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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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.

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