well-thrown ball out of the receiver's grasp. "I played against four-stars," he says, "and I got exposure." He pauses, knowing this will sound immodest. "That's when I knew that I could challenge. I love getting into receivers' heads," he says. "Coming from being small, I just have that energy and anger about me."

"He had adversity," Kahn says, "and he learned that life isn't butterflies and rainbows. He didn't see his own stock that high."

Washington nods. "Wasn't 'til at the camp this summer that I realized I could be good." After he sends out the all-important three-game film, he hopes for scholarship offers in mid-October. Then he'll know just how good coaches at top colleges think he is. He's too excited to sleep.

On August 30, fans let out a ragged cheer as the sun slips below the horizon at quarter to eight. "You've got sunglasses," a boy accuses his neighbor, who is shading her eyes with both hands.

"Don't matter," she responds, flipping her hair behind her shoulders. "That sun is just there."

The setting sun should not have created such a problem, given that football games move in two directions. But opponent Sutter scores 21 unanswered points directly into the blazing orb, after which a sliver of a moon begins to rise, a tardy benediction.

Sutter's players discombobulate El Cerrito's squad, which racks up multiple penalties while getting shoved backward even without the referees' help. Broken plays, collapsed pockets, and blown coverage dominate the first two quarters. Yet in the midst of the trouncing, Washington piles up plays for his highlight film: an interception of a Sutter pass, then a leaping catch between two defenders, in which he shimmies through his opponents like a salmon jimmying around boulders. "Who is that?" fans ask.

The Gauchos gel in the second half, and the Sutter defense starts racking up its own penalties. But it is too little, too late, and El Cerrito's defense tires in the fourth quarter. The game ends 49-14.

September

Livermore High masquerades as Texas. There is no room to park within three blocks of the school, though optimists circle in trucks and SUVs. The brightly lit home stands anchor the snack bar and bathrooms, while visitors perch on narrow wooden boards on the far side of the field. Fifty or more dancers and cheerleaders work the large crowd into a partisan frenzy. Still, El Cerrito picks up a Cowboy fumble early on, and Powe makes an out-of-bounds circus catch that causes people to gasp. The tiny fan base that journeyed out to eastern Alameda County sighs.

Besides the JV team, which leaves in the middle of the contest, there are perhaps thirty brave souls in the stands. They have a lot to say. "You gotta throw on a 5-3!" one man shouts repeatedly as El Cerrito tries running the ball several times in a row. The offense is not moving, and the defense seems vulnerable to the run, giving up five and six yards nearly every down. Then Washington intercepts a pass, and soon El Cerrito scores. It's like opening a dam, and nobody can stop the Gauchos, who end up winning 54-14.

In his football uniform, sophomore lineman Aaron Banks looks a bit clumsy, as if he is still growing into his body. Out of uniform, he seems quiet and malleable. Both are illusions. Banks is poised and mature, a sixteen-year-old who can pirouette through the complicated steps of the rope ladder with surprising grace.

Banks wanted to play football as a youngster, but he was always too big, both in height and weight, to qualify for Pop Warner. He played briefly in third grade for a private league but didn't get much from it. His family plays basketball, so that's where he invested his energy.

When he tried out for football as a freshman at El Cerrito, he bypassed junior varsity to start on the varsity squad. His teammates, he says, expected an immovable force, a redwood tree pretending to be a lineman. But Banks is smart, mobile, and aggressive, and he finished the year as a freshman All-American. "When I got the certificate, my mom framed it and put in on the wall," he says with an easy grin.

Banks felt pressure in 2013 — "When I came in as a freshman, I knew I'd be on the varsity team. I knew I'd have to perform."

To be noticed on the recruiting marketplace, athletes with advanced skills must convince others to buy into the commitment necessary to field a cohesive team. Although coach Kahn notes that a team does not need to be a winner for its athletes to be recruited, he admits that it helps. Football's unsung soldiers sacrifice for the cause. Running backs depend upon linemen to open holes, receivers are bound by their signal-caller's accuracy and arm strength, a bad defensive line creates impossible plays for the secondary, and coaching and chemistry play a role. Are boys playing the wrong position? Are they unmotivated? Is the team full of jokers?

Banks coached his younger brother's basketball squad and understands the coach's side of the equation as well as a top player's responsibilities. "I know how annoying it can be [to coaches] with people talking and not listening," he explains.

He hopes to make the sophomore All-American list at the end of this season. "I've been working to increase my football IQ," he says, "and doing a lot of training." He lifts on weekends with his older brother and at a workout facility in Emeryville during the week, and he attends practice for three hours on weekdays. "I'm a captain this year," he says. "I need to lead by example."

When does he study? El Cerrito uses a block system, in which a student can take three blocks one semester and four the next. Banks chose to take the lighter load fall semester. "My first block is free, so I use that as a study period. When I go home, I take a nap and study afterwards." He shrugs. "School is pretty easy for me."

Banks is a recruiter's dream, with character, maturity, ability, smarts — which is why, as a sophomore, he's already heard from Nebraska, Florida State, Miami, Oregon, Arizona State, USC, Cal, and others. So far Oregon has the inside track. "They have an amazing facility," he says. "Everything's there, even a barbershop."

If Livermore is Texas, Amador Valley High, in Pleasanton, is West Texas. Purple T-shirts read "Live Purple, Love Gold," purple tents line the entrance to the field, and a taqueria sells treats for a buck. The school band is around two hundred strong. El Cerrito fans, again stuck a mile from the snack bar and bathrooms, mutter, "Ten tubas! And xylophones! What band has marching xylophones?"

It gets worse. But first Rodney Washington makes a pretty catch on the sidelines and scampers into the end zone. Washington's grandfather, Roosevelt Washington, an El Cerrito alum from the Fifties, nods with pleasure. "That's good," he says. "That's really good."

Then it's the Dons' turn, and things become gloomy. "They can't tackle," Roosevelt Washington says of the Gaucho defense. He coached Rodney as a youngster, and at age 76, grandpa knows football like he knows his shoe size. "They're huggin'," he points out. "They bump shoulders, but they're not wrapping."

Roosevelt introduces me to Rodney's family members: his father, sister, aunt, grandmothers, and mother. "When Rodney was playing little ball," he says, "his mother would run up and down the sidelines with him. I'd say, 'You can't do that!' and she'd say, 'I know, I just get so excited.'"

His mother no longer runs the sidelines, but she can't sit for more than a couple minutes without popping up and pacing the stands. Rodney's father also marches about, eagle eye on the field. No one likes what he or she sees. "Fill the gaps!" shouts one man as a Dons runner powers through for ten yards. Tackling is a problem: Again and again, a runner seems to be stopped but then bursts free to gain another ten yards. It's hard not to wonder if the new safety standards aren't interfering with teaching tackling. Tackling drills now focus on how to hit without causing injury to yourself or to the opposing player: no helmet-to-helmet hits, no hitting in the neck or chest, no clipping penalties. And contact drills are limited to two per week to reduce the possibility of concussions.

"They don't know the fundamentals," Roosevelt Washington says. "They ain't poppin', they're huggin' out there." He scans the field like a pianist reading sheet music. "And they're playin' the wrong players. They got a tall boy playin' running back. You need a short boy there. They got boys in all the wrong positions." No one is surprised when the game ends 39-7.

Mr. Washington asks his granddaughter to retrieve the walking stick he's dropped between the bleacher seats. "I say to Rodney, 'Never tell a coach you already know somethin' — 'cause he may go about it a little bit different from what you learned before. And you put together those bits and pieces from every coach, and you learn from it all. That's how you get to be a good player." As his granddaughter delivers his stick with a triumphant grin, he says, "Only a couple of these boys will go on to play in college. This is when they learn how to be a team."

When coach Kahn checks his phone the morning after the Amador loss, he has messages from assistant coaches, parents, players, ex-players, and every other critic under the sun. Each know what went wrong and how to fix it. Kahn turns off his phone and takes a four-hour walk. His phone stays off until Monday. "We'd never played Amador Valley," he explains. "They're a D1 team. They have a full roster, guys coming in and out on every play. We have twenty core guys. Our players go two or even three ways [offense, defense, special teams]. It's tiring, they never come off the field." Still, everyone — Kahn, Rodney Washington, Aaron Banks, defensive back Arrion Archie, and all-around sparkplug Calvin Nunley — agrees that El Cerrito should have won the game.

"We were lazy," Washington charges. "We never got going."

Not everyone was contributing. Tackles were missed. Blocks not executed. Which leads to a discussion about teamwork. "Football is the team sport," Banks says. "A couple top scorers can carry a basketball team or a pitcher dominate. But in football, you can have five great players and if the other six on the field don't contribute ..."

"You need that supporting cast," adds Kahn.

"The younger kids, they look up to us," says Nunley. "Sometimes I talk back or joke around in practice, but when I go home, I realize I can't do that."

"Last year we had leaders," Washington says, "like Adarius Pickett" — the very talented UCLA running back who happens to be Arrion Archie's cousin. "Now it's time to get serious again."

Nunley broke his collarbone last year, didn't play for part of the season, and had an up-and-down academic record. "I wish I'd never goofed off," he says. "The first thing a recruiter asks about is academics." He will likely go the junior college route — play football there, get good grades and an AA degree, and then hope to be recruited to a D1 college for his last couple years. Nunley will take the SAT, because a good SAT score can substitute for poor grades. "But only so far," he acknowledges. "I wish I'd thought about it earlier. Like in ninth grade." In reality, he says, he didn't buckle down until last summer, before his senior year.

A quiet and observant kid, Archie has no trouble with grades, but he had to miss the first two games with a high ankle sprain sustained in summer practice. He played sparingly in game three, showing flashes of speed and skill. But he won't have highlights from the first three games. Still, he receives emails from college coaches, questioning his progress and intentions.

On that subject, when I ask a group of players to name the most important factors in choosing a college, answers come fast as popcorn sizzling in smoking oil: "How you fit in. Like if you're good at man-to-man, you don't want a zone scheme," offers one player. "Weather. Here in the East Bay it's neutral. You don't want it too cold or too hot," says another, conjuring up 110-degree practices in Texas. "Facilities. Good weight rooms and good food." (Although facilities matter to every recruit, the issue looms large at disadvantaged El Cerrito High, with its minimal weight equipment, no field, and no goalposts.)

The popcorn continues at a blistering pace: "Good academics in your field." "How coaches treat players." "How organized they are. You're spending four years there. You want them organized in meal planning, study time, that kind of thing."

Says Banks, "You get five official visits. You don't want to waste them on somewhere you probably won't go. You need to research beforehand."

"You watch 'em on TV every Saturday," adds Washington. "As an athlete, you know which schools you fit with. You go where you have a chance to start."

Banks: "This is our ticket. I gotta make it work for me."

Ultimately, says Archie, "It's all about what people see in you."

October

On an unseasonably hot day in early October, El Cerrito travels a few minutes to St. Mary's, a private college prep campus hidden off Hopkins Street in North Berkeley. Fans find shelter under big umbrellas, and the cheerleaders give up leading yells to search for shade. Unfortunately, the inability to defend against the run returns to haunt the Gauchos.

The only excitement in the first quarter is a pass thrown in Archie's direction. He leaps and twists to knock it away, but the stands erupt: "Get the ball!" Archie lifts his hand to the fans in acknowledgment that an interception was possible and trots back to the sidelines. The moment is a perfect encapsulation of Archie himself: athletic, modest, accepting of responsibility.

Later, Washington catches a touchdown pass; he and Nunley return kicks as well, standing alone on the field in the beating sun. The pair gets plenty of kicks because St. Mary's scores at will as Gaucho penalties mount up. Nunley explodes for several beyond-highlight-reel catches: a touchdown; a first down on 4th and 10; rescuing another broken play. He has a great feel for the ball, coming back to help his quarterback even while shadowed (and shoved) by defenders. A game that was hard-fought ends 48-26 — St. Mary's.

Afterward, JV head coach and varsity defensive coach Ralph Robinson shakes his head. "It's like we practiced making spectacular plays and not the fundamentals. And now we're going to get hit with the time change." Because El Cerrito has no dedicated football field, it has no lights, so once daylight savings time ends, practices are cut short by more than an hour.

"We didn't know what we were going to do last year for the other cornerback," Robinson continues. "We had Adarius Pickett but who else? Then Arrion Archie showed up — his family moved here from Fairfield. He knew the whole defense from his cousin Adarius. Arrion's very strong. And he's fast. When we timed all the kids, Arrion was fastest, and it wasn't even close."

Arrion Archie is not present during this appraisal. Low-key and quiet, he would be embarrassed by the string of compliments.

Robinson continues, "We encourage him to speak up more, because he's a kid we want other kids to model after."

Archie is smart, motivated, and an excellent athlete. But he's slender. "I believe he has a future," Robinson says. "If he gets in someone's program and they put him on a weight training regimen — remember we don't have that here."

El Cerrito has a few donated tires that people take turns lifting. A couple of weight benches make up the rest of the array. No wonder that Aaron Banks goes to an Emeryville gym most afternoons. "Arrion should have his choice of where to go," Robinson concludes. Kahn seconds that notion. "What people don't think about is that last year QBs wouldn't throw to Adarius Pickett's side of the field. They were throwing to Archie's. And he did great."

Robinson's view of Calvin Nunley is also perceptive. "He's a great kid who likes to play around and have fun. I don't know what goes on with him at home. Maybe he doesn't have that long before he has to start paying bills and knuckle down to responsibilities. I'm glad he gets this time to be a kid."

Archie, who wants to be "something in the engineering field" is not worried about the SAT he's set to take, or about his GPA. "I try to manage only what I can control," he says. "Then it's not as stressful because I know I've done all I can."

Pragmatic Nunley says, "I gotta have a backup plan in case football doesn't work out. So it won't shatter me. My parents tell me I gotta have something to fall back on. But it'd sure be nice to get a scholarship."

Both are confident, after watching tape, that the team can beat Lassen High, a five-hour drive away. "I know we can beat 'em," Nunley says.

They do not. Reasons are plentiful: they were too tired from the road trip; they waited while the JV played, with nothing to do but fret; they were exhausted by the time they hit the field. Kahn shrugs. "It just didn't work out. But the team bonded in a way it hadn't." Kahn brought sports films — Remember the Titans, The Program, a few others — to play on the bus, but the DVD player was kaput. Few had cell reception. They had to talk to each other. "That was good," Kahn concludes.

The team shows it in the next two games, which they win handily, with an emphasis on moving together that had been lacking earlier. Tackles come easier and the running game improves. The defense, especially the secondary with Washington and Archie, steps up. Washington plays wide receiver in addition to running back and cornerback, while Nunley upgrades his highlight reel with leaping catches and slippery runbacks. Then the Gauchos travel to Salesian High in Richmond for a non-league game.

The crowd contains dual fans: one teen goes to El Cerrito, the other to Salesian. And there are plenty of alumni of both schools. Everyone knows everyone else. The El Cerrito coaches are dressed in black; Kahn looks as menacing as a teddy bear. Fans whisper that Salesian beat St. Mary's a week earlier. As Salesian threatens to strike first, Archie intercepts the ball on the El Cerrito 10. Washington breaks tackles to get a vital first down. But no one scores through the first quarter as the game gets rougher. Aaron Banks makes the crowd gasp when he tackles Salesian's running back by lifting him up and slamming him into the turf.

El Cerrito kicks a field goal midway through the second quarter, and Salesian answers with a touchdown. The Gauchos can't capitalize on Washington's receptions as Salesian scores again, but Nunley catches a long pass and scampers in for a touchdown in the third. Then the injuries begin. Five coaches hover around Banks before he is hauled off in a golf cart. Arrion hurts his hip and limps to the sideline. Keith Thomas, El Cerrito's quarterback, is helped off the field, and Darius Powe enters as signal-caller. He lofts a high pass to Washington, which is intercepted, and a close game ends 21-10. Salesian fans tell their El Cerrito friends that this was by far the best game of the year, but it is cold comfort as Salesian wins its division while El Cerrito hobbles home to an uncertain future.

November

Will last year's defending champion, with its 5-5 record, get into the playoffs? Yes and no. The playoff committee puts El Cerrito in — against perennial North Bay powerhouse, Sebastopol's Analy High, which is 9-1 on the year and, like the Tri-Valley schools, sporting what seems a cast of thousands on its squad. Dark blue uniforms stand four deep on the sidelines, facing the El Cerrito faithful, who have traveled on a dark Saturday night hoping for a miracle.

Hope dies on the first play, a squib kickoff to the Gauchos that Analy recovers and brings in for a touchdown three plays later. Midway into the first quarter, the score is 27-0. As in every other game, Rodney Washington makes nice catches and tackles, and fans applaud each pretty play. The cheerleaders get up a good head of steam in the second quarter, and the Gauchos score with 1:27 left to make it 27-7. The audience claps appreciatively and then settles in for the slaughter. Center Alex Meurer, who is also an efficient tackler on defense with a good eye for the ball, goes out with an injury. The downhill slope gets steeper as hikes resemble wild pitches. By the half it's 62-7.

Some blame the offensive coordinator. The line coach. The defensive coordinator. Special teams. "It all comes back to Kahn," says one man sadly. In the second half, Analy puts in its second string, and the clock keeps running. Dejected, El Cerrito can't score on the replacements. It is a dismal ending to a season that started with such high expectations.

December

The holidays help erase that awful playoff game. Archie performed well on his SAT, but wants an even higher score, so he'll retake it in January. Washington's grades are not as good as he would like; he's studying hard now that the season is over. He is philosophical about the season but concerned about his status. "I could have made the team better if I'd played my position [cornerback]. I was running kicks back, caught good catches as a receiver, played running back. But I never got to play a defense position throughout the whole year. I don't have that many highlights from one position." Which makes him what recruiters call an athlete — a flexible player valuable enough to be moved around the field to take advantage of his strengths. It should be a plus but often turns into a minus as busy recruiters search stats for yards gained or interceptions. Because Washington played multiple positions, his stats place him fifth or sixth in the league rather than the first or second that might catch a coach's attention. Coaches looking for corners could pass over Washington's highlights when they see three or four wideout catches along with open-field tackles and runbacks. "I'm still a three-star on Rivals," Washington says, "at 5.8. One more point would make me a four-star. We talk about this on the team."

Kahn sees it somewhat differently. When college coaches evaluate film, he says, they watch the first four plays of a highlight reel and either move on to someone else or finish the reel. "They might know they're going to offer after those first four plays," he says. "They look at raw athletic ability, size, and they watch to see what you're doing when the ball is not in your hands. Are you standing around daydreaming? They want to see athletes [those like Washington who play multiple positions] play as aggressively on defense and special teams as they do on offense." Kahn says that college recruiters often ask if he knows of other players or programs they should check out. "And I point out people, maybe players whose programs are under the radar. It's the right thing to do."

Although Kahn believes that a team's record doesn't impact recruiting that much ("I've seen kids get scholarships from 2-8 teams"), Washington is more practical. "If we'd done better, we'd of got recognized more from coaches. UC would never have left." Cal recruiters were interested in players but dropped off the map as the season progressed. On this score, Kahn is the pragmatic one. "Everyone's waiting on grades," he says. "That's the issue."

With his high SAT scores and above-4.0 GPA, Archie should be able to pick his school. He's considering Sacramento State, USC, UC Davis, and others. Over the summer, Harvard's cornerback coach invited Archie to a tournament. "The first few hours we weighed in, ran the 40, did the bench press," he says. "Then we did drills with the position coaches. I met with the cornerback coach — he's the one recruiting me. Afterwards we played with the whole squad."

Archie qualifies for an academic scholarship — and could perhaps even go to Harvard — but that's a fallback if he can't find a school willing to give him an athletic scholarship. "I've been playing since I was nine, and I love the game," he explains. "I love to be part of the team and to contribute. There's adrenaline, excitement, and when you win, happiness. There's a bond that a team has."

He admits that 2014 has been different. "Last year it was more wins, more good times after games. This year it should have come together more." Archie is all about competition; he loved playing on the opposite side of the field from cousin Adarius Pickett. "Other coaches knew about Adarius' scholarship offers, so they were testing me all the time. I liked that."

Pickett became a running back at UCLA. "He did it so he could get on the field sooner," Archie explains. "You take whatever position the coaches think you'll fit better."

Kahn believes Archie is not getting the attention he deserves. "He's coming off an injury. And he's slender. But he's so fast and he's such a good athlete." Washington should be getting more looks too. "Washington has good size and speed. And he works really hard."

Kahn shakes his head. "I thought we'd be 8-2. I really did."

January

It's only a few weeks until February 4, National Signing Day — or NSD, as it's known on college and sports sites, now packed full of predictions for four- and five-star players. Seventeen-year-olds call press conferences to verbally commit to a school, then "decommit" a week later or take "secret" trips to another school. Players committed to one school send fans into frenzies when they wear another school's jersey (especially those belonging to Texas or Texas A&M). But no one is committed — hard-core committed — until they fax in a signed letter of intent.

None of this fun stuff is happening at El Cerrito High. Kahn now believes that Washington will go to Asuza Pacific or a junior college, Archie will go to University of San Diego or Lewis and Clark in Oregon, and Nunley will go to Contra Costa College and try to transfer.

Washington got sick toward the end of the year, missed some school, and then headed down to Southern California to play in an all-star football game to which he'd been invited. "He'd get seen, get exposure," explains Kahn. "Those things are important. But his math grades and English grades suffered." Now Washington struggles to make up tests he'd missed.

Banks, recovered from his minor injury (an Achilles strain), licks his wounds by playing on El Cerrito's varsity basketball team, now 20-3 and ranked 18th in the state. He's lost 25 pounds ("my football weight") and looks sleeker. But when Kahn mentions that football conditioning starts in February, Banks perks up. "I'll be there," he promises.

Banks is relaxed and confident, compared to the others who fear their dreams are going up in smoke. He is not waiting on scholarship offers, though he receives mail every week from big-name schools such as Ohio State and Florida. Junior Darius Powe is also in a sweet spot: He gets letters from Arizona and Colorado, among others.

Injuries, losses to schools far larger than El Cerrito High ("Everyone thinks I'm crazy to schedule these D1 schools," says Kahn, who notes that most D3 programs — El Cerrito's ranking — refuse to play the mighty Gauchos), dissension among the coaches, players being funneled into positions they preferred not to play all factor into whether students who deserve scholarships get offers. No one wants to be this close to February 4 without an offer in hand.

February

On the first day players are allowed to sign letters of intent, the focus is on which program will win the recruiting battle: Nick Saban's Alabama? Urban Meyers' Ohio State? Or will Jim Harbaugh's recent exodus to Michigan change its recruiting fortunes?

Archie thinks a partial scholarship to D1 University of San Diego is his most likely landing spot. He likes this idea because it's not too far from the East Bay but "not right here" either. The Toreros (coached by Jim Harbaugh in 2005 and 2006) scored a good recruiting class. "And they played in a bowl game," Archie points out — though the 14-52 loss to Montana can hardly be called stellar. Montana is also a possibility for Archie if the school's first choice signs with another program. The Grizzlies are competitive in the Big Sky division, finishing second last year with a 9-5 record.

What if Washington had not been required to sit out junior year? What if Archie had not sustained his high ankle injury? If another boy this season had the ability to read the field and throw spirals, El Cerrito's multi-talented quarterback could have played the position he preferred. What about a weight room and a training program — or a field on which the kicker could practice with hash marks and uprights?

March

Coach Kahn is still working as hard as he can for Washington. "Fresno State said that they would take him if he could qualify," he reports. The English difficulty got solved, but Washington's math grades still aren't up to snuff. "He might play one season at a junior college and transfer to Fresno," Kahn predicts. "Then with Arrion, you have the grades and the film, but people look past him."

Kahn has heard Archie's Montana story before — "if our first choice drops out, you're our man." Kahn sighs. "A lot of times they'll tell a kid that, but it's really five kids they're telling that to. This is the reality of cutthroat college recruiting. You don't want to give a kid false hope, but you also don't want to cut the rope."

As for Washington, says Kahn, "He's a kid that regardless where he goes, he'll be a standout. He could end up at Fresno State or Portland State. Now he's taking a full load of courses, and he'll take math at a community college this summer. He needs nothing but As and Bs moving forward."

Turns out Archie didn't fly entirely under the radar. He was offered three scholarships, two to D2 schools and one to the University of San Diego. Archie faxed in his signature to USD on March 2. "They have great academics and a top-notch engineering school," he explains.

What was most important in his recruiting success? "A highlight film is very important because it's how coaches decide if you have potential," he says, adding that he made his own tape. Still, he says, "The most important thing to being recruited are grades. Even if you have a lot of talent, without grades schools won't accept you."

Which is Washington's dilemma. If he makes up his credits, he could go to Arizona State or Fresno State. Or he may go to Contra Costa College for just this summer before qualifying for a scholarship. "Schools usually have one scholarship left for these situations," says Kahn, to award to those who slide in just as the door is closing. "Time will tell." Washington is talented enough to play on a ranked D1 team. Whether he wants it enough to knuckle down is up to him.

Calvin Nunley, as predicted, will go to San Mateo Community College or Laney and try to be a JUCO transfer to a D1 school. It happens every year to some lucky players: The Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers transferred to Cal from Butte Community College after one year.

D3 schools recruited a couple Gaucho seniors — Arnim Barrett and Alex Meurer are accepted to Lewis and Clark and Willamette, also in Oregon. Meurer likes football so much that he chose not to play baseball this spring, instead spending those hours in El Cerrito's minimalist weight room to bulk up for college football.

Junior Darius Powe has already received a scholarship offer from the University of Nevada at Reno, Colin Kaepernick's alma mater. Banks, who plays center on El Cerrito's ranked basketball team, still has his heart set on football. He's been invited to tryouts for the All-American Army game, a national showcase for top high school players. He's also been invited to other camps: Nike and Rivals (sponsored by UnderArmour), at which visibility and networking are the watchwords. Banks has already come under a laser beam: Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide have their eye on his upcoming junior campaign.

Kahn is looking ahead to his own opportunity. He was admitted to Cal's Principal Leadership program in the fall. "Next year, I'll be leaning on my assistant coaches more," he says.

Kahn believes that seeing last year's seniors go on to UCLA and Arizona State opened up a vision of playing football in college, whether that be D1, D3, or community college ball: "People who might not have played junior college ball now see that as a goal."

And though the season was difficult, Kahn saw a genuine love and appreciation for teammates and coaches. "We care about each other," he says. "We care about where people end up next, and we're building relationships that will stand the test of time."

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