Newport Harbor grieves over death of Anthony Zavala

During Jeff Brinkley's 28 years as coach of the Newport Harbor High football team, thousands of fans have cheered the Sailors on during games.

Not many stood out as visibly as Anthony Zavala did on those Friday nights. He made his presence felt well before the 7 o'clock kickoff.

At home or on the road, Zavala found a way to be the first person to greet the Sailors before they made it onto the field. He high-fived them and encouraged them outside the locker room. The same process repeated itself at halftime, when the Sailors went back to the locker room. When they returned to the field, Zavala was there to back the Sailors.

Seeing a familiar face meant a lot to the players, especially to Zavala's son, Joseph, who's autistic. Football united father and son ever since Joseph, at age 8, wanted to play football like his dad.

Joseph went from a player who rarely made eye contact with members of his team to putting fear into the eyes of whoever lined up across from him. Joseph, in his senior season, turned into one of the top linemen in the area, earning Daily Pilot Newport-Mesa Dream Team and first-team All-Sunset League honors.

Joseph's mother, Peggy, always says football has been a miracle in Joseph's life. Anthony was Joseph's No. 1 fan, his best friend. From the stands, everyone in the stadium could hear Anthony on his plastic megaphone yell, "Bust the line, Joe!"

On Saturday, the day before Father's Day, Joseph remembered his dad and his impact on his life. He can still hear his dad cheering him on.

Anthony Zavala passed away on Wednesday from a severe head trauma injury he suffered during a skateboarding accident in San Clemente, said Peggy. He was 50.

"My dad was really important to me growing up because of my autism and developmental disorder," said Joseph, who played in the Costa Mesa Pop Warner football program. "He was always there for me. I'm going to miss him."

Zavala is survived by Peggy, his wife of 22 years, his four children, Alvin, Angel, Jalil and Joseph, his parents, Joe and Sue Holguin, and his eight siblings, Virginia, Joanna, Lily, Gerard, Alex, Scott, Tom and Mike.

Zavala's death has devastated the Zavala family. Peggy said the family was in the process of moving from Costa Mesa, and Joseph's graduation at Newport Harbor is on Thursday.

Everyone who knew Zavala remembers how he would end every conversation with, "If you get in trouble, give me a call." Now, his family needs help.

The Newport Harbor football program has stepped in and is helping the Zavala family during this trying time. Members of the program's booster club is providing meals for the family and raising money for the funeral expenses. People can donate at and by typing "Anthony Zavala" in the search box. Peggy said the family plans to have a paddle-out Saturday at 6 a.m. at 20th Street, the south side of Newport pier, honoring her husband, who enjoyed surfing, and his burial at sea in a couple of weeks and a memorial service in a couple of months.

"The beauty of our program is that we're a family and we're willing to help," Brinkley said. "If you can help, please do so, because Anthony was the biggest cheerleader we had. He loved the program and I know all the kids appreciated him and his encouraging words."

"We're all thinking of Joe and his family right now."

Zavala not only touched the football program, but also the band. He sat next to the band, cheering the members on when they performed during games. The band hasn't forgotten.

"The whole band is trying to get something together for the family," said Linda Duffy, who used to be on the board of directors of the Newport Harbor Music and Education Foundation and whose son, Colin Duffy, played with Joseph this past football season.

"Anthony was louder than any fan. He didn't only cheer for the team when it was winning. He was a big supporter of the boys on the team that didn't get on the field, or didn't play as much. He would tell them, 'You're really a big part of the team. If it weren't for you guys, the good players wouldn't have players to practice against and get ready for games. You made them and the team better.'"

You can say the same about Zavala's contributions as a fan, as a dad. Joseph wore No. 65 in honor of his dad's number when he played football at La Quinta High. Both played right guard.

The latest Zavala to line up at the position played a vital role to the Sailors reaching the CIF Southern Section Southwest Division final in December. Dad never made it onto the field that day at Angel Stadium to greet the Sailors before the game, and they wound up losing to Huntington Beach, 42-28.

That wasn't Joseph's last football game. He plans to play at Orange Coast College next season. Joseph believes his father will be making noise from high above, where he will be high-fiving angels during his son's games.

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