THE BEST EVER : Choosing Greatest County Football Players Isn't Easy

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Santa Ana Valley running back Myron White or Edison's Kerwin Bell?

Mater Dei quarterback John Huarte or El Toro's Bret Johnson?

Fullerton lineman Keith Van Horne or Esperanza's Brendan Stai?

Western kicker David Bell or Pacifica's Norm Johnson? Or Servite's Pat Blottiaux, who kicked six field goals of 50 yards or more?

This was no easy task. But someone had to stand up and set some historical perspective. And so it is that The Times presents its All-Time Orange County football team, a collection of the greatest players spanning six decades.

Comparing Donn Moomaw, who played linebacker in 1948 for Santa Ana, to Chris Draft, who played in 1993 for Valencia, isn't easy.

Dick Hill, who has more victories than any Orange County coach, pooh-poohs these kind of exercises.

"If you are great in the era you played in, you deserve to keep that greatness," Hill says, "and no one should say someone in another era is better than you."

Dick Hill or Clare Van Hoorebeke?

OK, we see Hill's point. Players today are bigger, faster and stronger. But are they innovators? Are they at the forefront of change? Did they crack eight helmets in one season making tackles?

The public deserves to know. And so, with the best of intentions, every high school coach in Orange County was given an opportunity to pick a team and make his case. So were local college coaches. We even supplied some athletes' names to jog their memories. The only rule? No current players.

We selected our 26-man team based on those responses, recollection and actual high school performance. You might be surprised to find that Capistrano Valley Robo-passer Todd Marinovich is absent (didn't receive a vote). And Valencia's Ray Pallares, the all-time rushing leader, isn't to be found (but is still represented). And that only one player from Mater Dei is on the list (it isn't who you think).

Quarterback/Steve Beuerlein

Servite, 1982

Beuerlein passed for 2,244 yards and 21 touchdowns, directing the Friars to the Big Five championship and being named player of the year his senior season. An astute leader--he was given enormous leeway to change plays at the line of scrimmage and had an uncanny ability to recognize defenses--Beuerlein (6-3, 195) fit the prototype for a professional quarterback. He was big, strong-armed, and could throw every kind of pass, from those requiring soft touch to threading the needle with a fastball. The next year, he started at Notre Dame. Sunday, he started for the Carolina Panthers.

Running Back/Kerwin Bell

Edison, 1979

Bell averaged only 13 carries per game and still rushed for a then-county record 2,268 yards and 26 touchdowns. Edison beat Redlands, 55-0, in the Division I title game. The section and state player of the year, Bell was part of the county's greatest backfield, which included quarterback Frank Seurer (who passed for a county-record 2,063 yards). Former Edison Coach Bill Workman said a person could close his eyes and tell if Bell got the ball: "There was a hush that fell over the crowd, a collective 'Oooh,' and then pandemonium." Bell attended Kansas, set a Big Eight freshman record (1,114 yards) that stood until 1993, but injured his knee as a sophomore. He gained fewer than 900 yards his final three seasons and failed in his bid to play professionally. He is now a sports agent in Dallas.

Running Back/Mickey Flynn

Anaheim, 1956

A two-time All-CIF player of the year, Flynn was the first bona-fide Orange County prep legend, an inductee into the inaugural class of the Orange County Sports Hall of Fame in 1981 based solely on his high school career. Called "The Ghost of La Palma Park" for disappearing into the night in the dimly lit stadium on his long touchdown runs (he scored 55 touchdowns). "He was very rhythmic, very smooth," Hill said, "ahead of his time." Flynn gained 3,651 yards and scored 55 rushing touchdowns as Anaheim won the section title in '55 and shared it with Downey in '56--in front of a still-record crowd of 41,383 at the Coliseum. After a season at Long Beach City College, Flynn attended Arizona State, but never played a game. Retired as a heavy equipment operator, he's in maintenance operations in the Fullerton school district and is coaching for the first time--at Fullerton College.

Wide Receiver/Ken Margerum

Fountain Valley, 1976

Margerum (6-0, 176), now the receivers coach at Hawaii, caught everything in sight and made it look effortless. He was quick, with deceptive speed (he went to the state finals in the high hurdles), and made acrobatic catches routinely. Margerum attended Stanford, where he was a two-time All-American. In the NFL from 1981 to 1987, he was a member of the Chicago team that won Super Bowl XX.

Wide Receiver/Scott Miller

El Toro, 1986

Miller (5-11, 180) was a physical receiver with good speed who had great hands and always found a way to get open. The perfect complement to scrambling quarterback Bret Johnson, who passed for 2,458 yards, Miller caught 63 passes for 1,020 yards and 13 touchdowns his senior season. He went to Saddleback College, then UCLA, and now the Miami Dolphins.

Tight End/Tony Gonzalez

Huntington Beach, 1993

Gonzalez (6-6, 225) combined size and athleticism and turned a good team into a great one, helping the Oilers reach a Southern Section title game for the first time since 1935. A two-time all-county player, he led the team in receptions (63), touchdowns (14) and tackles (131, despite being double teamed at linebacker) his senior season. As fast as any defensive back and as physical as a linebacker, he could dominate a secondary. The section player of the year, Gonzalez attends California, where he also plays basketball.

Offensive Lineman/Duval Love

Fountain Valley, 1980

Love (6-3, 245) played on an offensive line that allowed only one sack in 195 passing plays, and helped the Barons reach the Big Five title game. A great technician with lower body strength, he was often the biggest player on the field and the quickest lineman. He went to UCLA, and is in his 13th NFL season--currently with the Cardinals.

Offensive Lineman/Joe Garten

Valencia, 1985

Garten (6-3, 235) was the epitome of the lineman needed for Valencia's Wing-T offense, behind which Pallares rushed three years for a county career rushing record (5,397 yards) that still stands. Former Western Coach Jim Howell called Garten the best high school offensive lineman he has ever seen, the quintessential drive blocker. Garten was a two-time All-American at Colorado, won a national championship and finished second in the Outland Trophy voting. Although selected in the sixth round (surprisingly low) by the Packers, a successful NFL career never materialized.

Offensive Lineman/Keith Van Horne

Fullerton, 1975

Van Horne (6-6, 277) combined size and athleticism and, after being an All-American at USC, forged a career with Chicago in the NFL from 1981 to 1993. Dave Holland, who then coached Corona del Mar and is now at Laguna Beach, said Van Horne was strong as an ox and disciplined: "He did what he was coached to do; he stayed at home and did his job."

Offensive Lineman/Lance Zeno

Fountain Valley, 1984

A Times all-county member on defense as a junior, offense as a senior, Zeno (6-4, 255) had an incredible work ethic that began in the weight room (he bench-pressed 360 pounds) and wouldn't let up until a play was completely over. "He wanted to block guys into submission," said his coach, El Toro's Mike Milner. Zeno went to UCLA, and has been in training camps of seven professional teams in five years (including Scotland of the WLAF). He was released by the Rams three months ago.

Center/John LaGrandeur

Mater Dei, 1974

A two-time major-division all-section player, LaGrandeur (6-3, 230) was big for his position in his era. A talented drive blocker, there were few defensive players he couldn't handle one-on-one. The Monarchs ran one of the more complicated line blocking schemes of the day and LaGrandeur was responsible for the play-calling on the line. He went to Stanford, but injured his back as a sophomore and started sporadically. He is chief financial officer for a produce company and lives in Salinas.

Defensive Lineman/Travis Kirschke

Esperanza, 1992

Kirschke (6-5, 255) finished his career with 26 sacks, 27 tackles for lost yardage, 112 unassisted tackles, eight fumbles forced, seven recovered, a three-time Empire League lineman of the year and two-time Times Orange County lineman of the year. "He would pick us up and throw us away," said Sunny Hills Coach Tim Devaney. Said Edison's Dave White: "I saw him throw people." According to UCLA defensive coordinator, Bob Fields, who won the recruiting war for Kirschke, "He is the best defensive lineman in the history of Orange County." No argument here.

Defensive Lineman/Paul Charlton

Western, 1972

A two-time Times all-county player, there aren't enough superlatives about Charlton (6-1, 200), but "monster" seems the most apropos. A nose guard, it was not uncommon for him to attract a triple team by linemen, and even then, they had their hands full. Tough, mobile and quick, Charlton was a relentless pursuer--often making tackles on the sideline. Despite offenses' best efforts, he still had 60 solo tackles his senior year. Unhappy at Washington State, he returned to Cypress College and, despite a shoulder injury, got a scholarship to San Diego State; the shoulder didn't heal properly and his career ended. Still in Orange County, he is working in the construction business.

Defensive Lineman/Dan Owens

La Habra, 1984

All you need to know about Owens (6-4 1/2, 231) is this story from Sunny Hills Coach Tim Devaney, who coached Owens in the 1985 Orange County All-Star game: "We couldn't run plays in all-star practice with him on defense because he was total chaos; he destroyed our practice, so he had to go on the sidelines and watch." Owens became the only USC defender to start every game during his four years. After seven seasons with the Detroit Lions, he currently plays with the Atlanta Falcons.

Defensive Lineman/Don Gibson

El Modena, 1985

Gibson (6-3, 250) was the second of three brothers (Boomer and Craig) who made Times all-county teams. Despite his size, Gibson was extremely quick, and had good strength and balance. A defensive catalyst who played nose guard, "he was so quick off the ball laterally he could literally take care of one side of the line," said his coach, Bob Lester. He started four years at USC and was a team captain, but injuries prevented him from taking hold in the NFL and he retired after 2 1/2 years. Living in Orange, he is going to chiropractic school.

Linebacker/Donn Moomaw

Santa Ana, 1948

Moomaw's size (6-4, 220) made him a giant of his day, and his athleticism made him a man among boys--and certainly ahead of his time. Not only was he a devastating linebacker, but also an outstanding tight end--and on goal-line situations, he would line up in the backfield. The toughest player of his day, he was an All-American at UCLA in 1950, a consensus pick in '52. A first-round draft pick by the Rams in 1953, Moomaw played two years in the CFL and was pastor of Bel-Air Presbyterian Church for 20 years.

Linebacker/Mau Kalati

Los Amigos, 1971

Kalati (6-2, 220) was a vicious tackler, providing the 1970s with a bookend to Anaheim's Brian Noble (1979). A two-time all-county player, Kalati had 42 solo tackles, 128 assisted tackles, recovered three fumbles, caused seven fumbles and had eight sacks as a senior. "He had tremendous striking velocity," Milner said. "He made picture-perfect tackles where he ended up laying right on top of the guy. His senior season, we had to replace eight or nine helmets because he kept cracking them." He went to San Diego State.

Linebacker/Rex Moore

El Modena, 1982

Moore's aggressive, fanatical, reckless style of play, his physical nature and nose for the ball was indicative of the outstanding linebacker crop of the 1980s, which included Corona del Mar's Jerrott Willard (1980) and El Toro's Scott Ross (1986). Before attending USC, Moore (6-2, 223) had 98 tackles on a defense that allowed only 50 yards rushing per game. And, he was a good quote, once describing football as "kind of like a cockfight."

Linebacker/Brian Willmer

Sunny Hills, 1992

Willmer (6-3, 230) was a vicious hitter who helped the Lancers win two division titles, in 1990 and 1992. In the 14-13 victory over Rancho Alamitos his senior season, he had an astonishing 27 tackles in the Division VII championship game. He is playing at UCLA.

Defensive Back/Garry Templeton

Santa Ana Valley, 1973

Templeton (5-10, 170), who had nine interceptions as a senior, "led a succession of outstanding backs at Valley--including Noble Franklin (1974) and Reggie West (1975)--who broke each other's season interception record. Templeton chose baseball over a football scholarship to Arizona State. He had terrific speed and agility and allowed only one receiver to catch a ball against him in man-to-man coverage in two years. A talented free safety, his career decision wasn't bad, either: He emerged as one of the finest shortstops in his era and played 16 years, primarily with the Cardinals and Padres, and retired after the 1991 season. He lives in the San Diego area.

Defensive Back/Craig Rutledge

El Dorado, 1981

Rutledge (6-1, 180) intercepted six passes, returned two for touchdowns, caused three fumbles, recovered three fumbles, blocked one field goal and three point-after attempts his senior season. He had seven interceptions (three for touchdowns) and three fumble recoveries as a junior. Considered the county's most exciting senior, he had great range, instinct and reaction. A very physical player, he went to UCLA and played one year for the Rams. Living in Placentia, he works in financial and estate planning.

Defensive Back/Grant Pearsall

Villa Park, 1993

Pearsall (6-2, 190), a three-year, two-way starter, was easy to notice as a senior; he scored 23 touchdowns, gained 1,551 yards as a running back, returned punts and kicks (including five for touchdowns) and was equally tough against the run and pass as a defensive back (three interceptions, one for a touchdown). A big hitter, he had 76 tackles and was named all-American by two national recruiting magazines before going to USC.

Punter/Peter Crosser

Servite, 1995

Villa Park's Pat McInally played 10 years in the pros, but he was only an average punter in high school and college (38.1). Crosser (6-1, 215), a second-team all-county punter as a senior, was first team his junior season, averaging 44 yards. His real skill was apparent with the loft and spin he put on the ball; opponents fumbled at least one punt in 13 of Servite's 14 games, and the Friars recovered five of them. Now at Fullerton College, he was third in the Mission Conference at 40.1 per kick.

Kicker/Norm Johnson

Pacifica, 1977

Johnson (6-1, 190), now with the Steelers, also was a second-team all-county player as a tight end, but he got everyone's attention with his punting and kicking. Although his 16 field goals are modest by today's standard, Coach Bill Craven said he never put Johnson in the position to kick the long field goals unless time was a factor. One instance: Three seconds before halftime in 1976, Johnson kicked a 49-yard field goal against Monrovia; principals at both schools were standing on the inside edge of the running track, and the ball landed at their feet. Total distance: 65 yards in the air. Another night, in 1977, Johnson booted the kickoff through the uprights--70 yards, plus the height to get over the crossbar.

Return Specialist/Willie Gittens

Fountain Valley, 1977

Gittens (6-0, 175), the section player of the year, averaged 8.4 yards per carry and scored 25 touchdowns while playing sparingly because of Fountain Valley's dominance. An an explosive speed back who could also bust through tackles, he averaged 6.5 yards in his career (2,688 yards, 49 touchdowns). He had great vision in the open field, which worked well on special teams. "He also had tremendous acceleration, but he had the ability to ease up and let a block be set, and then accelerate through it," Milner said. "That's a rarity in high school."

Return Specialist/Emile Harry

Fountain Valley, 1981

Harry was a wide receiver who did his most fascinating work after catching the ball, averaging 24.1 yards per catch (37 for 894 yards and eight touchdowns): "He was always thinking four or five moves upfield," Milner said, and that translated well into the open field given him by returning punts and kicks. He was the Big Five player of the year. Harry had tremendous closing ability on a ball in the air, and he didn't lose yardage by letting it bounce. He returned kicks at Stanford (where he was an All-American) and in the NFL.

The Top Players

OFFENSE

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Name Position School Steve Beuerlein Quarterback Servite Kerwin Bell Running Back Edison Mickey Flynn Running Back Anaheim Ken Margerum Wide Receiver Fountain Valley Scott Miller Wide Receiver El Toro Tony Gonzalez Tight End Huntington Beach Duval Love Offensive Lineman Fountain Valley Joe Garten Offensive Lineman Valencia Keith Van Horne Offensive Lineman Fullerton Lance Zeno Offensive Lineman Fountain Valley John LaGrandeur Center Mater Dei

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DEFENSE

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Travis Kirschke Defensive Lineman Esperanza Paul Charlton Defensive Lineman Western Dan Owens Defensive Lineman La Habra Don Gibson Defensive Lineman El Modena Donn Moomaw Linebacker Santa Ana Mau Kalati Linebacker Los Amigos Rex Moore Linebacker El Modena Brian Willmer Linebacker Sunny Hills Garry Templeton Defensive Back Santa Ana Valley Craig Rutledge Defensive Back El Dorado Grant Pearsall Defensive Back Villa Park

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SPECIAL TEAMS

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Peter Crosser Punter Servite Norm Johnson Kicker Pacifica Willie Gittens Return Specialist Fountain Valley Emile Harry Return Specialist Fountain Valley

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