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.”