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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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.

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