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The comeback of fútbol Americano

SportsFootballMinority GroupsIllegal ImmigrantsNFLReuben DroughnsUSC

IT'S RARE NOWADAYS to hear anyone hum an Al Jolson song, let alone a bunch of Latino teens. Yet that's exactly what's going to happen tonight when the Anaheim Colonists host the Cypress Centurions in a high school football semifinal.

After the Colonists' squad storms through a paper banner held aloft by cheerleaders precariously balanced on each other's shoulders, Anaheim's marching band will blast "Alabamy Bound," a jaunty, brassy relic that Jolson made famous in the 1920s. And the super-majority Latino crowd — including this Anaheim alum, class of 1997 — will go wild.

Some outsiders will no doubt be shocked and amazed that the Colonists have gotten this far. See, Anaheim High is now more than 90% Latino — and for two decades we've been told that Latinos just don't have enough football in their culture to succeed in this uniquely American game. Former USC offensive tackle and NFL Hall of Famer Anthony Muñoz might disagree, but that's what Orange County sports pundits have repeated as gospel over the years as our once-proud team deteriorated into the football version of the Bad News Bears.

Oh, we were titans once. From 1950 through 1977, the Colonists suffered only one losing season, won 16 league championships and two California Interscholastic Federation titles. Their 1956 battle against Downey High (a 14-14 tie) at the Los Angeles Coliseum remains Southern California's best-attended high school football match; the official attendance was 41,383, but that's just the figure at which officials started letting in fans for free.

Anaheim High won by grooming a family of thousands: Fathers volunteered as coaches, mothers and sisters ran the pep squads and snack stands and the boys played. Autumn Friday nights in Anaheim for decades meant one thing: cramming into massive Glover Stadium — which remains one of the largest high school football stadiums in Southern California — to cheer on the mighty Colonists.

Southern California feared and loved the Colonists for our football program. But Anaheim's extraordinary civic football devotion changed after legendary coach Clare Van Hoorebeke retired in 1972. Other Orange County high schools took the prep powerhouse mantle; Anaheim's population boom meant new high schools gobbled up boys who otherwise would've worn the rocking-horse A on their helmets.

But something else diluted the Colonists' talent pool — demographic changes. Latinos began making up the majority of the students at Anaheim High in the 1980s; by the time I graduated in 1997, the only diversity in the school was which state in Mexico did students come from.

The Colonists remained competitive through the early 1990s thanks to prodigious running backs — the brothers García (Joaquín and Che), Brian Diaz and Reuben Droughns. The casual sports fan might know Droughns as the starting running back for the Cleveland Browns; I remember him as a phenom who consistently shattered defensive lines as if they were fortune cookies — and who once pantsed my best friend.

As Anaheim High's student body changed, it proved difficult for longtime Anaheimers to back the blue and gold. "Once a Colonist, Always a Colonist" reads a massive mural painted on Anaheim High's auditorium that looms over students during lunch. But community support for the team moved away, died or just didn't like the new kids.

I'll never forget the anecdote my history teacher — a former Marine and son of the South — once shared with us about a famous Anaheim alum who shall remain nameless. Seems that my teacher was advisor to the student government during the 1980s and had invited the alum (a famous singer) to perform in front of a lunchtime assembly. The singer refused, according to my disgusted teacher, because "too many Latino kids" were attending his alma mater by then.

Traditions began changing. School administrators banned students from painting their class year on the steps of Anaheim High's campus football stadium because they said it promoted graffiti (never mind that even the lowliest gangbanger knew the stadium was off-limits from their placas). Parents didn't/couldn't attend games. Fewer students tried out for the squad. And, yes, many of the new players were smaller, slower and less experienced than their Pop Warner-weaned competition.

The biggest insult came in 1999, when Anaheim Union High School District Trustee Harald Martin proposed suing Mexico for $50 million for the cost of educating the children of illegal immigrants — children such as myself and many of the football players I knew. The Colonists bottomed out soon after. The school suffered through a 24-game losing streak — an unthinkable, ignoble fall for such a distinguished high school. Game attendance dwindled; our glorious Glover Stadium was empty.

The last decade taught me to mourn every fall. So imagine my skepticism this year when Anaheim won its opening game. Then the next one. And the next one. Another. The next. One more. More. Finally, a loss! Back to heartbreak! But they kept winning. The Colonists finished the season 9-1 — their first winning year since 1994.

I finally attended a game two weeks ago, when the Colonists trashed Garden Grove Rancho Alamitos, 35-0, in a first-round playoff game, and screamed myself hoarse last Friday when Colonists quarterback Vince Gomez threw a touchdown pass to José Varela in the final minute to pull out a 21-17 thriller against Garden Grove Pacifica.

If we beat Cypress tonight, the Colonists will land in their first CIF final since 1987 and fight for their first CIF championship since 1967, when Jim Fassel, who went on to be the New York Giants' head coach, was a quarterback.

One season does not make a dynasty, I know. But Anaheim is buzzing for the Colonists in a way I've never experienced. Fans — now mostly Latinos — pack the stands again, all of us loyal Colonists. I hope former, older — OK, white — Colonists who stayed away for years join us tonight.

Don't worry, folks: We speak English. And we'll feel the same chills you do when "Alabamy Bound" booms across the Glover Stadium field to signal the start of our collective Friday night.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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