When invitations to compete in the Shrine football game were mailed in May, Carson High linebacker James Pepe's mailbox contained only advertising flyers and bills. A deflated Pepe went about his business of graduating from high school and working out in preparation for playing at the University of Oregon.
Pepe's family had moved from Carson to Long Beach in the spring, and he figured the mail would follow. After an outstanding senior year, in which he was named the Pacific League co-player of the year and finished as the fourth-leading tackler in Carson history, the 6-foot-2, 240-pound 18-year-old thought he had a decent chance of being selected to play in the game.
He thought right. A return to the old house in Carson yielded a stack of unopened mail and, of course, the Shrine invitation.
"I was so happy," Pepe said. "I've wanted to play in the game since junior high."
The Shrine invitation completed a difficult senior year for Pepe, where he struggled to pass the Scholastic Aptitude Test and was hounded by college recruiters.
"I was stressed out," Pepe said. "Between my parents talking to me about my grades, the SAT, and the recruiting, it was real hard for me."
Pepe passed the SAT on his third attempt, then concentrated on picking a school. Kansas, Nevada Las Vegas, San Diego State and Utah were the other finalists.
"UNLV called me every day, but it wasn't for me," Pepe said. "When I called to tell them my decision, Coach Jim Strong started yelling at me. He called me a liar and said, 'You're just gonna be homesick.' He made me feel real bad. I finally had to hang up on him."
Oregon got the nod because of the area and coaching staff.
"I'm looking forward to it; I want to start my freshman year," Pepe said.
He hopes to emulate his uncle, Jesse Sapolu of the San Francisco 49ers. Sapolu left Farrington High in Hawaii and started four years for the Rainbows of the University of Hawaii.
"There were no ifs ands or buts about it, I was going to start right away," Sapolu said. "James can do the same thing. He is about equal to me in my physical development at the time I left high school, but he has to work on his mental preparation."
Sapolu said Pepe has made tremendous progress in the weight room since he began working with him, but needs to improve his speed.
"I want to make the pros, I always wanted to follow my uncle's footsteps," Pepe said. "That's my dream, my goal."
But only after earning a college degree, Pepe says, with advice from Sapolu. "He said to put your heart in school first, and to be disciplined and careful," Pepe said.
Oregon plans to use Pepe as a linebacker, which is what he will play in Saturday's Shrine game. During his senior year at Carson, Pepe played linebacker, tight end, fullback, quarterback, receiver and also returned kicks and punts.
"I was confused, I didn't know what I was doing," Pepe said.
Pepe considers his senior year a failure. The Colts were defeated by Sylmar in the City championship game, despite 11 solo tackles by Pepe.
"(Carson) hasn't been the same since Coach (Gene) Vollnogle left," he said. "Carson isn't the same, there is no respect for the coach and the players don't work hard. After Vollnogle left hardly anybody wanted to come back. My sophomore year (Carson's last City title in 1990) was the last year for the Carson dynasty."
Pepe's appearance in the Shrine game figures to be his last in Southern California for at least a year. The Ducks will not visit UCLA or USC this season. Of course, the Rose Bowl is not out of the question, at least not for Pepe, who sets his goals high.
"I want to win the Heisman," he said with a laugh, knowing that no linebacker has ever won the award. "If not, then maybe the Butkus."
The Butkus award, given annually to the nation's outstanding college linebacker, seems to be more in his reach. And if he doesn't win, expect him to check his mail twice.