Wounded Warriors 

The Richmond Steelers try to overcome violence and loss to win their sixth straight state title.

Page 7 of 8

The players relented and instead doused Khalid, who took it smilingly and in stride while holding up five fingers on one hand and one on the other. They represented the six titles the team has won since he joined Harris -- five with his brother and one without Waleed there to share it with him.




THE STREAK ENDS

Richmond has another football team that's notorious for its record.

By Jeremy Rue

It was a bittersweet season for the Richmond High School football team. A notorious losing streak was snapped, but tough times quickly returned.

Last year the Oilers held a depressing record of 39 consecutive losses, at the time the state's longest high school losing streak. Losing had become such a habit that the concept of winning no longer seemed tangible -- games were played only to avoid crushing defeats. Senior linebacker and tight end Orlando Arnold vividly remembers his first three years of football.

"It was horrible," he said. "It was like here we go again; another game, another loss."

But this year turned out different.

The change began with the team's new coach, Lee Fletcher, a 1971 Richmond High graduate and veteran cop. Fletcher sympathized with the doomed team, and with twenty years experience coaching the Richmond Steelers, was brought in to restore the pride that once surrounded Richmond High football. He began a process of reinvigorating the battered team's morale.

"The first thing I knew I had to do was change their attitude," Fletcher said. "They had an attitude of always losing. We just got beaten and blown out every game. They expected to lose, they just didn't want to lose that bad."

Richmond High football was quite different in Fletcher's heyday. As an offensive tackle during his junior year, he saw his team take home the division championship. The scene during tryouts last spring was a stark contrast from Fletcher's time. Only 24 students showed up, about half as many students as most high schools use to field a team. Fletcher signed on every kid who turned out.

As one of his first tasks, Fletcher reopened the weight room, which hadn't been used in recent years. Lifting weights was foreign to some players, and made a considerable difference in the short run.

He dedicated one-and-a-half hours of each practice to study hall, because the team's biggest obstacle didn't come from a lack of playing skills, but maintaining the minimum 2.0 grade-point-average to play sports.

After the summer, it all came together. In the first game of the season, the Oilers played Albany High School. Holding on to a 12-6 lead in the fourth quarter, the clock counted down to a riveting finale where one touchdown could mean the difference between loss No. 40 or the chance for Richmond to finally taste victory. Albany made several long pass attempts, but Fletcher's defenders emphatically batted down the ball. Then the buzzer rang.

"I was like, 'Oh my God,'" Arnold recalled. "It was the best thing in the world at that moment."

It became even more real when the Oilers smashed Kennedy High School 38-8 the following week. For a moment, the team was on top of the world. The players became instant stars, and a newfound respect reverberated through the school's halls.

Then came the setbacks. When a storage locker housing all of the team's equipment caught fire from arson, the team gained media attention. A donation by the Oakland Raiders and other local companies brought more attention, and many soon knew the story of the streak-breaking season.

But the fire was a turning point. With only twenty players, the injuries soon began to stack up. Like Arnold, most players played both offense and defense and never left the field. Late in the games, fatigue would set in, increasing the likelihood of injury.

The week after the arson, quarterback Chris Caluya took a bad hit in a loss to Berkeley High. With the help of trainers, he was led to the bench and sat stoic and rigid. It took several minutes for anyone to notice that he was unresponsive, and Caluya was flown to a hospital. A minor concussion kept him out for two games.

By their sixth game against main rival El Cerrito, players were shuffled into positions they had never played. The Oilers went in with eighteen players, but were down to fifteen by half-time. Hardly anyone left the field on turnovers, and the Oilers fell hard, 43-6.

It turned out to be their last game of the season. Report cards came out the following week and the team lost two more players due to academic ineligibility. Like Samuel L. Jackson's basketball team in Coach Carter, which was based on Richmond High School, the football team fell victim to low grades.

Fletcher forfeited against Pinole Valley High when he decided fifteen players was simply too few. He also withdrew from the final two games, against Alameda and De Anza, leaving the team with a six-game losing streak and a 2-8 record.

Despite what would seem like a tragic ending to a storybook year, Fletcher believes he saw raw potential during the El Cerrito game. Through the beating, he saw perseverance, and more importantly, next year's star players. Fletcher is optimistic about the coming year, and hopes the two wins will provide the momentum needed for an even better season.

The Oilers only lose six seniors this year, one of the few positives left for a team facing tough odds. Arnold will be one of them. But the six-foot-four tight end with a bashful smile is moving up in the world. He's got a 3.8 GPA this semester, and at least three major universities -- USC, Oregon, and Arizona -- have contacted him with signs of interest. He has high hopes for the Oilers next year.

"There's a lot of big guys at our school, there's a lot of athletic people around school, they just don't go out there," he said. "The problem is grades -- but most of them are just not motivated. They'd be like, 'What's the point in playing football for Richmond High? We're going to lose anyway, so we're just wasting our time.' But if they went out there, maybe we'd start winning."

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