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Adieu, Prep Football

September 14th, 2009 · 11 Comments · Sports Journalism, The Sun

From 1976 through 2007, I was all over high school football. Because I needed to be. And because I wanted to be.

I’m going to guestimate that I saw more than 300 high school football games during my days running (or working for) the sports department of the San Bernardino Sun. Maybe 400. Lots and lots of games.

I reported on prep football games more often than any sport, aside from major league baseball. (And MLB teams play 162 games in a single year; high schools play no more than 14 games over three-plus months, and as few as nine games, back in the 1970s.)


High school football has been a newspaper staple for nearly a century, and it was particularly significant in our core market, which was characterized by numerous medium-sized, self-contained communities, highly self-aware and prone to look at the local high school as an expression of civic pride. Fontana, Redlands, Colton, Rialto, Barstow, Victorville … the local high school football team was a very big deal, and it was incumbent on the local newspaper to cover the sport thoroughly and in depth.


So it was my job to cover it, and I was lucky that I came to love it.

High school coverage typically is considered an entry-level sort of sports journalism job. Maybe not so much now, now that newspapers are scrambling to be as local-local as they can manage. But for most of my career, preps was something you covered for a time and then got out of … to something more glamorous. And that would include copy-editing.


I felt that way when I started out, as a professional journalist — this high school thing is for someone else — and I was quite content to let others cover the Friday-night-lights stuff, once I took over coverage of the Los Angeles Rams, in 1977. For the next 4-5 years, I didn’t cover a game every week, as most everyone does at any paper that isn’t a major metro. I was on the road with the Rams, or then putting out the section as editor.


Things changed in 1982. Probably because I had been in the community long enough to have a sense of its schools and rivalries and history. Maybe because I realized that our veteran prep sports reporter was better-known than anyone on our staff, and it wasn’t close, and I grasped that the real connection with readers was through the high schools.


Instead of staying inside throughout a Friday night to make sure our coverage turned out the way we liked it … I began to sneak out for a few hours to cover a game close to the office. My theory being I could go see, say, Pacific or San Bernardino high schools, rush back to the office, bang out a quick gamer, then be ready to jump into the editing fray.


(And anyone who ever has worked in sports at an American paper of 150,000 circulation or less can tell you that a prep football Friday night is like nothing else in journalism. Total chaos, crushing deadline pressure, one long adrenaline high and a feeling of sublime achievement if the package turns out semi-well.)


After that, I got into prep football more and more. Even though we had a department that traveled with the Dodgers, Angels, Rams, Raiders, UCLA and USC. I not only covered a game every Friday, I sometimes picked up another on Thursday night (normally an “off” day for me) or Saturday afternoon up at Big Bear, in the mountains.


I eventually volunteered myself to do prep preview “capsules” which often were 15-inch previews of games (though we ran them in 7.5-point type, to conserve space). When I was particularly crazed, I might do 7-8 of them each week, sometimes zoning them to get them all in — again, on Thursday, in theory my day off. I would make a point of getting individual stats in there, and making sure we had the names of 5-6 linemen from each team in the capsule. And quotes from both coaches.


On Friday, I would cover a game, and we had a lot of big ones because the San Bernardino County half of the Inland Empire was building up to its zenith as a prep football hotbed. And then Saturday, or Sunday, I would do, like, 40 inches (really) of something I called the “prep football follow-up” that recapped some key events from the previous Friday night and projected ahead to upcoming games. That involved calling maybe a dozen coaches.


Basically, I was a prep football maniac who happened to be sports editor — and could indulge an urge to cover everything pertaining to the sport. And over a stretch of, oh, 20 years, I probably knew half the starting lineups of 25 schools in our core market. Every year. And never went anywhere without my list of home phones, cell phones and school phones for every coach in San Bernardino County.


It was great fun. High school football always has been the most interesting expression of the sport. The kids are into it, but they don’t expect money and they aren’t on scholarship. Teams tend to have highly distinctive styles, and many have long-serving coaches with known predilections and quirky approaches and extremely high profiles in their communities. To name a few: Dick Bruich, Tom Hoak, Don Markham, Jim Walker, Chuck Pettersen, Jim Taylor, John Tyree, Dan Hook, Paul Branum …


So there was that reinforcement, too, of feedback coming in from the community. Readers could find out about the Dodgers in lots of ways. But they depended on the local newspaper to explain to them how Redlands had lost to Fontana, again.


Eventually, we had significant prep football coverage in the paper every day of the week, including comprehensive stat packages and box scores that included every kid who carried the football even once or threw it or caught it.


The high point of the whole experience probably was in Week 9 of the 1991 season, when nationally top-ranked Rialto Eisenhower played arch-rival Fontana in a televised day game. We had a half-dozen reporters at the game, and we generated at least 15 slugs for the Sunday paper — including 10 by me. Yes, you saw that right. Ten bylines. By me. Someone should have stopped me.


But there is a sort of trap door to prep football. It is really difficult to commit yourself to it when you don’t feel invested in the community you live and work in.


I arrived in the IE from Long Beach, and during the early years I just didn’t care much about the high schools around me. Newcomers always feel that way. Nothing seems more tedious than “someone else’s” high schools.


And now … I’m back into that mode of thought.


I live again in Long Beach, which long ago ceased to be familiar to me in that on-the-ground level. I have no close relative playing high school football. And I’m away from the schools I covered for three decades, steadily losing any sense of connection with any of them. It’s almost sad, feeling my interest ebb away …but there you are.


So, anyway, I decided to go see a high school game on Friday. Not to cover it. Just to see it. See what was going on. It involved Huntington Beach High School playing J. Serra of Rancho Santa Margarita, and the son of a friend of mine was starting at running back in a spread offense that HBHS runs.


We watched for three quarters, and it was fine. But aside from pulling for my friend’s son … I had nothing invested in it. No amateur emotion, no professional obligation to readers …and when I was able to leave after three quarters — without having kept stats, mind you — I realized that I may not see many more prep football games. Like, ever. Even if I live to be 70.


That is no tragedy. The game goes on without me. No problem. Not for me, and not for the schools I no longer cover.


It’s just one of those life experiences … looking back and knowing, intellectually, that This Something once mattered to me, intensely … and now it matters so little that I often don’t notice that it doesn’t matter anymore.


11 responses so far ↓

  • 1 David Lassen // Sep 14, 2009 at 5:53 PM

    I can absolutely identify with this. I’m still doing prep football — and can say in all honesty I enjoy it as much as anything I’ve ever covered (except maybe the Olympics). It’s far less predictable than most events, there’s a lot more creativity and variety than at any other level of the game, and there’s something refreshing about events where the players think it’s a big deal to talk to a reporter.
    But I can’t imagine any circumstance in which I would go to a high school game just as a spectator. It’s fun to work, but just to watch? I have too many other interests.

  • 2 Fohian // Sep 14, 2009 at 8:18 PM

    I can honestly say that In San Bernardino County or even the Inland Empire for that matter, prep football is not what it was. A good reason for the popularity of prep football was directly linked to the exposure you gave it as sports editor at The Sun. I religiously bought The Sun because of the coverage of the games.

    I looked forward to seeing the paper in the driveway for the capsules, graphics and statistics every week. The Sun made the Daily Bulletin and Press Enterprise’s coverage better. Even the LA Times put out a local edition with decent prep football coverage because I suppose they saw the market in the area.

    It’s ironic that you write this at this time because I just watched last Friday night a rarity these days. The Fontana High School Steelers won a game against Pacific High. Even more rare was it was a blowout. It was probably the best game they have played in at least 6 years. As opposed to the years you were there, where not only the Sun but the then separately owned Daily Bulletin would jump at the chance to cover Fohi, there was not a blip of coverage of Fohi’s rare win in either paper. Fohi owned the papers as recently as the late nineties but even the Pacific Pirates warranted at least some coverage. Not anymore.

    I can’t see how these papers expect to stay afloat when they don’t cover what their core audience wants. Sure, the kids are on the internet but their are a lot of adults who follow the local teams. It has waned because the local papers have lost their passion. I’ve maintained mine now for 40 years.

    Where have all the passionate sports editors gone? Even Louie Brewster seems to be handcuffed and I’m fairly sure he is a Fontana High graduate.

    A sincere thanks to you and your superb staff for nurturing prep football and for making it special. Your love for it was evident.

  • 3 Ian // Sep 15, 2009 at 5:52 AM

    I still have prep football Friday flashbacks. In SB when I was there, we covered what? 12 games on a Friday? Plus Dogs, Angels and college previews?

    When I moved to Sacramento, the sports copy chief at The Bee told me the first night, “man, prep football Friday is hell here.” They covered MAYBE 4 games, all by staffers, not stringers (I’m looking at you, Jack), and didn’t worry about chasing in all the scores.

    It was the best and worst night of the week all in one. And now I barely remember the adrenaline rush.

    Writers, 10 minutes!

  • 4 Chuck HIckey // Sep 15, 2009 at 9:27 AM

    The Friday night madness was just that — madness. Not only did we cover all of the games, but we zoned four ways — desert/mountains, West end, East end, city. It was a huge adrenaline rush — then you had to get yourself back up to put out a big Sunday paper.

    One of my favorite memories was in 2000. And you decided to do a prep follow-up. And you did, the usual 40 inches or so (with rankings, which we had just started, if I remember correctly). Oh, and you did it from the Sydney Olympics. Now THAT was madness.

  • 5 Steve Dilbeck // Sep 15, 2009 at 10:55 AM

    Like many things we once covered, that was a golden era for the Citrus Belt League. Some of my favorite memories of working at The Sun for 19 years, was high school football. I can still feel the hits.

    And you should have stayed for the entire game Friday. Jack scored a second TD and ended up with 142 rushing yards and 47 passing. Such a proud papa.

    Fittingly, though, mention of him in the blowout loss made the final graph of The Register’s web story … but was cut in the paper.

  • 6 dick bruich // Sep 16, 2009 at 8:51 AM

    Yes those were the days.Could not wait to read the paper to see if you misquoted or didn”t get the facts straight.Very seldom happened you were very factual and some days we wanted to attack you but you helped make the Fohi program what it was and the Kaiser program where it is today for this I say thank you. I hope you consider me a friend as I do you. I agree last week I went to football games and it wasn’t the same

  • 7 Dennis Pope // Sep 16, 2009 at 11:37 AM

    Call me uncultured but Friday nights at The Sun were simply the most fun I’ve ever had while working. All the bizarre-ly hilarious stringers (Cohen, Curran, Summers), the editors with spinning heads (Chuck), the phone ringing off the hook (Smoking Lady, Stockton Cal League guy, Colton Ladies GC) …

    I had a lot of fun. Thanks, Paul.

  • 8 Ian // Sep 17, 2009 at 5:52 AM

    I was talking with someone earlier this week who broke into Mikey’s “Prep football night in America” song. I fell down laughing.

  • 9 Chuck HIckey // Sep 18, 2009 at 8:36 AM

    There was a cast of characters in there every Friday night. Dem were the days.

  • 10 Bill N. // Sep 18, 2009 at 7:30 PM

    Tell ya, miss being out at the games, but not in the office. My last year in sports was stuck in the office having to oversee the stringers coming back to the DB offices and making sure the paper got out in time. Not nearly as much fun as going out to the games and having the adreniline rush of getting back to the office to write my say (farthest drive: Banning back to Ontario).

    I spent three of the last five years out at games again, but with a rooting interest, watching my nephew grow up. It was nice to sit and watch the games and enjoy the nights. There was no stress of having to call or write or anything. We got to enjoy some time afterwards without having to write about it.

  • 11 George Alfano // Sep 21, 2009 at 10:17 PM

    I remember coming out here from New Jersey in 1992 and covering a Fontana vs. Ike game in either 92 or 93. I was amazed at the high quality of play. I also remember a Redlands at Fontana game that Fontana won by three during the 90s. It was one of the most incredable games I had ever seen at any level..

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