In small towns in Texas, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, high school football is a civic event. On Friday nights, in autumn, the whole town gathers in the floodlit mist of the local stadium and roots for its team. The tradition ties generations together. Quarterbacks, cheerleaders, and tuba players of years past come out to see today’s versions. Others come out to the games to support the team and socialize with friends in the stands as they did when they were students. The football coach, by virtue of his position, is a respected citizen in the town, and the players are treated like heroes.
But San Diego is not a small town. High School football competes with more glamorous forms of Friday-night entertainment. And some inner-city schools don’t even play on Friday nights, a move designed to reduce fighting amongst partisans. They play on Saturday. Unfortunately that’s a time when football fans are watching college ball on TV. Still, there are places in the county where people watch high school games. I saw a Torrey Pines/Carlsbad game in ’97, played in front of a large crowd. I’ve heard that the town of Ramona turns out for games. And in La Mesa, Helix High School enjoys big home crowds.
Though I live in Crawford High School’s district, I adopted Helix as my home team because their campus is closer to my house and they usually have a better team. I followed the Helix highlanders, in particular senior starting center David Berg, through their ’98 season, attending all their home games and a few away games.
I first meet David Berg after Thursday afternoon practice, the day before their opening game against Patrick Henry High School. In his pads, Berg is an imposing, almost colossal figure. At 6’3, 280 pounds, his thighs are the diameter of telephone poles. Massive forearms, and hands — not cut and defined in the freakish manner of body builders but just plain big—hung by his side. His midsection shows the ample gut of a young man who likes to eat. A thick neck and large, buzz-cut head rise above his shoulder pads. This is the kind of guy you wouldn’t want walking toward you in a dark alley, that is, until you see his face, which radiates kindness and friendliness. He and I sit on the steps of a classroom building near the football field to talk. The smell of fresh grass stains and sweat on his uniform fill my head with memories of my own playing days.
Asked why he choose football, Berg answers, “Well, when I was in Pop Warner as a kid, I was always too big. When I was 8, I had to be with the 12-year-olds, and they had been playing for years and years. So I was a little timid about that. I didn’t want to be going against a bunch of 12-year-olds as a 8-year-old. So when I got to Helix, I was real excited about playing football because it didn’t matter how big I was, in fact, it was an advantage to be big. Now I play because I just enjoy football. I love the hitting. There is a mental block at the beginning, when you first start playing. But, once you get over it, you just want to hit.”
For the football illiterate, the center—Berg’s position—is the guy who snaps (hikes) the ball to the quarterback to start every play, It’s not a glamorous position, but it’s arguably the most important on the field because if the exchange from center to quarterback is bad, the whole play will be bad, maybe disastrous. And it’s not easy to successfully snap a football with a 250-pound noseguard in your face. But nobody gives the center credit for doing it well, only grief for doing it badly. I ask Berg why he chose that position. “I didn’t,” he says, “When I first played, I wanted to be on defense. I wanted to make the big tackles and have my name announced. But during my freshmen year the coach said, ‘We’re thinking about putting you at center,’ I said, ‘All right.’ But I wasn’t starting. I’d get to play two or three plays at the end of a game to kill the clock. I thought, ‘This is crap,’ I started working harder, doing more hitting. Pretty soon I was playing more and more in games, and then I began to start games. I started on JV my sophomore year, I started lasted on varsity as a junior and this year the coaches told me the starting job was mine to lose. That doesn’t mean I don’t have to work to keep it. Last year I got a little cocky. I started to think, ‘I’m always going to be starting. I don’t have to worry about it.’ Then Art McCoy who’s my backup, started to catch up to me because I was slacking off. He wants to play just like I do. So I stopped taking it for granted that I would start.”
Ever think about quitting?
Berg stares at the grassy quad in front of us, “The only time I have ever thought about quitting was when my mom wasn’t here, when she went up to Toronto. She didn’t abandon me. It’s just that she likes it up there so much better, and after all the years she helped me out, I felt she deserved to be happy so I told her she should go. Since my mom moved up there, I’ve been living with my grandparents, who have been extremely helpful in my time of need. They’ve been wonderful. But during this past summer, I was going to go visit my mom up there and I might have stayed up there, I might have. My mom and I are very close and I wanted to be there with her. It came down to whether my mom could afford me up there or not and I had to go check it out and I didn’t think she could, so I came back and I am still living with my grandparents. But that was the only time I considered quitting football. Coach Arnaiz, the head coach, was very helpful during that time. He told me to take the time I needed to make the decision.”
The ’98 season was Jim Arnaiz’s 26th as head coach of the Helix High football team. His team has won three California Interscholastic Federation, CIF, championships and been runners up twice in the past 20 years, only the ’84 team missed the play-offs — and they lost only two games. David Berg’s assessment of his coach: “Coach Arnaiz is very calm and steady. I’ve only head him cuss twice. Once was during the Valhalla game last year, and the seniors were saying, ‘I’ve never heard him cuss.’ He doesn’t yell a lot. He’s professional but not impersonal, and the guys seem to respond to that. I guess it’s because you always know where you stand with him. I think that’s a big reason he’s been so successful.”
Tomorrow’s first round opponent is Patrick Henry, a team that didn’t lose a game last year until the CIF Championship. One of their victories was over Helix. Berg remembers, “I had to block Ken Koker, who was on the UT’s [Union Tribune’s] 100 all-time best high school players list. He was their all-time best defensive player, an amazing player, huge and quick. He was throwing me left and right. The most amazing thing about him was his pursuit. I’d block him and think I had him out of the play, but he would still manage to get in on the tackle. Thankfully, he’s not there anymore. But there’s a big guy, #78 that the coaches have been telling me about. I’ve seen him on film and he looks pretty good.”
Friday, September 11, 7:30 p.m — Helix at Patrick Henry
The Patrick Henry Patriots compete in the City Conference’s Eastern League. I don’t attend the game at their San Carlos campus, which ends in a 14-14 tie, but I call Berg Saturday night to talk about it. “I played really badly,” He confesses. “That 78 was good, and he was as big as Koker. Every time I came off the field I got yelled at. If I were to grade myself for the game, it would be a C- or a D.
What about the defense?
“B. They did a good job, especially considering it was a patchwork unit. Guys kept cramping up and having to come off the field.”
“C or C-, because we on the offensive line made a lot of mental errors. That killed us.”
Before hanging up, Berg tells me, “I hate ties. I almost prefer losing to tying. At least when you lose you know how to feel. When you tie, you don’t know whether to be happy, sad, or what.”
Friday, September 18, 7:30 p.m.—Grossmont at Helix
It’s the Highlanders’ home opener and my first game watching my adopted home team. As a bonus Grossmont is Helix’s traditional arch rival. Grossmont was La Mesa’s first high school. But in 1951, as the city grew, Helix High School was built and a crosstown feud was born. However, from what Berg tells me, it hasn’t been much of rivalry of late. The Musket, which goes to the winner of the game, has been gathering dust in the Helix library since 1979. Also, the two schools are in different leagues, Grossmont in the Grossmont North League, Helix in the Grossmont South League, so not much is riding on the game.
Benton Hart Stadium is a typical high school football venue, a field of sub-par grass encircled by a dirt track. On one side, the home stands and the press box are built into a hillside. On the other, freestanding aluminum bleachers for the visitors occupy the space between the sideline and the track. The result is that the home crowd has more room but a worse view of the game.
On the track in front of the home stands, cheerleaders arrange their hand-painted mega phones and pom-poms. The Helix mascot, a bipedal Scottish terrier, “Scottie,” wearing a Helix jersey, #00, cavorts with the crowd. On a four-foot fence between the track and the field, paper signs urge the crowd to pump up the noise and warn Helix in the House and Helix on Fire, the “house” and “fire” in pictorial form.
Before the game, Helix storms onto the field decked in white pants with green leg stripes, green jerseys with white numbers, and white helmets. Their helmet decal is the head of a rabid-looking Scottish terrier wearing a spiked collar. On the other end of the field, the Grossmont Foothillers warm up in yellow pants, white shirts, and royal blue helmets.
Grossmont scores the first and last touchdown of the game on runs by junior running back, David Vindiola. But in between, Helix scores four touchdowns plus a field goal. The game ends 30-12 Helix, while the home crowd chants “Musket...Musket.”
After the playing of the alma mater by the huge Helix band—the man on the public address system says they’re the “Nickelodeon TV Land Band of the Year” — the team gathers at one end of the field in tight lines and does jumping jacks, slapping their thigh pads in unison. Then they break and head for the locker room. I walk down and meet Berg on the field.
His helmet is off and steam rises from his shorn head. A victorious grin is on his face. “Thanks,” he says when I congratulate him. “I don’t know if you noticed, but Terron — our quarterback, Terron Franklin — and I were having trouble with the snap. I was holding the ball a little flat and it wasn’t getting up there far enough. I told coach what was going on and he said ‘I don’t care, you guys work it out.’”
How would you grade your performance this week?
“I’d give myself a B+. I had a good game, but I did have that trouble snapping. The whole offense, I give us a B/B+. They shut them down all game but let up the touchdown at the end.”
Friday, September 25, 7:30 p.m.—El Camino at Helix
This is an interesting matchup for a couple of reasons. First, it’s a North County power, Oceanside’s El Camino, versus an East County power, Helix. Second, it’s a battle between elder statesmen coaches Jim Arnaiz and Herb Meyer of El Camino. They have a combined 49 years of coaching at their respective schools and 493 wins between them.
Before the game, the starting El Camino defense is announced, followed by the starting offense for Helix. When David Berg’s name is called, some kid behind me yells, “Berg is fat!” The Highlanders are in their home greens while the Wildcats, who play in the Avocado League, sport brown helmets and white jerseys with brown trim.
The game is exciting, featuring several lead changes and long runs by Helix’s senior quarterback, Terron Franklin, and senior running back, Ron Lidrazzah. With Helix up 23-20 with two minutes to go, El Camino drives down to the Highlander’s 10-yard line. But after their quarterback is sacked on the third down with only a few seconds left, they kick a field goal to the tie the game at its final score of 23-23.
Afterward, Berg echoes the feeling he had following the Henry game. “I hat ties. I’d rather lose. At least you know how to feel when you try hard and lose.”
“I was having trouble last week with my snaps,” he tells me as we walk toward the locker room. “Well, last year, I had a style of snapping where I put the ball flat on the ground. Last week, I was tipping it up and having some problems. This week I kept it flat again and I had no problems.”
What about that missed snap?
“Well, what happened there was the ball was so wet that it slipped out of my hands before I could even get it off the ground. It slipped, hit the quarterback’s foot, and jumped forward through my legs. I didn’t even see it, I heard ‘Fumble!’ I knew when I snapped it that it wasn’t going to get there, so I just drive-blocked so nobody could get it. But it bounced back, they got it.”
Taking a seat on a bench outside the locker room, Berg continues his postgame report. “Number 44 and I had something going on. He started to complain that I was holding him, but that’s just the passing block style that we have. It’s not holding if your feet are flat and you’re level with the guy. He was coming up the field, and I’d go boom, like this,” he makes a tow-handed punching gesture. “He said I was holding when I was doing that. After one play, he pulls my face mask down and starts yelling, ‘He’s holding me, Ref!’ I said, ‘You’re the one that pulled my frickin’ face mask down.’ He starts talking all this shit and I told him, ‘Fine, dude. You want play this way, fine with me.’ Next play was a pass play, and as soon as he showed his face, I took both my hands and shoved them in his face mask. I could see him stagger back. Then I put my hands on his shoulders and started running him backwards. He was really pissed after that.”
I saw you hit some linebackers pretty hard too.
Berg’s face lights up. “Oh yeah! In that last drive. The one backer, #4, was trying to read Ronnie, you could tell because he would always flow to Ronnie’s side. On sweeps, we were getting him because when I was going to the left, he would go to the right because he would see Ronnie go there. One play, he didn’t even see me coming. I just tipped his shoulders over and slammed him into the ground. Then Jason ran behind me for a nice gain.”
“Personally, B+ to a A-, I started out a little rocky, but then I just started beating the shit out of guys. I wasn’t perfect, so I can’t give myself an A, but I did pretty well toward the end. Offense. B. We had a rocky start. But after the third quarter, we started running it down their throats and they couldn’t do anything to stop us. Defense…”
Before Berg gives the defense grade, the team’s defensive coordinator, Rick Ash walks up. ‘Hey Coach Ash, way to hold them at the end there on defense.”
Coach Ash answers in the rapid-fire, pseudo-Southern coach talk that football coaches, if they aren’t born with it, acquire over time. “Well guys, wish we woulda made one more play. But we’ll get ‘em next week, huh?”
‘Defense,” Berg continues, “I’d have to give them a B. They were solid the entire game. Even if they let them score that late field goal, they did everything within their power to try to stop them.”
Saturday October 3, 3:00 p.m.—Helix at Point Loma
Point Loma, an Eastern League school, plays its home games on Saturday. The Pointers, after being down 29-7 at one point, come back to beat the Highlanders 30-29. I talk to Berg on the phone the following Monday.
“Personally, I had a great game. I liked playing in the day-time and I liked the salt air. I felt good. We should have won, after leading by 22, and I’m disappointed about that. But, I’m not going to get down on myself about this game. I was down on myself after the Henry game because I got my ass handed to me by that big 78. I had a good game this week, but it takes a whole team to win.”
Friday, October 9, 7:30 p.m. — Santana at Helix
It’s homecoming, there are a lot of old, ill-fitting letterman jackets in the home stands tonight. At the east end of the field, by the scoreboard, a four beacon searchlight plays on the night sky, beckoning Highlanders of old back to their alma mater to see today’s Scotties — Helix’s informal nickname — take on the Sultans of Santee’s Santana High School, who play in the North League.
On the field, the Sultans, sporting purple helmets, white shirts, and purple pants, score two first-half touchdowns. Helix scores six, and at the halftime the score is 38-12.
In the second half, Santana’s junior quarterback, D.J. Busch, comes out throwing. He’s got a strong and accurate arm. It doesn’t translate into points, however. Helix, meanwhile, scores on junior running back Jason Van’s 85-yard touchdown run. Before the clock mercifully runs out the game, the man on the public address system — who has been annoying me all night with the pidgin Spanish phrase “Third down and mucho grande” — announces that anyone who doesn’t want to see the postgame fireworks should leave before the end of the game, as nobody will be allowed to leave during the fireworks. A word to the wise….
Friday October 16, 7:30 p.m. — Monte Vista at Helix
This is Helix’s first league game, and it’s against the team Berg says has replaced Grossmont as their arch rival, the Monte Vista Monarchs from Spring Valley. Helix has had the upper hand in the annual games between the two schools, but the Monarchs have won three of the last four, including last year’s game. This game usually determines the Grossmont South champion. Large crowds are on hand tonight on both the home and visitors sides.
Helix is in their usual home green jerseys but instead of the white pants, they’re in solid black. Monte Vista wears crimson helmets and pants and white jerseys. On the field the teams are evenly matched in size, speed, and talent. After a scoreless first quarter, Jason Van dazzles the crowd with a 38-yard touchdown run, and Helix goes up 7-0 early in the second. But Monte Vista answers with a 50-yard touchdown sprint by junior running back Reynaldo Brathwaite, a 2-yard touchdown by Brathwaite after Helix fumbles on their own 4-yard line, and a 35-yard field goal.
Nobody scores in the second half, though Helix comes within an inch and a Terron Franklin fumble from doing so. Monte Vista wins 15-7. After the game, Berg is angry. “I’m tired of fighting with coaches,” he says as he walks up. “All game long I kept telling them we should run a play we have called blend, but they never ran it. The hole would have been huge! You could have driven a semi-truck through it. The defenseman was taking himself out of position. I suggested it to coach a thousand times, and he kept saying, ‘We’ll think about it,’ but we never ran it, not once! On Monday their watching films, and they said it’s mandatory, but I’m not watching films on Monday. I don’t care if they make me run. I can’t watch it. It would just hurt too much to watch it. It would be, ‘There’s blend…there’s blend…look, there’s blend.’ So I’m not going to films. I would literally cry if I did.”
This week’s grades?
“I think the defense deserves a B+/A-. They shut them out in the second half. I’d give myself an A-. I did really well, though I missed a couple of plays. I was really upset that we weren’t running the plays that were obviously open. Offense gets a C because we weren’t executing. We put our hearts into the game, but to me that means absolutely shit. If you don’t execute, it doesn’t mean crap. All the emotion, all the heart, all the skill doesn’t matter if you don’t execute and score points.
Friday, October 23, 7:30 — Helix at El Capitan
This is the nonleague game thrown into the schedule while the other four league teams play each other. El Capitan of Lakeside plays in the Grossmont North League. Helix wins 13-10. On the phone, a few days later, Berg was much happier than he was after the Monte Vista game. “I feel good about this game. The offensive line played well, even though our starting right tackle, Travis Watkins, got hurt. Dillon Isaac came in and he operated well. We moved the left tackle to the right tackle, the right guard went to the left guard, and Dillon went to right guard. After all the shuffling around, we still played well.”
Friday, October 30, 7:30p.m. — Helix at Mount Miguel
Helix pulls out a 7-6 victory in the Grossmont South match-up against Mount Miguel Matadors of Spring Valley. On the phone, Berg is even happier than last week. “The offensive line really came together this game. We became a unit. It’s a great feeling to be out there with those guys.”
How did you do?
“I did pretty well. I had a guy on me that we nicknamed Lurch. He was about 6’4 and lanky. He kept screaming, ‘Don’t hold me,’ but I wasn’t holding him. It was easy to read whether he was going right or left, and I was getting there first. He was so tall and he had a tendency to stand straight up so he was easy to block.”
Friday, November 6, 7:30 p.m. — Valhalla at Helix
When I arrived in the second quarter of the game, Helix is up 6-0. They’ve ditched the black pants and are back in the whites. The Norsemen of El Cajon’s Valhalla High School, wear uniforms just like the Minnesota Vikings’, except they’re orange and white, not purple and white.
What I see of the second quarter is scoreless. But as the clock ticks down to zero, a Helix defender commits a personal foul. Because a half cannot end on defensive penalty, Valhalla gets one more crack. The 15-yard penalty moves the ball from the Helix 45-yrd line to their 30, Valhalla sends in their kicker, who knocks the 47-yarder through the uprights. At halftime it’s Valhalla-3, Helix-6.
During the break, the Helix band puts on the same field show to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet that they’ve put on at every home game this year, but this time there is a full complement of flag girls, and the two wooden props depicting the house of Capulet and Montague have finally been painted. At the climax of the piece, Tybalt and Romeo have a saber duel after which the trombone section bears the slain Tybalt to the house of Capulet, laying him on the threshold.
After halftime, Valhalla puts together a nice drive, but their running back fumbles the ball just before stepping into the end zone. Helix senior linebacker Maurice Crawford scoops it up in the end zone and runs it out to the 50-yard line. Three plays later, Jason Van runs one in from 20 yards. The Highlanders are in command, leading 13-3.
Valhalla decides it’s time to start passing. Their left-handed senior quarterback, Jake Ward, is poised, has a good arm and has a great receiver in senior Aaron Hasten, who wears #83. Play after play the 6’2 Hasten lines up on the left side, covered by Helix’s junior cornerback Erik Peterman, who is 5’9. Over and Over, Hasten runs straight down the sidelines, Ward throws it high. Hasten jumps up and catches it over Peterman. With 9:30 to go in the game, he catches one such pass on Helix’s 3-yard line. A minute later Valhalla’s senior running back Lucas McKee blasts into the end zone on fourth and goal from the one. With the extra point it’s now 13-10 Helix.
Next drive for Helix goes three plays and a punt. Again Valhalla’s Ward throws to Hasten, who catches again over Eric Peterman, on the Helix 10-yard line. The father and brother of Helix sophomore linebacker John Castillo, who sit near me in the stands start screaming as if they just sat on tacks, “You’ve got to blitz them. Coach blitz ‘em!”
The defense holds and Valhalla kicks a 35-yard field goal on fourth down to tie the game at 13. The Castillo men are screaming like Janis Joplin in concert, “You’ve got to retire coach!”
The game ends 13-13. The band plays the alma mater and leave. But because this is a league game and a winner needs to be declared for playoff purposes, we’re going into overtime. In amateur football, each team is given the ball at the opponent’s 25-yard line. They have four downs to score a touchdown, a field goal, or a first down. Then the other team gets the ball and has to at least match what the first team got, be it seven, three, or zero points. If they do, you play another round. If they don’t, they lose.
Both teams fail to score in the first overtime, and Valhalla is unsuccessful in the second, leaving the door open for Helix. On the second down, Terron Franklin fakes a hand off to Jason Van, then throws his best pass of the season to senior wide receiver David Cannon in the right corner of the end zone. The Highlanders dogpile Cannon on the spot.
After extricating himself from the dogpile, Berg walks over to where I’m standing and comments, “That was exciting but it’s still officially a tie. We only played the overtime because there can’t be any ties in the league. It’s a league rule. We are supposed to have a big ceremony tonight for Coach Arnaiz’s 200th win, but because it was a tie we’re not. “
I saw you downfield blocking quite a bit tonight.
“Yeah, I was trying to get downfield and occasionally I’d have that #53 to block up there in the middle. Once I just crushed him.”
Berg’s grades: “Offense I’d have to give a C. We weren’t physical at all in the first half, except one drive when we were all pumped up after Maurice’s fumble recovery. We were pumped up, we were physical, and we were ready to go. That was the only time. Well maybe during the overtime too. I’d have given myself either a C or a B because a lot of those times you saw me going up field I wasn’t really blocking anybody. When the guy would come in, I would block him. But most of the time I was going upfield I wouldn’t block anybody. I was looking around thinking ‘okay, I’ve got nobody to block.’ Other than covering #83—the whole offense was on the sideline saying, ‘They’re going to throw to #83, double team him.’ But they didn’t, and every time, they threw to him and he caught it.”
What’s the playoff picture like?
“Here’s the thing, if Monte Vista loses tonight and Monte Vista loses the next game, we’re in because we’ll win league. If you win your league, you automatically go. The CIF takes the winners of each, then they take whoever had the best record after that for the rest of the playoff spots. As it stands right now, if we beat Granite Hills next week, we’re in.”
Friday, November 13, 7:30 p.m.—Helix at Granite Hills
Tonight is the Highlanders’ last league game and, if they lose to the Eagles, their final game of the season. Any worry of that happening is probably gone when Helix’s Ron Lidrazzah, carrying the ball much more tonight, goes 50 yards up the middle for a touchdown in the second quarter, adding to Jason Van’s 4-yard touchdown earlier to make the score 14-0 Helix. The game ends 27-7 Helix. The highlanders are going to the playoffs.
CIF San Diego Section Division II Playoffs — Friday, November 20, 7:00 p.m. — Scripps Ranch at Helix
High schools in the San Diego Section of the California Interscholastic Federation compete in one of four divisions. Which division is determined by their 10th-through 12th grade enrollments. For fall 1998, Division I schools have 1658 or more students. Division II schools have between 1657 and 1334 students; Division III between 1333 and 501. Any school with fewer than 501 students is Division IV. No matter what league a school is in, when it comes to playoffs, they play against schools the same size. Hence, if Granite Hills had made the playoffs this season, which they didn’t, they would not have played in Division I because their enrollment is 1991 and Helix’s is 1565.
The Scripps Ranch Falcons are Helix’s third Eastern League opponent of the season. When I arrive at Helix High’s Benton Hart Stadium in the second quarter, the Falcons are already up 13-7. As I take my seat, a pass from the Scripps Ranch quarterback, which John Castillo should have intercepted or batted down, instead goes right by him and into the hands of Scripps Ranch receiver. Touchdown. Castillo’s family is sitting behind me. Usually when Helix is scored on, they call for the coach’s head. This time they say nothing. Scripps Ranch misses the extra point and the half ends Helix-7, Scripps ranch-19.
Coach Arnaiz must’ve given a heck of a speech to the Highlanders during halftime, because they score on the first three drives of the second half with touchdown runs of 12, 4, and 80 yards by Jason Van, while holding Scripps Ranch to nothing.
Down 29-19, Scripps Ranch passes its way to another touchdown to make it 29-26. Helix with 3:38 left.
All the Highlanders need is to make a couple of first downs on their next drive and the game is over. Instead, they go three plays and a punt.
Scripps Ranch comes back throwing and completing passes to the outside, where their receivers step out of bounds to stop the clock. To combat this, the Helix coaching staff positions linebacker Maurice Crawford as an extra defensive back, but inexplicably they place him in the middle where no passes are being thrown. Scripps Ranch keeps completing their passes, and the Helix defensive backs seem powerless to stop them. The Castillo family is going loco, ranting and raving, screaming at the coaches. A guy with a Southern accent yells at Helix’s defensive coordinator, “Ash, you’re losing the game for us!”
Finally the Helix defense stiffens on their 35-yard line. On fourth down, senior defense lineman Justin Bradford bursts through the offensive line and pressures the quarterback into throwing a bad pass, which falls incomplete. A sigh of relief and then a loud cheer erupts from the Helix crowd. The game ends 29-26 Helix.
Down the field, Berg walks up with his arm around a woman a foot shorter than he is, “This is my mom,” he announces.
A look at her face could have told me that. She has the same kind, welcoming face that her son has. Berg’s face right now bears the look of a happy, even joyous young man, as well it should. He just won the biggest football game of his life, and his mom has come out to see him do it.
Their win tonight means Helix gets a rematch with hated Monte Vista, and Berg is happy about that. “I want revenge,” he says.
When I tell him I think they should be able to beat Monte Vista, that they could’ve beaten them earlier in the year, berg smiles as if he remembers something.
“You’re right, we should beat them. They’re not going to have their star runningback, Reynaldo Brathwaite. In his last game he gained 300 yards and then he was taken out for the season. I work in room 201, which is where Coach Theroux and Coach Arnaiz work—Coach Theroux is a career-tech counselor and Coach Arnaiz is a work experience counselor—and you should’ve seen the joy on their faces when they learned that Brathwaite wasn’t there.”
I’m freezing, so I jump right to the grades. I suggest an offensive A and a defensive D.
“Well, C for the defense. Offense was getting the job done and the defense—my comment during the game to one of the defensive players was, ‘I’m not going to start passing judgment on you, but what the hell is going on?’”
Friday, November 27, 7:00 p.m.—Helix at Monte Vista
Thanksgiving weekend had me out of town for this game. Too bad, because it was probably the best of the season, certainly the most dramatic. After regulation ended in a 14-14 tie, both teams scored touchdowns in the first overtime. In the second overtime, Monte Vista came up inches short on the third down and elected to kick a field goal, which was successful, and hope that their defense could hold Helix scoreless. But on the Highlanders’ first play, Ron Lidrazzah ran 20 yards for a first down at the 5-yard line. After his team gained only a couple of yards in the next three plays, Helix coach Jim Arnaiz gave his players the choice to go for a touchdown and win or the field goal and another overtime. They choose to go for the touchdown, and Jason Van ran it in for the winner. Helix-27, Monte Vista-24. Berg later told me, “That was the greatest game of my life.”
Thursday December 3, 7:00 p.m. — Helix vs. Castle Park — at Southwestern Community College
The stadium at Southwestern is a football only affair with steep concrete bleachers built into a natural ravine. The absence of a track and the steepness of the stands afford a great view of the game. As I take my seat at the top of the bleachers, Jason Van runs one in from a yard out. Helix had recovered a fumble deep in Castle Park territory two plays earlier. They have an early 7-0 lead.
Chula Vista’s Castle Park Trojans are decked in black helmets, red jerseys, and black pants with red leg stripes. The Highlanders, in their white jerseys, catch fire on the defense after the touchdown. The defensive line is penetrating the Castle Park offensive line on every play, often tackling the Trojans running backs in the backfield. Castle Park’s quarterback, Lucius King, isn’t having much luck in the air either. Constantly under pressure, almost all of his passes fall incomplete, and one is intercepted by Erick Peterman.
In the third quarter, Helix’s defense continues to dominate the game. Castle Park, which has averaged over 30 points a game throughout the season, can do nothing on offense. Meanwhile, Terron Franklin scores Helix’s second touchdown of the night on a quarterback sweep. The extra point is good, and Helix goes up 14-0. Castle Park, getting desperate with 5:43 left in the game, goes for it on fourth down at midfield only to have Lucius King’s pass fall incomplete. “That’s the game,” I hear a Helix fan nearby say.
If Helix can get a first down on this next drive, he’s right, it is the game. But in three plays, the Helix offense fails to go 10 yards and they’re forced to punt. Maurice Crawford’s punt gets blocked and returned by Castle Park to the Helix 25 yard line. Next play, King throws to a wide receiver for a touchdown, and Castle Park closes to 14-7.
Everyone in the stadium knows the following kickoff is going to be an onside kick. It’s executed perfectly by the Castle Park kicker and they recover it. Next play, King completes a pass down to the helix 26 yard line, the same spot from which he threw a touchdown pass a minute ago. Three plays later, he scrambles to the 16-yard line and a first down. Next play, he scrambles for a yard. Second and nine, he spikes the ball to stop the clock. During the stoppage, Jason Van comes on the field as a sub. Third and nine, two seconds on the clock, King throws into the middle of the end zone, but Jason Van steps in front of the receiver and intercepts the pass. Helix wins 14-7.
The team dogpiles in the middle of the field. Helix students charge down the bleachers to the fence separating them from the field. I follow. After shaking hands with the vanquished players, the players come over to celebrate with their fellow students who are chanting, “Qualcomm…Qualcomm…Qualcomm…Qualcomm.” I catch Berg’s eye and ask him, “How are you feeling?”
“I’m all happy.”
CIF Division II
Championship Game Tuesday, December 8, 4:00 p.m. — Helix vs. Chula Vista — Qualcomm Stadium
Helix’s season has come full circle. It started with a scrimmage against Chula Vista and it will end today battling the Spartans at the Q for the CIF championship. An indication of how enrollment affects a school’s chance of success in football is the fact that of the 19 schools in Division II, Chula Vista and Helix are, respectively, the second and fourth largest at 1646 and 1565 students. However, enrollment isn’t everything, Castle Park, the second-smallest Division II school at 1404 students, made it to the semifinals.
Helix, though they dress in the visitor’s locker room, are in their home greens. Chula Vista sports royal blue helmets and pants with white jerseys.
Though they score first, Chula Vista never really threatens Helix in this game. Jason Van runs for 264 yards and three touchdowns, and the Helix defense, after giving up the first touchdown, never lets the Spartans near the end zone again. The final score is 19-7 in favor of the new CIF San Diego Section Division II Champions, the Helix Highlanders.
After the game, Helix students pile against the bottom railing, dancing and chanting, “HEE-liiiixx… HEE-liiiixx… HEE-liiiixx.” Berg and his teammates, running the rail from the field side, pump their fists in the air and slap high fives. Berg never stops grinning.
A few days later I take Berg, who was named first-team-all-league, out to dinner to talk about the season. I’m expecting him to have a lot to say about winning the CIF Championship but he doesn’t outside of, “It’s great,” and, “It couldn’t have worked out any better,” and “I thought the stadium would look bigger from the field.” Finally he confesses, “I don’t really know how I feel about it. Maybe it just hasn’t sunk in yet, but it doesn’t feel weird. This is what we’ve talked about since freshmen year, going to the stadium and winning the CIF Championship. So I guess the best way to describe it is, it feels right.”