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An escape from reality: Santee outlasts Manual Arts to take lead in Exposition League

Santee rushing attack, led by Joseph Todd, runs over Toilers

Looking out from the Manual Arts High football field on Friday afternoon, you can see six giant construction cranes surrounding the nearby Coliseum, the place where athletes make dreams come true.

On this day, a group of teenagers from Santee and Manual Arts spent 2 1/2 hours playing football in front of no TV cameras, no Internet recruiting gurus and fewer than 150 people in the stands.

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One player has been working eight hours a day on weekends cleaning dishes for $12 an hour to support his family. Another has been trying to pass his calculus class to stay eligible. Another has been late to practice because he has to babysit his brother.

This is real life in the City Section.

“Everyone has their own problems and comes to this team to escape their problems,” Santee linebacker Henry Gallardo, who also has a 4.0 grade-point average.

Santee (7-1, 4-0) took a big step toward trying to win its first Exposition League title since the school opened in 2004 with a 49-20 win over the Toilers.

Joseph Todd surpassed the 1,500-yard rushing mark for the season after gaining 164 yards in 27 carries and scoring three touchdowns. Quarterback Akili Murry rushed for 165 yards in 12 carries and scored two touchdowns. Andrey Herrera had touchdown runs of 37 and 51 yards.

Santee linebacker Henry Gallardo breaks up a pass intended for Manual Arts running back Michael Blow in the fourth quarter.
Santee linebacker Henry Gallardo breaks up a pass intended for Manual Arts running back Michael Blow in the fourth quarter. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

The Santee offensive line, led by 6-1, 280-pound four-year starter Kennon Durante, continually created clear paths for the skill-position players to pick up yards and score touchdowns. Manual Arts (5-3, 3-1) received a huge game from Thomas Whitehead, who caught a 40-yard touchdown pass and broke off touchdown runs of 58 and 51 yards.

Todd is the player who’s been spending time on weekends cleaning dishes at a restaurant.

“It’s something I have to do,” he said. “I have to be a man and it’s something I don’t want to do later on.”

Co-coaches David Tejada and John Petty try to teach football but understand their players are dealing with lots of challenges.

“I’m always amazed with the resiliency of the kids,” Tejada said.

Take Gallardo, who’s 5-7, weighs 145 pounds and somehow figures out how to tackle 200-pound running backs.

“I have to go for their legs,” he said with a smile.

He talked about trying to avoid violence and drugs in his neighborhood and how playing for the football team has made a difference.

“It’s just hard,’’ he said. “This team has changed me.”

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Both schools are in Division III and must work hard to prevent the occasional top player from leaving to join a football power. Manual Arts is a 17-time City champion trying to recapture its glory days. Santee is using a power rushing attack and veteran team to be the No. 1 seed in Division III.

Afterward, both teams graciously shook hands. Manual Arts coach Duane Horn was telling players, “We’ll see you again.”

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