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Feather Has the Special Touch, and Warriors Win : With Conference Title in Hand, Coach Could Take National Honors in PONY Bowl

Times Staff Writer

They won a football title for El Camino College the other day and the man called Feather was there to enjoy it.

John Featherstone, the Warriors’ energetic, home-grown young head coach bounced around the Pasadena City College football field with all the excitement of a child at his first Christmas party. A 28-22 victory over Pasadena secured his first South Coast Conference championship--a gift of determination for a hungry institution.

Sixteen years had passed since El Camino won a conference title. The only thing that would have made this one better would have been if the title had been won at home.

Feather savored the moment as the sun slipped slowly by the San Gabriel Mountains.

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He was dwarfed by his silver-helmeted Warriors. But in the shadows of an autumn afternoon the 5-foot, 8-inch Feather raced through a huddle of players at midfield slapping backs and occasionally letting go with a whoop. There were tears of joy, mud-stained handshakes, hugs and kisses. A buttoned-down shirt clung to his chest (he was doused with the water bucket) and partially drenched blond hair cascaded heavily onto the back of his neck.

The return to El Camino three years ago of the 38-year-old alumnus seemed heaven-sent, a recurring dream during a decade and a half of moving from one assistant position to another. Feather grew up in Manhattan Beach, prepped at Mira Costa High School and blossomed into a fearless, decorated receiver at El Camino. No wonder he bleeds silver and blue.

How much? A recorded phone message from his campus office ends when he shouts: “Go Warriors!”

“I care about this school,” he said.

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During the Pasadena celebration a group of burly linemen hoisted the coach on sweaty shoulder pads. The sopping Feather seemed impervious to a chilling breeze, just as he fought the pain last season when his team “disappointed me” by finishing 3-7.

Saturday night the Warriors, ranked second in the state and fourth nationally, take a 10-0 mark into the PONY Bowl Classic. Their opponent is Taft (9-0), ranked No. 1 in the nation. The result will more than likely decide the national championship.

And the tireless Feather will be there wearing his trademark buttoned-down shirt and tie, white tennis shoes and gray slacks. By game’s end his wavy hair will have matted under the moist evening air of LeBard Stadium at Orange Coast College.

“Helmets up!” he’ll shout at his players moments before the kickoff, and they’ll lift blue and silver war bonnets to the sky.

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He’ll cheer--at times turning to face the crowd and encourage the same--then he’ll lead his team into battle with a play chart in one hand and his heart in the other.

The Feather will tell you afterward he won’t trade Saturday night’s opportunity for anything, not a life of ease in his hut overlooking the blue Pacific Ocean near Cabo San Lucas in Baja California nor a chance to relive his illustrious playing days.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime shot, a chance at the national championship,” he said.

In life, he sees each day that way, too.

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Friends say Featherstone wasn’t really born. He just leaped from the womb on the run.

“You see that much energy in a kid and you think he has gas,” said longtime friend and fellow coach Bill Cunarty of Saddleback College. “He was a bony little guy, always jumping around.”

They say his enthusiasm is catching.

“John is that kind of guy,” said Saddleback Coach Ken Swearingen, who coached Featherstone at El Camino for two years. “He has lots of energy and his team plays that way.”

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In 1968 Featherstone was an all-Metropolitan Conference selection at El Camino. The Warriors were 10-1 and San Diego State offered him a scholarship.

“He was an exciting, great player,” said Swearingen. “He wasn’t very big, but he was fun to watch. He would jump up and catch a pass in front of all those big guys and scare me. He was a fearless receiver.”

At San Diego State he was named the best offensive player in the 1969 Pasadena Bowl.

“It was one of the two biggest thrills in my life,” he said. The other was two weeks ago in Pasadena.

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The Warrior offense has Featherstone’s personality stamped all over it. It often strikes for the big play, usually a long pass to a fleet receiver.

In practice, Featherstone sees that it succeeds.

“Get those hips underneath you! Keep those elbows in!” he shouted at a receiver who dropped a pass in a practice drill.

“Where did you lose it?” he asks with a glum look. “Do it again, please.”

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It is the voice of experience talking.

In his modest Manhattan Beach home in the hills overlooking the shimmering Pacific, Featherstone is in the kitchen, eating a salad. About 10 years ago, while teaching a nutrition class, he realized that the body is better if “you reject the basic American diet.” Today he weighs 150-pounds--20 pounds lighter than when he was in college.

His family practices a holistic life style, he said. As an example, his wife, Elaine, gave birth to their first child, Ivy, now 6, in their San Diego home.

In the driveway is a rusted 1980 white Honda hatchback. Cooper, the family “half-cocker spaniel, half mutt,” is tethered by a rope that extends from the stoop to a pine tree in the corner of the lot, which does not have a sidewalk. Boone patrols the green lawn, nibbling on kiddie toys and yelping at visitors.

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“You’ll have to excuse the grass,” Featherstone says. “It usually gets mowed, but this is football season.”

A cluttered mantel in the front room supports trophies. Featherstone points to a tarnished silver statue that is engraved: “Pasadena Bowl. 1969. Best Offensive Player. John Featherstone.”

Daughter Keegan, 4, eats an orange on a sofa while watching cartoons on television. Ivy is asleep in the back room. Fourteen-year old Terre, Featherstone’s stepdaughter, arrives with a friend.

Later Keegan hits volleyballs with her dad on the front lawn.

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“A future Mira Costa Mustang,” he says with a smile, obviously pleased by her effort. “We are a very active family.”

At home Featherstone lives what he terms, “the hidden life of a football coach.”

At times he is Mr. Mom. Elaine teaches prenatal and postnatal care classes twice a week. When she’s gone, Featherstone returns from teaching about noon and stays home with the kids. He seems comfortable with the role.

On other days John breaks away. After football practice he sticks a surfboard in his car and drives to Marine Street. On Saturday mornings he is often at the Manhattan Beach Pier playing volleyball or surfing.

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He has moved his family five times in the past seven years, but to him, this is his only home.

“As soon as I pass Sepulveda Boulevard I can relax a bit,” he explains. “I enjoy the serenity of (this neighborhood). I spend a lot of time watching sunsets here with my family.”

His familiarity with the area has benefited his job, too.

“Being a local has helped him establish a good relationship with our high schools,” said Dr. Jim Schwartz, dean of physical education and athletics at El Camino.

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A personal odyssey may be over. Feather’s approach is one of the new breed of head coaches for the 1980s: young, hip, successful.

“John has a commitment to be the best he can become,” Schwartz said.

You can see the fire in Featherstone’s eyes from as far away as the press box. He is an emotional coach. In the season finale two weeks ago against visiting Golden West, Featherstone scuffled with a pair of hefty Golden West linemen, each standing 6-2.

Quarterback Danny Speltz had received an illegal hit near the Warrior sideline. Irate, Featherstone pushed one of the Golden West players and got back a shove from the other. Both benches emptied and several players were ejected from both sides.

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The fire in Featherstone’s eyes raged even more. El Camino won, 39-20.

“He does have enthusiasm and it is contagious,” said Schwartz.

But it was a last-minute touchdown reception by flanker Rickie Wills against Long Beach City College four weeks ago that really lit up the Feather. The catch was reminiscent of one of two touchdown receptions made by Featherstone in the Pasadena Bowl.

“The feeling I had when I caught that pass in the Pasadena Bowl was not unlike the feeling I’m sure Rickie had when he crossed into the end zone,” he said.

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As he lay exhausted in the end zone, Wills was mobbed by teammates. At the Long Beach 30-yard line Featherstone jumped, clapped and danced for joy.

“Look at Featherstone. He’s going nuts,” someone in the press corps said. Fans in the stands were on their feet applauding.

“My competitive side enjoys that kind of a game,” Featherstone said. “I’m excitable. “When a kid scores I sometimes beat him into the end zone.”

Featherstone was an assistant coach at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana when head Coach Jack Reilly left El Camino for an assistant job at the University of Utah. Swearingen wasn’t surprised when Feather got the job.

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