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When the Game Stands Tall, Special Movie Edition: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak by Neil Hayes
Chapter 1: A Monument to Understatement
De La Salle High School sits on the corner of Treat Boulevard and Winton Drive in Concord, California. The campus is a modest cluster of Spanish-style buildings, Disneyland-clean and Catholic-functional, surrounded by strip malls filled with supermarkets, nail salons, and delicatessens. It is neighbored by neat homes framed by orange trees, rose bushes, and carefully trimmed hedges.
Nothing about the school or its surroundings suggests singular achievement. White block letters identify the school on a low brick wall on the northwestern edge of the campus. There is no billboard proclaiming this the home of football’s longest winning streak. Nowhere in this sprawling community of 126,000 located twenty-nine miles east of San Francisco is a sign heralding the school’s sixteen undefeated seasons, eleven state championships, and four national titles.
Visitors wander into the main office, wondering if this is the De La Salle, the school that owns the longest winning streak in football history.
As preparations for the 2002 season get underway, The Streak stands at a national record of 125 consecutive games. Year after year, season after season, it takes on new, almost bizarre dimensions, gaining size and strength, overpowering reason, overwhelming perspective. It has become a force that defies description, even by its architects. To be able to quickly bet on games, sites such as w88 for pc are ideal.
The Oklahoma Sooners coached by Bud Wilkinson own the longest streak in college football history. They won 47 consecutive games between 1953 and ’57. John Wooden’s UCLA basketball team won 88 straight across four seasons from 1970 to ’74. Hudson High School in Michigan set the previous high school football record, with 72 consecutive wins from 1968 to ’75. Should De La Salle continue to win, they’ll double Hudson’s record with the sixth game of the 2003 season.
There is no statewide playoff system for football in California, heading into the 2002 season. The state is divided into ten geographical sections. De La Salle’s eleven state championships are mythical, since there is no statewide playoff system, but no one can dispute the school’s dominance over the past quarter-century.
The De La Salle football program first came into prominence in the mid-1980s, when it reeled off 44 consecutive wins. The Spartans followed that streak with one of 34, which ended with a 35–27 setback to Pittsburg High School in the 1991 North Coast Section 3A championship game. De La Salle hasn’t lost since.
From 1984 through 2001, the Spartans were 204–4.
They have sought out the toughest competition in Northern California and, in recent years, the top teams from Southern California as well. In one of the most talent-rich states, that means they have defeated some of the best teams in the nation.
But it’s not simply that they win. It’s how they win. Since The Streak began, the Spartans have outscored opponents by an average of 47–9. Their games are typically over and their starters benched by the middle of the third quarter.
It’s one of the most amazing streaks in sports and perhaps the least celebrated. The school that is home to America’s most successful football team is not a football school. Trophy cases sit in an out-of-the-way foyer between the gymnasium and the cafeteria, containing only a sample of the awards bestowed upon the team over the years. The rest of the hardware can be found in the coaches’ office, stuffed on shelves, behind battered file cabinets, and—because the program has generated more brass and marble mementos than it can practically house—in trash cans.
The stadium sits on the east end of campus like the afterthought it was. The school was not designed to accommodate large team sports. Passersby on busy Treat Boulevard find their view of the football field obstructed by a thick row of oleanders, which only adds to the mysteriousness of the place and the program.
Understatement has become part of the tradition. A proposal to build a history room to house the football team’s memorabilia was immediately shelved when many former players complained. What makes this program so special is what you carry in your heart, they argued, not what you hang on the wall.
There’s only one place on campus where an attempt has been made to document the team’s unprecedented success, and that’s in the weight room, where the Spartans’ league, section, and state titles are stenciled on the wall. The chart hasn’t been updated since 1998, as if it seemed pointless after a while.
The lack of fervor reflects the spirit of the school, the humility of a coach who has won more league championships than he has suffered defeats, and the fine line administrators have sometimes walked between embracing the football program and deflecting attention from it.
Parents of prospective students can read an eight-page brochure. In it they learn that the private, all-boys Catholic school was founded in 1965 and is run by the Christian Brothers. They will read that the school’s motto is “Enter to learn, leave to serve,” and that students are taught in the Lasallian tradition. They will discover that 98 percent of De La Salle graduates go on to two-year or four-year colleges, and that tuition costs $8,200 plus books for the 2002 school year.
The brochure lists graduation requirements and student activities. Two paragraphs on the penultimate page inform parents that “the purpose of the athletic program at De La Salle is to help promote perseverance in the pursuit of personal and team goals, and to develop in its participants a recognition of personal achievement.”
At the bottom of the page is a snapshot of a football game—linemen coiled in their stances, the quarterback crouched over the center. Nowhere else is the football team, its legendary coach, or its unprecedented success so much as hinted at.
Football has given this school a national identity and as many enemies as fans. De La Salle is the only all-boys Catholic high school in Contra Costa County, which at the recent turn of the century had a population of almost 1 million. The private school draws students from a wide geographical area, which has long fueled accusations of recruiting.
The school and its storied football team are respected and reviled. People come from all over the country to visit the school that never loses. They almost always leave disappointed. They imagine a glorious stadium such as those that rise from the Texas prairie. They expect to see an ancient stone bowl like they might find in a steel-mining town in Western Pennsylvania. At the very least they expect to find a monument, a display, something they can commit to film or memory.
Disappointment turns to surprise when, as happens at some point during practice nearly every day, someone driving down Treat Boulevard hangs out the window and screams profanities at history’s most successful team.
Bob Ladouceur walks as if he’s carrying a heavy burden. In his forty-eighth year, his face is tanned and deeply lined, his eyes mysterious in the shadow of a dense brow. He still has an athlete’s build after hours of solitude on the stationary bike, but there’s a noticeable stoop to his shoulders and a deliberateness to his stride as he trudges across the practice field, a solitary figure even in a crowd.
It is the first official practice and he’s already looking forward to the day when the helmets are stored away. The first day of the season is full of hope and possibilities for many coaches, but the dawn of Ladouceur’s twenty-fourth season at De La Salle brings him as much dread as joy.
He never aspired to this. He took a beating as an undersized youth football player and was forced to quit. He made himself into a star running back in high school. His college career began promisingly but was marred by injuries and left him feeling maimed by the machine of college football.
He turned his back on the game three times, vowing never to return. He never considered coaching, even though his aptitude was obvious. He was young and idealistic and he wanted something more. He wanted to make a real impact on kids’ lives. He wanted to look into their eyes and see that he had made a difference. How was coaching football going to give him that?
But here he was twenty-four years later, wearing a sweatshirt and shorts, a whistle around his neck, on the first day of the 2002 season, the winningest coach in America, wishing he were somewhere else. He loves coaching but doesn’t always find it enjoyable. Pushing kids to accomplish what they don’t consider achievable is a long, painful process, as much for the coach as the player.
“I’m relieved when it’s all over,” he says. “It’s not that I don’t enjoy it. But right now I’m looking at it and thinking, ‘Damn, it’s a long haul.’”
He is not who you expect him to be. Maybe that’s why he’s misunderstood and why his name is chronically mispronounced (the correct pronunciation is “LAD-a-sir”). Maybe that’s why some outsiders consider him aloof and arrogant while those who know him best say the opposite is true.
He doesn’t fit the preconceived image of what America’s most successful high school coach should be. He’s an introvert in a profession filled with extroverts. He likes football but the game doesn’t define him. He has no interest in coaching at the college or professional level, because in high school he feels he has the ability to help shape lives, and he can’t think of a more noble vocation. His dream job is the lowest rung on the ladder: he talks about someday coaching the freshman team.
He’s a philosopher and a tactician. He’s old-school and new age. Nobody works his teams harder, stresses fundamentals more, but he will tell you that the key component to his success is the most basic of human emotions—love.
His teams win in part because he doesn’t emphasize victories.
He has the timeless characteristics that people respect, and something else that’s more difficult to identify. There’s a wisdom lurking behind those deep-set brown eyes that makes you think he has the answer to the questions you’ve been aching to resolve. People are drawn to him like a touchstone, but he finds himself searching for the answers he is somehow able to pass along to others.
He has become a mythic figure at this school for reasons you might not expect. He moves about campus like a ghost, appearing and disappearing as if into underground passageways, yet his presence is undeniable. Students part respectfully when he plods past with his head down, thinking, oblivious. He is the only faculty member capable of silencing eight hundred boys at an all-school assembly. First comes the muffled hush and then a reverential silence.
He’s also the only person unaware of this phenomenon, just as he is unaware of the near-icon status he has achieved throughout the San Francisco Bay Area sports community.
“To this day he doesn’t know who he is,” his assistant coach Terry Eidson says. “That’s the funny part. That’s what makes him who he is, though.”
Ladouceur lives in a world of contradictions. His players execute with the precision of a military drill team, but he can’t find his car keys. He demands that his players are on time, but away from school he’s always running late. He’s the least controversial person you’ll ever meet, yet his detractors and supporters parry weekly in the Letters to the Editor section of the local newspaper.
He has built his entire life around doing the right thing, yet he is openly accused of cheating.
He has turned down job offers from such prestigious coaches as Bill Walsh to remain on this campus, but he considers his a conflicted soul.
The countless accolades and awards have brought little satisfaction.
“I’m a very restless and unsettled person,” he says. “I have a hard time finding peace in my life. I don’t know why it’s that way.”
Perhaps part of the reason he is conflicted is that his unmatched professional success comes at a personal cost. He has made his family—wife Beverly, daughter Jennifer (20), and sons Danny (15) and Michael (11)—a bigger priority now than he did during his early years with De La Salle. Still, he agonizes over the time he spends away from one family while trying to create another.
“After ten years of doing it here, I’m thirty-five, thirty-six, and I’ve got two kids and my girl, Jennifer, is eight or nine years old, and my wife sits me down and says, ‘I feel real cheated,’” Ladouceur recalls. “‘That school got the best of you, and we got seconds.’ I’ll tell you something, I felt like shit. She was right. That was another life-changing moment for me. I discovered it can be done differently. That’s live and learn.”
Another aspect of his job that wears on him is having to answer to his success. Coaches are always asking him how he does it. No question frustrates him more. They want to know the secret to winning 125 straight games, but there is no secret. There’s nothing that can be manufactured, packaged, and distributed. It’s a thousand different threads wrapped around a fundamental truth.
De La Salle doesn’t win because of anything Bob Ladouceur does. They win because of who he is.
“Kids respect true humility and that you stand for something more than winning,” he notes. “They’ll fight for you and your program if you stand for more than that. It boils down to what you believe in as a person, and I’m talking about how life should be lived and how people should be treated. Kids see all that. It’s a whole package of things that have nothing to do with standing in front of a team with a piece of chalk. You can know who to block and what play to call, but it has no meaning unless the kids know who you are. Our kids aren’t fighting for wins. They’re fighting for a belief in what we stand for.”
He has broken the game down to its DNA and discovered the secret to success. It’s simple but it’s not easy.
It’s pulling tires across bleached grass on scorching summer afternoons. It’s getting up at 5 a.m. to lift weights during the season. It’s a coaching staff that is obsessed with the minutiae of the game. It’s never, ever being complacent. Ladouceur knows the game, make no mistake, but his genius, if he has a genius, is his ability to connect with adolescent minds. He’s an absolute master of human relationships.
He has created a culture, a community, based on timeless values, where teenagers hold themselves and each other accountable.
“Winning a lot of high school football games is doable,” said former longtime assistant Blair Thomas. “It’s no big deal. What’s difficult is getting people to understand there’s more to life than football. That’s what he does.”
Coach Ladouceur has found a way to turn selfish teens into selfless teammates by making them step back and examine their relationships.
“De La Salle would not be De La Salle without Bob Ladouceur,” said former Spartans running back Patrick Walsh, now the head coach at Serra High in San Mateo. “He is not an interchangeable part. There’s something in Coach Lad that knows what it takes to pull the best out of each kid. That’s his gift.”
Or, as another of his former players would later say: “You always respect and remember the first person who treated you like an adult.”
He has thought about quitting. He has never seriously considered accepting one of the numerous offers he has had to move up to the college ranks. “I don’t know if I like football that much,” he says. In other ways he is a hostage of The Streak. It’s difficult to walk away from something like that, if for no other reason than pity for the poor man who inherits the albatross.
So, he soldiers on, even if there’s often someplace he’d rather be, something he’d rather do. But when all eleven of his players are playing as one, and not for themselves but for the person next to them, and when they’re firing off the ball and playing with passion and every ounce of effort they can summon, it can become a symphony of male adolescence. That’s when he feels truly inspired.
That’s what amazes him about The Streak. It has been accomplished by teenagers and indicates what they are capable of doing.
“I felt I was called to do this,” Ladouceur says. “This is what I should be doing. As crazy as that may seem to some people—maybe they can’t even understand what the heck it means—but I’m not alone. A lot of teachers at this school feel they have been called. This isn’t just a job. This is a life mission.”
His is the most publicized high school football team in the country. But Ladouceur has never read or seen anything that he felt encapsulates his program or begins to define it.
“If someone truly wants to understand, they have to be on the other side of the oleanders,” said former De La Salle principal Brother Michael Meister. “They have to go and see. They have to look and feel.”
An excerpt from When the Game Stands Tall, Special Movie Edition: The Story of the De La Salle Spartans and Football’s Longest Winning Streak by Neil Hayes. Published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2003, 2014 by Neil Hayes. Reprinted by permission of publisher.
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