Searching for Next Elway While Avoiding Fools

In case you've never cursed me or shredded something I wrote, let me introduce myself. For the last 25 years, I've been a so-called "high school sports expert" based in the San Fernando Valley.

Call me spoiled, but I started in 1976, the year John Elway was a sophomore quarterback at Granada Hills High. When one of the first people you cover is a future hall of famer, it raises expectations.

Elway established the highest standard for excellence on and off the field, something I've tried to follow as a sportswriter.

My goal is to never settle for the ordinary, never stop working hard and always treat people with respect, even the fools. Those are the rules I've lived by.

While others have gone on to what they thought were better assignments, where they sit in comfortable press boxes and have notes and statistical information hand delivered to them while they scarf free food, I've stuck with running up and down the sidelines of high school football games trying to stay out of the way of stressed coaches and crazed athletic directors.

I've been threatened with arrest only once, and that athletic director is long gone.

My focus isn't to get coaches fired or make principals look incompetent--that's our Page 2 columnist's job. Which is not to say that coaches, principals, athletes and parents haven't blamed me when they were having a bad day.

A coach got my home phone number, called at 7:30 a.m. and advised me to never step foot on his campus again because he didn't like something I wrote. A parent accused me of ruining his son's life by not selecting him to an all-star team. (The son went on to become a poorly paid teacher, so I do feel a little guilty.)

The most intriguing part of covering athletes is interviewing them before they are millionaires to gauge their character and values, then see how they change once stardom overtakes them. The ones who remember where they came from and who helped them along the way are my heroes.

Some people don't understand the importance of high school sports in Southern California. These same athletes will become America's Olympians, major leaguers and NBA, WNBA, NFL and World Cup performers.

One day Anthony Ervin is swimming for Newhall Hart High, and a short time later he's winning a gold medal in Sydney, Australia. One day Tyson Chandler of Compton Dominguez High is dunking the basketball against Inglewood, and a few months later he's an NBA lottery pick.

One day Marion Jones is sinking jump shots at Thousand Oaks High, and a few years later she's winning three gold medals and is the world's fastest woman. One day Bret Saberhagen is throwing a no-hitter in the City championship game at Dodger Stadium for Reseda Cleveland and three years later, he's the American League Cy Young Award winner.

I could go on, but you get the idea. No area produces a wider variety of top athletes. Maybe the fervor isn't as pitched as it is for football in Texas or basketball in Indiana, but from Canyon Country to Camarillo, from Mission Viejo to Compton, I've seen communities unite and be inspired by high school sports teams and athletes.

As for me, the focus is shifting, my horizons broadening. The Times has committed to daily high school sports coverage during the school year. Not only in the San Fernando Valley and Ventura and Orange counties, but for all of Southern California.

So for the past several months, I've been traveling our congested freeways trying to learn new nicknames and introduce myself to new people.

My job will be the same. It's to tell the stories how athletes succeed, no matter how much adversity they encounter.

It's to expose those who break rules in the erroneous belief that winning is more important than teaching right from wrong.

It's to celebrate the fun and excitement of teenagers competing to be the best across Southern California.

There are so many questions to be answered this football season.

Will Long Beach Poly end Concord De La Salle's triple-digit winning streak on Oct. 6 at Long Beach Veterans Stadium? Will running back Lorenzo Booker of Ventura St. Bonaventure make a run at the national single-season rushing record?

Can unsung Colt Brennan replace Matt Leinart at quarterback for Santa Ana Mater Dei? Will any team threaten Hart's 48-game Foothill League winning streak? Can Banning defend its City championship? How many teams will use the fumblerooski as their first play from scrimmage?

Elway is entering his third year of football retirement, but I'm nowhere near the end of my career. There are many more stories to tell.

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Eric Sondheimer can be reached at eric.sondheimer@latimes.com.

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