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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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.

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