April 6, 2013
For Jason Ferguson, captain of the varsity football team at St. Bernard High in Playa del Rey, the first day of this past season was pretty normal: everybody showed up, ran some laps and went home. But that was the beginning and end of “normal.”
Later that night, Coach Larry Muno, upset about a contract calling for him to fundraise for his own salary, walked. It was a bombshell. Within a week, nearly all the players on the varsity squad had scattered to other schools. Suddenly, what had been a 10-0 team the prior season was dust. Vanished, too, was the junior varsity team.
The teams were gone, but not all the players. Ferguson, captain of the varsity team and an outside linebacker, stayed on.
“St. Bernard is pretty much a family to me,” said the soft-spoken high school senior, who next year plans to study computer science at either Northern Arizona University or the University of Arizona. “I couldn’t really leave it behind.”
It was a painful decision. All summer long, Jason had been looking forward to a final year of football, and now that senior dream was dashed. Or was it? A new coach was soon hired. That coach, John Bibb – nicknamed “Bama” for his Alabama upbringing and faint accent – solicited Jason’s help in recruiting some guys to assemble a junior varsity squad.
Jason took this calling to heart. He hit up five senior guys who weren’t already on the team. Using Facebook and Twitter, he gently cajoled the waverers.
Jason also gave tours during freshmen orientation with an ulterior motive in mind. If a group contained an unsuspecting big guy, Jason made sure to take a detour through the courtyard, where Bama was lying in wait. The coach gave a quick spiel and let the kid know what time practice would be.
“They were like, ‘OK,'” Jason said. “They pretty much kind of got tricked into it.”
Eventually, they’d cobbled together a team of about 30. About half of the players had never before suited up for the gridiron. The junior varsity squad canceled its first couple of games so it could get up to snuff. But the Friday night of the team’s first game on Sept. 14 was soon less than a week away, and Jason was pumped: He was going to play football again after all.
That Thursday, the day before the game, Jason and the five other seniors were summoned into a room by Coach Bibb. The school’s two principals, Cynthia Hoepner and Mike Alvarez, were there. They had bad news: The Del Rey League had rejected the team’s request to allow the seniors to play. (CIF rules allow seniors to play JV football, but divisions within the statewide league can override the rule.)
The room fell into an awkward silence. The boys choked back tears, as did the adults.
“We’re still gonna need you,” Bibb said. “You’ve been good role models. ”
Jason was the first to speak up.
“I’m in, coach,” he said.
The others followed suit. That first game was against Washington Prep High. Jason and the five seniors graced the sidelines in jerseys and jeans – fetching balls, calling plays, offering water, but, above all, providing moral support.
Jason doesn’t remember the score.
“It was a blowout,” he said.
A blowout in favor of the St. Bernard Vikings.
And so it would be for the next six games, each of them won by the Vikings, most by a wide margin. The team finished 7-0.
In one of those games – the nonleague game against Marshall High from Los Angeles – Jason and the seniors were allowed to play. On defense, Jason made a tackle. On offense, he ran the ball for a 20-yard touchdown.
After securing the league championship, the team celebrated in the locker room with pizza and fizzy apple cider, which they shook and sprayed like champagne.
Last month, at a gala celebrating the school’s 55th anniversary, Jason was feted with a leadership award for his loyalty to the team. The other person so awarded at the March 16 event was the school’s most famous alum, Kevin Chilton, who, after graduating in 1972, went on to become a graduate of the U.S. Air Force Academy, a four-star general and an astronaut who piloted the space shuttle Endeavour on its maiden voyage in 1992.
Hoepner, one of the school’s co-principals, said Jason is all the more deserving of the award for his humility.
“I don’t know that Jason fully understood what his heroic efforts did for the morale of the school,” she said. “I don’t know that at the time he fully comprehended or even wanted the attention. … He’s a kid. He did what he felt in his heart was right to do. ”
Indeed, Jason is reluctant to take so much credit. He cited another senior who stayed on, Gilberto Cabuto, as well as two other seniors who’d done the same last year, during a strangely similar series of events with the school’s basketball team.
As for Hoepner, this fall was almost as traumatic for her as it was for the players. A new principal, she hadn’t been on staff for a month when Muno quit.
During that first week of practice, she would stand in the library, looking out the window facing the football field at the dwindling number of players. On Day Two, there were 30 or so, sans Muno. By Day Five, the roster of varsity and junior varsity players had withered to a measly eight.
“Eight players on this huge field,” she said. “You’re going, ‘That doesn’t even make an offense.’ ”
That imagery led to a rallying cry that has stuck all year at the school – one emblazoned on school-spirit T-shirts: “From Eight to Great. ”
Over the months, bonds among members of the hastily assembled team grew strong. “They’d go to the chapel before every game with Coach Bama,” Hoepner said. “They were a family. ”
She vividly remembers a celebration in the jam-packed faculty lounge after the team won the title.
“One freshman said, ‘Go hard or go home!’ The whole team, in one roar, said, ‘And home is not an option!'”