Pacers 4 life
Grant Union High School’s football team pulled strength from coaches, parents, cheerleaders, students—and a neighborhood both troubled and fiercely loyal.
With just a few minutes left in the game, Grant Union High School football stars Devontae Butler and Glenn Deary—best friends since childhood—watched the action from the bench, happy, relaxed even, as nearby cheerleaders snapped pompoms, and fans, ready to escape the frosty 53-degree temperature, started to drift toward the exits.
It was, by all accounts, a rout over their opponents, Lodi’s Tokay High School Tigers, 65-0. Still, even as his marquee players rested, coach Mike Alberghini paced the sidelines, watching his team close the first round of the playoffs. He appeared tense, unable to let out a full breath until the last seconds finally ticked away and the scoreboard finally froze the win, recording it into the history books.
The late November match marked the first playoff game since Grant Union High School took home the California Interscholastic Federation championship last December. Then, players from one of Sacramento’s grittiest neighborhoods persevered, 25-20 over Long Beach Polytechnic High School, a team considered by many to be the best in the nation.
It was a sweet victory—the first state bowl win ever for any Sacramento-area high-school football team—and in the days after, there were parades and rallies and smiling politicians heaping praise on the Del Paso Heights-based team. Everybody wanted a piece of the action; everyone wanted to be, as the blue-and-gold T-shirts proudly proclaimed, a Pacer 4 Life.
But if some hoped the school’s 2008 championship would change outside perceptions of Grant as a place with low school spirit, middling academic achievement and high crime, others wondered if football could actually improve the athletes’ chances for success in the outside world. It’s a tricky road from high school to college football and NFL success—one on which many of the school’s former star players have found infamy instead of glory.
The Pacers have never been the underdogs, at least not on the football field. But with the school’s character at stake, Grant relies on an entire community—football players, coaches, cheerleaders, parents, the rest of the student body and the entire Del Paso Heights neighborhood—not just to excel, but to survive.
And so, on a recent November night, coach Alberghini still faced pressing concerns.
Yes, his team had sailed through its first 2009 playoff match with ease. But this was no time to take the eye off the prize—a chance at this year’s title—and no time to be soft on another chance for his players’ success, on or off the gridiron.
A compact man with sparkling blue eyes, Alberghini towered above his players who had gathered on the field after the game and were now engaged in the usual post-game custom, bent down on one knee, listening and intent.
“I just want you to know that I’m very proud of you, proud of everything you accomplished,” he said. “You played a great game tonight, you played a great team—but we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us, a lot of film to watch. A lot of practicing ahead of us.”
With that, he let the players go.
“Tell their families we’ll have ’em Thanksgiving morning,” Alberghini told an assistant before allowing himself a moment of relief.
As a fan congratulated him on the blowout, Alberghini finally sounded happy, boastful even.
“Thanks,” he said, chuckling, “but that wasn’t much of a game at all.”Opportunities found
The 2008 State Football Championship Bowl was just one stop in Alberghini’s long haul with the team. His tenure as the varsity team’s head coach spans 19 years and 19 playoff runs. By many accounts, the Pacers should’ve won the 2006 state title, too, but the CIF chooses which teams play in the bowl, picking from division winners, and that year, the organization sent Concord’s De La Salle High School to the championship round instead.
The coach doesn’t look at 2006 as an opportunity lost. Instead, he said, the 2008 victory in Southern California, cheered on by busloads of excited family, friends and fans, was just a way of publicly proving to the rest of the state that his school consistently turns out some of the state’s best football players.
“We did a good job and we won,” Alberghini said. “It was nice to get that opportunity, and now it’s opened more opportunities.”
Here, football is opportunity.
The sport is big here—huge in a way that translates beyond touchdowns and rushing statistics, big in a way that equals community pride and college scholarships, a stepping stone to a better life and, more importantly, some say, a means to giving back to the neighborhood, giving back to the school.
But is it enough?
Walking through the stands at a Grant Union High School football game, it’s hard not to notice the gang-unit officers patrolling the concourse or the way police nervously joke with each other—“I hope those were firecrackers, not gunshots.”
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that some question if Pacers’ football actually improves the school’s reputation.
Teyler Mosley, captain of the cheerleaders’ song leader division, believes Grant’s win drew “wannabe Pacers” out of the woodwork but did little to dispel misconceptions about the school as a violent, dangerous place.
“I’ve had cousins who’ve said, ‘Oh, Grant is bad; oh, Grant isn’t going to make it,” she said. “Then we won and they decided to go out and buy a Grant sweatshirt—it’s like, you never supported us before, you doubted us, but now you want to be a part of the glory.”
Mosley, a 16-year-old junior with a 3.7 grade-point average and plans to become a lawyer, knows what many think about her school: that it’s fraught with violence and gangs and drugs, that it’s a dangerous place to be, that, stacked up next to schools from wealthier communities such as Granite Bay and Folsom, football is its only saving grace.
“More people believe in our football team since we won [the title], but nothing else has changed. If anything, it’s gotten worse,” she said. “They think that just because this is an urban community that we won’t get very far, that we won’t make it.”
“People want to go here because of football,” added Nykchasia Scott, a 15-year-old cheerleader with wide brown eyes and lightly freckled skin. “They don’t recognize that there are other good things about Grant, too.”
“It will always be like that, even if we go to state every year,” Mosley said. “We’re an urban school and that’s just how it works.”Friday night lights
Those who turn out for games during the season, braving the chill, know the real Grant Union High School.
The expectation for glory is thick in the air on any given Friday night when Grant’s stadium lights shine bright, beacons against Del Paso Heights’ dark, wintry sky. The season starts in September, and on countless Friday nights through December, you can hear the marching band’s drumbeats, the cheerleading squad’s call to action and the roar of the crowd from blocks away.
Pacers—past and present—gather here for every home game to root on their team with handmade banners and colorful team gear. Everything is blue and gold—the blue knit stocking caps, the oversized sweatshirts, the face paint and towering, Midas-touch mohawks.
Built in the 1930s, the stadium was updated in 2004 with voter-approved funds. Now, the field’s evergreen AstroTurf field and gleaming red track shine like a jewel in a neighborhood where the median household income is less than $40,000, and the nearby avenues are dotted with liquor stores and check-cashing counters, dollar discount outlets and tiny churches shrouded by cold, metal cyclone fences.
Patricia Smith wants quarterback Glenn Deary to leave it all behind; she thinks about it every time she watches her son on the field. She hopes he will use his prodigious high-school football career to forge a path right out of the neighborhood where his family has lived for generations.
“I went to Grant, my mother went to Grant, my grandmother worked here as a hall monitor,” said Smith, a petite woman with her hair pulled up in a high ponytail.
While watching the team’s second-round playoff game against the Fairfield High School Falcons, Smith said she prefers to sit alone at the games; she gets nervous watching her son play.
Her son is smart, she said, but she knows football just might be the best chance he has to start a better life. Earlier this season, ESPN highlighted one of Deary’s plays on TV—a crafty quarterback sneak executed against Oak Ridge High School—and now Smith would like him to compete in college, maybe the NFL, too.
But, she stressed, getting a college degree is just as important. To that end, she often worries that the school isn’t prepping him for life off the field.
“Grant’s given him great opportunities as far as playing sports is concerned,” said Smith. “I graduated from Grant in 1986 and, to be honest, I’ve seen a lot of changes here, but [the coaching staff] still needs to reach out and show the players about sportsmanship, about being independent.”
The line between high school and college isn’t always a straight one, Smith said, and navigating it is difficult for parents and students alike. Financial aid applications, SAT tests, tips on how to survive once you sign up for that first college class—for the unprepared, emotionally immature student, the path can turn into a walking minefield.
It’s even harder, she said, for students already at a disadvantage. Like many of his peers at Grant, Glenn Deary’s endured a tough adolescence. His father is currently in prison, sentenced on drug-trafficking charges. In early 2007, Deary’s 18-year-old brother Arnold Butler was stabbed to death by an acquaintance.
“I know [Arnold’s death] hurts him,” Smith said, looking out at her son on the football field. “I tell him, your brother wants you to play. But it’s so hard for him, not having him [Arnold] around to talk to.”
Smith, a single mother who supports her three children by working at Tapers Barber Shop & Salon in Oak Park, said she’s always tried to motivate her son to excel.
When his GPA hovered near 2.6—perfectly acceptable for sports—Smith pushed him to improve his grades to earn a college scholarship, and he now boasts a 3.6. When Deary started his senior year in high school and contemplated his role on the team, Smith encouraged him to take a leadership position.
“I pushed him to be the team quarterback because when you’re the quarterback you carry the load—on and off the field.”
On the field, Glenn Deary, 5 feet 10 inches and 165 pounds, is wiry and quick—a muscled offensive powerhouse, assured and decisive. Off the field, Deary, anointed Grant’s 2009 homecoming king, is quiet and polite but no less assured, no less decisive.
When he talks about his future, Deary speaks with a seriousness that belies his 17 years. He knows the odds are, historically at least, stacked against him, but he refuses to go down easy—all those hardships, his brother’s murder in particular, give him an even greater sense of purpose.
“Losing my brother gave me focus [because] I know one of my mother’s biggest fears is that I won’t succeed,” he said.
Deary relies on his family, especially his 19-year-old brother Rashid Deary, to stay on track.
“My dad wasn’t around, but [Rashid] tells me that just because you don’t have a father doesn’t mean you can’t make it.”
Deary also looks to his best friend and teammate Devontae Butler for support. The two have known each other since they were 6 and now talk of attending the same college and, hopefully, continuing to play football together.
“That’s serious thinking; it’s something we want to do,” said Deary, who plans to major in business or communications. “We’ve always hung out together, played together and given advice to each other.”
Butler said he relies just as much on Deary.
“He’s always been there for me,” Butler said of his friend. “We do everything together, on the field and off the field. If he makes a bad play, I help him keep his composure—and just the same with me, he tells me to keep my head up.”Family ties
With deep-set eyes and a solid build, Devontae Butler is an explosive force on the field, snaking in and out of defensive lines, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him bullet of dynamic force. Despite a knee injury earlier this fall, the 17-year-old running back’s enjoyed a prolific season; during the Falcons game alone, he rushed for 292 yards and scored six touchdowns.
Once the pads and helmet come off, however, the rocketlike energy softens into a quiet shyness, a modest confidence. While each game is a step toward another potential championship, this season Butler has also set his sights on a bigger, personal goal: beating Grant High alum Onterrio Smith’s record for rushing 3,500 yards and scoring 55 touchdowns.
But it’s not just about besting Smith’s record, it’s also about beating his stigma.
At first, Smith—one of Grant’s most heavily recruited players ever—seemed to have it all when he graduated in 1999. The running back played two promising seasons with the University of Oregon, where he rushed for a record 2,199 yards and 19 touchdowns and was named the team’s most valuable player.
The Minnesota Vikings drafted Smith in 2003, but although he started strong, setting a rookie single-game rushing record, logging 148 yards against Chicago, the downfall was quick and hard. In 2005, police detained Smith at a Minnesota airport for carrying dried urine as well as a device used to beat drug tests; the NFL eventually suspended him from the league, citing numerous substance-abuse violations, and in 2006, the Canadian Football League cut him for similar violations.
Even now, despite public vows to clean up, Smith’s troubles continue. In October, the Nevada County sheriff jailed the former sports star after a car in which he was a passenger was pulled over for speeding near Truckee. The driver was arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence, and Smith was arrested on an outstanding warrant for drug-possession charges.
Now, Butler says he thinks a lot about Smith’s problems.
The goal, he said, is simple: Don’t screw up any opportunities.
“I want to play in the NFL—I want to go pro. I don’t want to be the player who does stupid stuff—that’s what motivates me.”
For the athlete, raised in Del Paso Heights, that often means avoiding certain people on the streets, at school.
“Growing up in this neighborhood, there’s been a lot of trouble, a lot of things happening,” he said.
“Friends getting shot, people going to jail. There are a lot of people who want you to go down a different path. I just try to stay clean.”
Butler’s parents are there to help him stay on track. At school, the athlete uses his mother Francis’ last name, but on the field, his No. 1 jersey throws a nod to his dad, Ronnie Booker.
Booker, who, along with Butler’s mom and older brothers, shows up to cheer on his son on at every game, realizes the obstacles his son might face once he leaves Grant’s campus.
Everyone in the neighborhood knows the potential troubles, Booker said; it’s what they talk about at school meetings, at each other’s houses, down at the barbershop.
Smith is just one on a short but high-profile list of fallen Pacers. Other infamous names include Smith’s classmate and the 1998 California Player of the Year Donté Stallworth, who played for the New Orleans Saints and Cleveland Browns before being suspended by the NFL earlier this year after pleading guilty to DUI manslaughter charges in Florida. Then there’s Tommy Hall, a star player in the 2001 season, convicted last month of second-degree murder in a suspected gang-related drive-by shooting. On Monday, a Sacramento Superior Court judge gave him 21-years-to-life for the 2005 shooting death of Donikos Kentrell Jones, who also played football for Grant.
“Grant High School has the most successful football program around, but I tell Devontae, ‘You’re always going to have these outside influences,” Booker said. “I tell him, ‘Here, you’re considered the man on the football team, but go to college and you’re not the big man on campus anymore—there will be kids who are bigger and stronger and faster.’”
Booker, a counselor with Sacramento County Child Protective Services, is proud of how his son has raised his GPA to a 2.6, proud that he’ll take the SAT on the same day he competes in a playoff game against Rocklin High School, proud that his son talks of majoring in business and maybe starting his own some day.
Devontae, Booker added, has it harder than he did as a teen growing up in the neighborhood. Booker graduated from Grant Union High School in 1976 and joined the military, but eventually returned to Del Paso Heights, because it’s home.
“It’s a much more difficult neighborhood to navigate now,” he said. “There were no gangs then, no peer pressure—you didn’t have to worry about drive-bys or wearing the wrong colors.”
Despite the challenges and the troubling changes over the years, Booker added, there’s at least one constant at Grant, a backbone that holds the students to the straight and narrow. In a place where football is the community, Booker said, a man like coach Alberghini deserves credit for keeping students focused.
“I love coach Alberghini,” said Booker. “He talks to those kids and they respect him. That’s important, because you’re talking about kids who feel like there’s no opportunity for anything else.”Haves and have-nots
Coach Alberghini has worked at Grant Union High School for the better part of 41 years. He started his career at the school coaching baseball before moving on to football. He’s been the head varsity coach since 1991, taking his teams to the playoffs every year since.
Born in Connecticut and raised in Sacramento, Alberghini said he wouldn’t dream of working anywhere else, even if others hold on to skewed ideas about his school.
“We’ve always had this us-against-the-world attitude—we pride ourselves on the fact that people have misconceptions about our school and our community, when in fact the people here are great.”
The idea of Grant as being a school where the students are at a disadvantage compared to other schools is, he said, wrong.
“This is a tough neighborhood at night because of a few people … [and] I think people perceive low-income, high-diversity, cultural areas as problematic because they don’t know anything about the people there,” he said. “But we’re a low-income school that isn’t a have-not. We have great supporters and a great family atmosphere.”
Still, he admitted, it’s sometimes difficult to ignore the bad press brought on by those troubled Grant alumni.
“The [stories] that stick out, the ones you hear about are the ones about the players who’ve made mistakes; that’s what makes the news.”
It’s difficult for him because he coached those players, sent them off to college and pro teams; in the end, Alberghini said, he tries to use those stumbles as lessons learned.
“There are kids in the community who made mistakes; you tell them life is full of challenges and how you handle those choices is going to be a lesson in life,” he said.
“I tell them you can be on top of the world one day, and then something major can happen, and you suffer the consequences.”
Patricia Smith worries that school isn’t doing enough to teach this particular lesson. Lately, she said, it’s been overwhelming, trying to figure the ins and outs of getting her son out of high school and into college.
“When it comes down to it, [the students] don’t have a good way to prepare to do what they need to in college,” she said. “We’re six months away from getting them into college; we need to tell [the coaches], ‘Can you help us? Can you tell us what to do?’”
Smith said she’s prepared to do more than just complain, however. She’s now trying to mobilize other parents into action.
“We need to honor the kids, we need to get them into college, we need to keep them in college.”
Principal Craig Murray believes Grant’s improving academic results should alleviate such fears. The school, founded in 1932, is now part of the Twin Rivers Unified School District, which formed in 2007 after voters approved a measure to consolidate four separate districts with the purpose of cutting class sizes while boosting test scores.
And the numbers are going up. Grant’s Academic Performance Index rises each year—it’s currently 620—lower than schools such as C.K. McClatchy High School (757) or Granite Bay High School (840), but nonetheless up from the years when it lingered down in the 400s.
“The scores keep going up,” said Murray. “If you look at the numbers, you’ll see constant improvement.”
Of course, numbers don’t tell the whole story, the only story.
For song leader captain Teyler Mosley, Grant Union High School is more than the sum of its parts. It’s a place where student pride and faculty commitment add up to potential.
“A school is a school. There’s violence everywhere—all those things that people just think happen at Grant, they happen everywhere. They bring guns and knives to Granite Bay, too,” she said.
“[But] this is a family-oriented school. The teachers are willing to help you out—to bend over backwards to get into college. I don’t care how much money we have. I wouldn’t want to go anywhere else.”
In the end, Deary hopes football’s not the only reason people know his school’s name, that it’s not Del Paso Heights’ only defining characteristic.
Growing up here, he explained, has given him a sense of purpose. He wants to get out of the neighborhood; he wants to escape the violence and the pressure.
Although the perception that this is a tough place to live isn’t altogether unfair, there must be more, more than just the drugs and the violence, more than the murders and the gangs and the fallen sports stars.
“Grant is judged by its sports and not so much its education; the more people we send off to college, the better,” Deary said. “They say most people don’t make it out of here, and that’s true—most people come back and don’t go to college.”
For the star quarterback, leaving home doesn’t mean leaving it all behind.
“I want to go and stay away from the neighborhood, but I also want to give back,” Deary said.
“I want to show others that there is a way out.”Endgame
And then it all comes down to this.
With just three seconds left in last Friday night’s game, the entire Grant Union High School football team held its breath as its kicker attempted a 3-point play to put the team on top by a 2-point margin.
It had been, by all accounts, a difficult game against Rocklin High School’s Thunder. Even here at Folsom High School, neutral territory, little seemed to be going right for the Pacers, and by halftime, the score was 21-6, Rocklin.
The Pacers came out strong in the second half, pulling off a handful of crucial plays and, even better, holding Rocklin scoreless, but it wasn’t enough, and now coach Alberghini paced the sidelines as fans roared their support.
For a moment the kick looked good, the Pacers jumped, pumping fists in exhilaration.
And then the referee waved it off; the ball, he ruled, had sunk just a little to left, and that razor-thin difference decided everything. The scoreboard clock reset to zero. Rocklin had won.
Now the Pacers’ season was finally over.
No more playoff games, no more shots at the championship—not this season, at least. For some seniors, those who don’t have the recruiters calling, those who won’t go to college, this was it.
The emotion was palpable, fresh. Tears streamed down faces; the kicker knelt and placed his forehead on the AstroTurf. Another player threw down his helmet in anger.
Coach Alberghini stormed the field.
“Take a knee!” he ordered, towering above them. The team huddled and knelt.
“I’m never going to forget how hard we played—our backs were against the wall and we showed them.”
In the distance, the Rocklin team celebrated its win, noisily and joyfully.
“They deserve the glory tonight,” Alberghini said. “Walk out of here head up, and let’s just be damn proud of what we accomplished.”
Devontae Butler stood and broke free from the huddle. He smiled ruefully.
“We played good,” he said quietly. “It came down to one play.”
Was he worried—would Grant’s first loss in 27 games change anything for him, for Glenn Deary?
“No, no, it doesn’t mean anything,” he said, shaking his head, watching as his teammates slowly walked off the field.
“It’s just one game.”