Buzz Holcomb eagerly anticipated the 1989 high school football season when he embarked on his great experiment more than a year ago. But because of a personal tragedy, he probably never realized how important this season would become for him.
Holcomb is the Westlake Village salesman who made news last year when he opened his home to a group of talented athletes from a disadvantaged neighborhood in Pacoima. The boys had played on the same youth track and football teams in the San Fernando Valley with Holcomb's son Erik.
Rival coaches charged Holcomb with recruiting, and Southern Section Commissioner Stan Thomas claimed Holcomb broke the spirit of the section's anti-recruiting rule. But Thomas took no action against him, acknowledging that Holcomb was helping the young athletes.
Still, Erik Holcomb, Brian Brison and Mukasa Crowe entered Westlake High last fall as ninth graders without athletic eligibility because of academic deficiencies and missed the football season. Leonice Brown and Ontiwaun Carter, who also had lived with the Holcombs, played on the varsity teams as sophomores at Crespi and Kennedy, respectively.
A year later, Buzz's "boys" will play varsity football at five different schools. Erik has remained at Westlake and is the only wide receiver in the bunch. The other four are running backs. Carter, who rushed for 1,190 yards last season, returns to Kennedy and Brown is back at Crespi. Brison will start at defensive back at Alemany and will share playing time at tailback with the Indians' other dazzling sophomore, Terry Barnum. Crowe has enrolled at Chatsworth through the Permits With Transportation program in the Los Angeles Unified School District and will share the tailback position for the Chancellors.
"I've got so many kids to read about this year," Holcomb said.
In addition, Holcomb's nephew, Jeff Burdick, is a wide receiver and defensive back at Chaminade, and Brad Gossen, a close friend of the family and a Westlake graduate, is Washington State's starting quarterback.
Holcomb needs the distraction of a busy football schedule and a horde of boys to root for. He claims it's the best therapy to help him deal with the loss of his child. Mike Holcomb, a former football player and track athlete at Westlake, died in a car accident in March. An autopsy revealed that Mike, 20, was legally drunk when the car he was driving careened out of control and crashed into a telephone pool on Thousand Oaks Boulevard in Agoura Hills. Also killed in the crash was Mike's girlfriend, Michelle Sinclair.
"That's the greatest loss any man can have," Holcomb said. "Football is really going to help me through this time. The kids have been so good to me since Michael's death. You know, a lot of people think these kids from Pacoima are supposed to be such tough, bad (guys) but they've really been thoughtful and kind."
The Pacoima youths visit Westlake regularly and still hold a special affection for Buzz. Mike's death has cemented that bond.
"When I heard about his death, that really ripped me up. It tore me apart," Brison said. "I get out to Westlake about once a month. Buzz is a close friend."
Holcomb wishes the Pacoima youths still lived with him, citing the eligibility battle with the Southern Section as the chief reason the boys moved out. Carter had moved back to Pacoima last summer, and after Brown enrolled at Crespi, he moved in with Russell White, a former Celt running back now at Cal. Brown is the half brother of former Rams running back Charles White and is Russell's uncle.
Brison and Crowe left the Holcombs just after Christmas, saying they felt both homesick and unwelcome at Westlake High.
"It's a shame that everyone looked at it as recruiting," Holcomb said. "I was just interested in what was best for the boys. I can understand how everyone saw it as something else, but it's sad they didn't see it for what it was."
Holcomb claims he holds no animosity toward the Southern Section, a stand made easier by the fact that everything has worked out well for the boys, who take a similar position.
"Because I'm doing so well at Alemany, I don't think about it much," Brison said. "I have no resentment. It's all behind me. I'm starting a new career Friday night."
The intent to provide a better environment for kids is a good one, Holcomb said, but he has questioned that impulse since the death of his son.
"The boys would still be at my house if there wasn't that problem with the Southern Section," he said. "The irony for me is that I wanted the boys to see what the good life is all about. But after they left, their brother Mike wrapped himself around a tree. I wanted to offer protection for these boys and I couldn't even provide it for my own son."
Where they are now:
The first of the Holcomb bunch to establish himself, Carter (5-11, 175) was the Valley-area's top sophomore and one of the area's best backs last year. He rushed for 1,190 yards and caught 13 passes for 184 yards for Kennedy. "He electrified people last year," Kennedy Coach Bob Francola said. And Francola expects more fireworks this season. "He's bigger and stronger this year," he said. "You're going to see a running back nearly as good as Russell White. He has great speed and he's tough."
Crowe also endured a personal tragedy this summer. The ensuing personal problems he felt in the wake of the death of his grandmother kept him off the practice field much of the summer. But Chatsworth Coach Myron Gibford is willing to be patient. Crowe (5-11, 175) has been impressive since the start of two-a-day drills this week. "We expect great things from him," Gibford said. "He has great acceleration and can run with anybody."
Alemany Coach Pat Blackburn calls Brison the team's top defensive back and a punishing runner. Brison packs 180 pounds on a 5-7 frame and he timed 10.9 in the 100 meters last year as a freshman. "When he breaks into the open and you try to tackle him, you pay for it," Blackburn said. Brison will share playing time in the backfield with Terry Barnum, who scored 28 touchdowns for the freshman team last year.
Brown gained all of 22 yards last year as a backup to Russell White and then missed summer workouts to improve his grades. He attended summer school at Montclair Prep to wipe out a failing mark and showed up for one workout at San Fernando. He has returned to Crespi a little out of shape but is still a prospect. "He's talented, has very good speed and is making great cuts in practice," Crespi Coach Tim Lins said. Brown will compete with Lucas Freeman at tailback.
The only wide receiver of the group, Holcomb will get a world of action his first year on the Westlake varsity. The 6-0, 155-pound sophomore will start on offense and in the defensive secondary and will return punts. "If he comes off the field the whole season, I'll be surprised," Coach Jim Benkert said. "He's been very impressive. He catches everything and he's a sure tackler."