Football Hit by Culture Blocks

Times Staff Writer

On game nights not too long ago, the blue and white of the Titans would blanket the San Marino High bleachers. The ritual often extended into the playoffs, once stretching into 14 weeks as the team reached the championship game.

“It’s what you did Friday nights,” said D.R. Moreland, the school’s rookie coach who played Titan football from 1987 to 1991. “The whole town shut down.”

But as Moreland looks out onto the field as his players practice this summer, he sees a changed community -- where the demands of football aren’t often aligned with the aspirations and expectations of the San Gabriel Valley’s Asian immigrant families. To them, football is as familiar as competitive badminton is to most Americans.


“For Asians, it’s never been about football,” said Alex Chen, a sleek, 5-foot-6, 130-pound senior taking a break during a recent practice. “It’s always been about other sports like tennis or volleyball.”

The 17-year-old is aware of San Marino’s glorious gridiron past: the nine consecutive playoff appearances beginning in 1987, the successes of the late ‘70s and the championships in the 1950s. It may be impossible to reach such heights again, he said.

“We’re outsized and out-strengthed,” he said. “Asian parents don’t support sports, especially at San Marino. It’s always been about education. That’s why we’re dropping in [the California Interscholastic Federation]. It’s majority Asian in San Marino.”

Seventy percent of the school’s 1,200 students are Asian, to be exact. When Moreland was a student, it was closer to 40%. The football team has grown increasingly Asian as well: from a third of the squad 15 years ago to about half today.

This is not to suggest that all Asians are small or new to football. The presence of quarterback Marques Tuiasosopo with the Oakland Raiders, and many other Samoans playing college ball or in the NFL, is proof of that.

Neither is sports entirely a novelty. Many schools in the San Gabriel Valley boast healthy tennis, golf and badminton squads. But deciphering the Xs and O’s of American football, especially among immigrants, is another matter.


So Moreland faces a daunting task when his goal is to reclaim the Rio Hondo League title for the first time since 1995. The team hasn’t had a winning season since 2001 and posted a 4-7 record last year.

“Asian people are quick and have good technique, but we’re shorter,” said Chen, who’s trying out for quarterback. “It’s all about putting effort in. We all know we’re not going to play college football.”

Chen said he played the game because he enjoys its competitive nature and likes to hit and tackle opponents. He also likes the attention from girls. He said after he started playing in fifth grade his parents were horrified by his bruises after games and wanted him to quit. But he refused.

“I may be the shortest quarterback you’ve ever seen,” he said. “I can’t even see over the [offensive] line sometimes. I’m not going to lie. It’s just a blur.”

His teammate Jeff Chung, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, concurred: “Sometimes he throws the ball, and I can’t see him. It’s like it came out of nowhere.”

The reigning league champion, Temple City, featured 21 players weighing 200 pounds or more last year. Sixteen of its 49 players were 6 feet or taller. The high school has nearly 2,000 students -- 53% are Asian -- but only five Asian names appeared on its roster last year.


Of the 56 players who are trying to make the San Marino squad this fall, eight weigh more than 200 pounds, and 13 are 6 feet or taller. Moreland expects 15 to 20 tryouts to drop out before September.

During the season, Chung said, school spirit for the team has been weak. On a good Friday night, they’ll draw close to 200 supporters. Sometimes, the visiting fans outnumber the home fans.

“It’s not like kids say in the hallway, ‘The quarterback or the running back is coming by,’ ” said Chung, 16. “No one is like, ‘How was your game?’ ”

School board members and principals want students and parents to become more enthusiastic about sports because, they say, it helps build character, leadership and self-esteem.

“How do we increase participation, particularly for people who are new to the culture here?” said Jeanie Caldwell, school board president. “How can we share how important sports is to the educational process? First, we’re going to stop using ‘extracurricular’ and talk about sports being ‘co-curricular.’ ”

Despite all the academic accolades the high school and the rest of the district have received, board members say, athletics needs to be improved before the district can boast of offering a fully comprehensive education. A committee was formed to reinvigorate sports in the district of 3,300 youngsters.


“No question. We are nowhere where we used to be,” said San Marino High Principal Loren Kleinrock, who until this year had coached football at the school since 1975.

“There’s an element of the community that would like to see us return to our glory days,” he said.

Today, San Marino Unified has a higher percentage of Asian students than any other district in California, according to the state Department of Education. Mass immigration from Taiwan, Hong Kong, China, Korea and Vietnam altered the demographics in the San Gabriel Valley in the 1970s and ‘80s, and according to the U.S. Census, nearly a quarter of the valley’s 1.8 million residents are Asian.

Some coaches say it is inevitable that more talented Asian football players will emerge in the San Gabriel Valley.

“It’s more about cultural differences than size or ability,” said Lou Torres, Alhambra High’s athletic director and varsity football coach. “We have a lot of Asian kids on the basketball team. They can jump; they have size. I’d love to have them on my football team. What prevents them from being football players is mental and cultural barriers. A lot of parents just won’t let them play football.”

Alhambra High, which has had varying football success over the years, is 54% Asian. Like many teams in the region, the Moors are overwhelmingly Latino, with only three Asian players last year.


But Torres says he has seen breakthroughs, the most recent in the form of Kenric Lo, a 230-pound lineman of Chinese heritage. The junior was so inexperienced last season, he drew Chinese characters on his thigh that explained his blocking assignments.

In the late 1980s, Torres encouraged a Chinese student to play. Though his English was poor, the youngster was strong and quick, so Torres told him his job was to tackle the punt returner.

During the boy’s first game, the punt returner “put up his hand to signal a fair catch,” Torres said. “I’m thinking in my head, ‘Did we explain to him what a fair catch was?’ Sure enough, he cut him in half. The referee wanted to kick him out of the game. I had to explain he didn’t know. He was new, he was Chinese. It was my fault.”

Mark Keppel High is two decades removed from its last winning season, and the lack of interest in football by most of the student body and their parents is a hurdle, said head coach Jim Riggio.

“At first, my parents didn’t know what football was,” said Davis Do, a Vietnamese Chinese American senior at Mark Keppel, where 71% of the students are Asian. “They thought I was playing soccer. So I showed them on TV, and they were shocked.”

Do was eventually allowed to suit up for the team, which is on a 26-game losing streak. Riggio said he’s considering asking the dance team to perform at games to attract larger crowds.


“I sometimes dig into the basketball team for players,” Riggio said. “Even the badminton team. There’s some athletes in that group. They can play a corner.”

Riggio played for San Gabriel High. He harks back to a time when the San Gabriel Valley was awash with football fever. He vividly recalls losing a crucial game to San Marino more than 20 years ago in the final 30 seconds.

“They beat us on a screen pass,” he said. “It still haunts me to this day.”