Early in the football season, Esperanza High School line coach Mike Knutson noticed tight end Reid Pullen and quarterback Keith McDonald had something in common.
“Keith and I both have red hair so Knutson began calling us the Howdy Doody Connection,” Pullen said. “He always has joked with us about it. He started out calling us Howdy Doody No. 1 (McDonald) and No. 2 (Pullen).”
It’s not exactly a nickname that strikes fear into the hearts of defensive backs, but Pullen and McDonald don’t seem to mind.
“Hey, I used to watch Howdy Doody when I was a kid,” McDonald said.
Besides, nothing else seems to matter when you’re playing in the Southern Section Division III final.
The Aztecs (13-0) will make their first appearance in a championship game since 1984 when they play St. Paul (8-3-2) at 7:30 tonight at Cerritos College.
The quarterback and tight end hope to end Esperanza’s three-game losing streak in finals (1980, ’82 and ’84). The Aztecs’ last title was in 1979, when they beat San Clemente, 14-7, in the Central Conference final.
‘I didn’t think we’d be here at the start of the year,” McDonald said of the final. “It was kind of an unrealistic goal.”
In fact, McDonald and Pullen are two of the main reasons the Aztecs reached the final.
In last week’s semifinal, Esperanza trailed Hart, 35-31, with 10 seconds left. The Aztecs had the ball at Hart’s seven-yard line and time for one last play.
The call was a tight-end delay pass. McDonald dropped back into the pocket, waiting for Pullen to come over the middle.
McDonald waited and waited. Pullen was nowhere to be found.
“The guy covering me was holding me,” Pullen said. “I couldn’t get past the line of scrimmage.”
But Pullen finally broke free, and McDonald found him wide open for the touchdown that capped a 38-31 victory.
The touchdown catch was Pullen’s second of the game and his ninth of the year, one shy of the school’s season record he set last year. He had six catches for 111 yards against Hart and has 38 catches for 550 yards this season.
Pullen, 6 feet 1 and 195 pounds, also holds school records for career touchdown catches (19) and touchdowns in a game (three against Los Alamitos last season).
McDonald, 6-2 and 190 pounds, had one of his best games against Hart, completing 15 of 21 passes for 254 yards and three touchdowns. He also has the school record for career touchdown passes (35).
College scouts are starting to take notice of the Howdy Doody Connection.
Pullen, who has a 3.86 grade-point average, is being recruited by Harvard, Yale and Princeton. McDonald is being recruited by Utah.
The championship game, and the recruiting that will follow, will cap a senior season during which little has gone wrong for Pullen and McDonald. The low point of the year came against Katella, when both players were ejected late in the third quarter for fighting.
“Some guy kept hitting Reid after the whistle,” McDonald said. “The guy wouldn’t quit hitting him, and Reid just blew a fuse. I went down to help him out.”
The players were still trying to cool their tempers when Knutson dropped a line to loosen things up.
“He called it (the fight) the Howdy Doody brawl,” McDonald said.
When they’re not sticking up for each other, Pullen and McDonald have been playing catch during games. Pullen has been McDonald’s favorite target the past two seasons.
Pullen, a three-year starter with the varsity, was a wide receiver as a sophomore. He moved to tight end before his junior year, when Coach Gary Meek introduced the Delaware Wing-T offense.
“We needed a tight end and he was getting big enough to become one,” Meek said. “He didn’t have the speed for a wideout, but he had excellent speed for a tight end.”
Pullen was eager to move to a new position. He had caught only four passes his sophomore season at wide receiver.
“I was just a decoy,” he said.
There was only one problem with Pullen’s new role. Tight ends are supposed to be good blockers. Pullen wasn’t.
“We had some nasty film sessions in the first three games (of his junior year),” Pullen said. “My blocking was just nasty. We’d get done with films and I would feel like nothing. But Coach Meek knew that would make me better.”
Pullen finally caught on by midseason. Meek now calls Pullen “the best blocking tight end we’ve had.”
For McDonald, Pullen’s blocking means extra seconds to throw.
“Reid’s much looser this year,” McDonald said. “He knows all his blocking assignments now.
“Sometimes, he still gets nervous before a game. But last year, he didn’t know which way was up before a game.”
McDonald said he’ll take his usual laid-back approach to tonight’s game. “I usually don’t get nervous until it’s 7:15 (p.m.) and we’re walking on the field,” he said. “But you can never show it. You don’t want your offensive line knowing you’re nervous.”