As Nancy Vickers waited for her youngest son, David, to begin his first full football season on Rancho Alamitos’ varsity, she couldn’t help but think of her oldest son, Leon. She tried selling programs before the opener against Troy, but the scene was too familiar, the emotions too intense.
Five years ago, Nancy Vickers watched Leon begin his varsity career under circumstances strikingly similar to those of last Thursday night. Leon, like David, made the varsity as a sophomore and played linebacker and fullback. Leon went on to become a high school All-American at Rancho Alamitos and earn a scholarship to Stanford. But after one season at Stanford, he gave up his football career and a scholarship so he could devote more time to his church, the Church of Christ.
“I see Leon all over,” Nancy Vickers said. “I just kept saying, ‘He blew it. He blew it.’ I didn’t want to see David do the same thing. I tried to just put it out of my head, but it was tough. I also knew the pressure David was under and that made it hard too. I just hoped he would handle it well.”
David Vickers handled it better than most 16-year-old sophomores. The first time he touched the ball on offense, Vickers dashed 32 yards up the middle. On his third carry, Vickers ran over, through and around most of Troy’s defense on his way to a 28-yard touchdown run that was subsequently nullified by a clipping penalty.
Vickers was one of two Vaqueros to participate in every play from scrimmage on offense and defense in Rancho Alamitos’ 21-19 loss. He finished with 80 yards in only six carries while playing fullback and tailback. At outside linebacker, he recovered a fumble and made several big hits.
Somehow, Leon Vickers knew his little brother had it in him.
“It’s not surprising,” said Leon, who moved last month from Garden Grove to Prescott, Ariz., about 60 miles north of Phoenix, to work with a Church of Christ congregation. “I think he’s way better than me. He’s really taken from my cousin Ryan [Vickers] and my experience, and he’s optimized everything he’s learned and taken it to another level.”
Rancho Alamitos Coach Doug Case, who also coached Leon, didn’t seem shocked by Vickers’ debut either.
“We knew he could run the ball because he tore up the freshman level,” Case said. “I was just looking at the game as more of a look to the future. I get to enjoy this for three more years. He’s an amazing football player and he’s going to get bigger and stronger.”
At 6 feet, 185 pounds, Vickers is already as tall as Leon and bigger than most of Rancho Alamitos’ seniors.
“I think he’ll be a lot bigger than me,” Leon said. “I think he’s going to be a great running back. He’s got the moves of a Tyrone Wheatley and the speed of a Napolean Kaufman. I think he’ll be a better defensive player than me too. “
David Vickers doubts that.
“Leon had a little more meanness in him than I do and that made him better on defense,” David said. “I seem to want to score all the touchdowns and get all the glory.”
But what David Vickers wants now more than anything is something he can’t have--his older brother’s constant companionship and guidance.
“It’s been pretty difficult not having him here,” David said. “But as long as he’s doing something positive with his life, it’s OK. Still, I’d rather have him here.”
When Leon was living with the family, he was David’s coach, best friend and role model. Even last year, after Leon had left Stanford and was spending much of his time with his church, he attended most of his brother’s freshman games and some of his practices.
“It was fun seeing him implement things we worked on in the front yard,” Leon said.
But Nancy Vickers said she saw some moves from David last week that she had never seen in the front yard, the back yard or anywhere else.
“I knew he could play defense, but what amazed me was how well he could run,” she said. “It shocked me. I think he was doing some high-stepping. I had to check myself and say, ‘What was that?’ ”
After watching films of Rancho Alamitos’ loss to Troy, Case was impressed with Vickers’ moves but he said his sophomore isn’t quite ready for the college game yet.
“He’s not fully polished,” Case said. “His blocking needs to get better and he has a tendency to let blockers get on him too much from his linebacker spot, but he’s very coachable and he’ll learn.”
Last year’s playoffs proved that. Vickers was called up to varsity after Rancho Alamitos lost all its starting linebackers to suspensions and injuries. In three days of practice, Vickers learned enough to make 10 unassisted tackles and recover a fumble in the Vaqueros’ first-round loss to Pomona Ganesha. Vickers was named the team’s defensive player of the game.
Such performances invite comparisons. Nancy Vickers doesn’t like to compare her sons, but David said he doesn’t mind.
“There were some nerves, some expectations before the first game because of what my brother had accomplished here,” he said. “But it’s a good thing to me. It motivates you. People expect me to carry on the name.”
Said Leon: “He’s going to be compared to me, but after awhile, he’s going to develop a name of his own. He’s so much better than me. Coach [Mark] Miller [Rancho Alamitos’ former head coach] used to say in articles about me that I was such an overachiever, and I think that was true. With David, everything comes so natural to him.”
But Leon Vickers, 20, admits he probably never will see his little brother’s natural ability again in person. He said he will try to watch some of David’s games on videotape and continue to call after his brother’s games, but he has no plans to return to California.
“The thing that’s kind of tough is not being right there for him after the game,” Leon said. “My main concern though is that he doesn’t get hurt--whether he gets a scholarship or not.”
David said he doesn’t fully understand why his brother can’t be there for him and is still not sure why his brother quit football.
“He explains it from the Bible’s perspective,” David said. “I just have to cope with it, but I wish he were here. I know he wants me to be the best. He wants me to achieve my goals. But I’m still sort of shocked that he did what he did. I still don’t accept it and it did disappoint me very much. He still is my role model because of all his achievements, but I’m still in shock.”
Leon said he doesn’t expect David to comprehend his decision.
“When I was in his shoes, I wouldn’t have made the same decision I made now,” Leon said. “My love was football. Now my love is God. He’s young. Things don’t make sense to him. I just saw the vainness in football. My hope is that someday he’ll become a Christian too.”
David said he believes in God, but admits he’s more skeptical of certain religions now.
“It doesn’t deter me,” David said. “But the way they can get you and get you to drop everything you love . . . that’s scary.”
Leon knows his relationship with David has changed and he’s accepted the fact that they probably never will be as close as they were.
“He was mad at me,” Leon said. “People who are older live vicariously through younger people, but in a way he was living vicariously through me. My goals were his goals. I did what he wanted to do. Then all of a sudden, it ended. Football was a big part of both of us. It was the thing that bonded us and now that bond is broken.”
Nancy Vickers feels the only way that bond can mend is for Leon to stay close to his brother’s dreams. Leon said there is some truth to that.
“I want to say I am living vicariously through him,” Leon said. “Football has lost its importance to me. But seeing his goals and dreams come true, I’d be happy for him.”
Happiness for David Vickers would be winning a Southern Section title and then attending a football school such as USC or Michigan. Happiness for Nancy Vickers and her husband, James, would be a college degree for David.
“I have to keep telling myself that David is a different child,” she said. “He wants to go to college. Leon had his chance. He didn’t choose to take advantage of it.”
RANCHO ALAMITOS VS. ALISO NIGUEL
When: 7 tonight.
Where: Aliso Niguel High.
Records: Aliso Niguel (1-0); Rancho Alamitos (0-1).
Rankings: Neither team ranked.
Noteworthy: The first meeting between the teams features two of the county’s top junior running backs, Aliso Niguel’s Trent Perley and Rancho Alamitos’ Leo Kosi.