From one perspective, it’s a sad story about shattered dreams and hitting rock bottom. From another perspective, it’s an inspiring story about teenage resilience and facing life’s challenges head on.
Welcome to the high school sports soap opera unfolding on the football teams at Los Angeles and Hawkins. Both are 0-6 and set to face off Friday afternoon at Los Angeles High in a Coliseum League game.
A year ago, they were among the top football teams in California. Hawkins was unbeaten. Coaches such as Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh and USC’s Clay Helton were showing up. The roster was filled with college prospects. Los Angeles was equally strong and talented.
They met in the City Section Division II championship game. Los Angeles won, 36-6. The season ended, and the chickens came home to roost.
The coaches for Hawkins were fired. Underclassmen abandoned the program as if it had been hit by a hurricane. Players transferred to Long Beach Poly, Jefferson, Lawndale, Golden Valley, Narbonne, Cathedral, Locke, Paramount, Villa Park, Fairfax, San Pedro and Pasadena. Every win last season was taken away and became a forfeit loss because the team used ineligible players.
The head coach for Los Angeles, Eric Scott, left to return to college football as an assistant at Nevada. The Romans also had to forfeit every game because of ineligible players. The championship game became a double forfeit. Players left for Crenshaw and other schools. This season, the Romans even had their new coach resign three games in.
Los Angeles lost to Dorsey 63-7 last week. Hawkins lost to View Park 61-0. So now you’ve seen how far they’ve fallen. But let’s change perspectives.
Meet Jeffrey Martinez, a starting defensive lineman at Los Angeles. He’s the only returning starter for the Romans who didn’t abandon the program. He’s 6 feet 1 and 290 pounds. He’s a first-generation American. His parents came from El Salvador. His father has worked as a roofer for 25 years; his mother works in a nursing home.
Martinez originally enrolled as a freshman to be part of a new charter school sharing space on the Los Angeles campus that focused on math and science. When the charter left, he stayed to keep playing football.
“It’s hard,” he said of the Romans’ change in fortunes. “I continue pushing. I love playing football no matter what.”
He said Los Angeles, under interim coach Anthony Jackson Jr., a former JV coach, hasn’t stopped fighting.
“I’ve never been 0 for anything,” he said. “It’s tough losing game after game. I’m just giving it my all. The team believes. That’s the part I like most. They’re fighters and won’t let down easy.”
Dealing with adversity is something every player on both teams is learning about. They’re getting knocked to the ground but keep getting back up.
Martinez was asked if he has any bitterness for the players who decided not to return.
“I think players are going to do whatever is best for their sake and they want to go to better schools for better chances,” he said. “The reason they leave is because they want a better opportunity to get into college and play football.”
Martinez said he has “some sympathy” for what Hawkins players have been going through, but “Hawkins has been our rivals. It’s going to be a different environment. Every time we’ve played them it was intense. We’re whole new programs that have to be rebuilt.”
Martinez has six sacks this season, but in another sign of how things can go from bad to worse, he won’t be playing on Friday. He’s going through concussion protocol and will miss his second game.
The good news for Los Angeles and Hawkins is that whether they finish 0-10 or 1-9, both are guaranteed spots in the City Section Division 1 playoffs. When 10-week report cards are finalized, Hawkins expects to get back 13 players. That should give first-year coach Richard Dax Sanchies more options. He’s been playing games with 19 players.
Martinez will watch from the sideline Friday, cheering on his teammates. And, after listening to him speak, you have to be optimistic that he understands that high school sports is more than just about the final score.
“Nowadays, it’s about winning,” Martinez said, “but in my mind, it’s about having fun and doing what you love to do.”