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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"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."

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