A wind brushed through Newport Harbor High Wednesday just before noon. A small group of students and teachers huddled near a table where senior JB Salem sincerely thanked them for their support.
Salem, a 6-foot-4, 265-pound defensive tackle, then signed his National Letter of Intent to play football at Stanford. Salem's family watched with great joy. His father, Jesse Salem, choked up a bit when he talked about watching his son's special moment that took place in front of his friends, teammates and high school coaches.
"It's the proudest day of my life," Jesse Salem said, reflecting on the quaint ceremony for his son.
It wasn't so much about the event, it was more about the entire process. That includes his son, James Bernard, growing up.
JB will grow up some more. In a few months he'll be playing for a national championship contender. Newport Harbor has a good football program, but it will still be very different playing on the next level. However, JB is no stranger to transition. That will help.
After attending private Harbor Day School, kindergarten through eighth grade, JB decided to switch into the public-school system. But that wasn't the only new chapter in his life. He also chose to take on football for the first time. He had never played tackle football before.
"He was pretty raw when he first came out," Newport Harbor freshman coach Joe Urban said. "He had a motor. About 25% through the season, he figured out that, 'Hey, I'm big and fast and I can dominate here.'"
Urban also appreciated JB's attitude. Some players who become big-name varsity players at football programs tend to forget about their freshman coach. But JB never forgot Urban. When varsity practices ended during the fall, sometimes JB hugged Urban when he saw him on his way to the locker room.
Most teachers and coaches who know JB at Newport Harbor, they say, "Good kid," when they describe him.
"In the 16 years of coaching, he's in my Hall of Fame for a good kid," Urban said. "I'm not supposed to have favorites, but he's one of my favorites."
Newport Harbor Coach Jeff Brinkley was excited for JB on Wednesday. Brinkley knows JB gets it. The coach realizes the big defensive tackle bought into Newport's team concept.
Hearing Salem speak after signing would make Brinkley beam with pride too.
"This is more of a representation of everyone and everything here," Salem said of his special day. "This is about my coaches and my teammates. It's a reflection of this whole entire program.
"My biggest accomplishment at Newport Harbor is the success we had winning as a team, going to the playoffs two of the three years I was on varsity, which is not an easy thing to do. We did a lot of good things as a team. And, for me it's all about the team."
The team concept resonated throughout the Newport-Mesa School District on Wednesday. In addition to JB signing to Stanford, the Sailors also learned that soccer player Megan Khademi signed her letter of intent to play for Nevada.
It was not just a teamwork focus at the schools. But there was also a sense of family among the athletes at Newport Harbor, Corona del Mar, Estancia and Costa Mesa. At CdM, Athletic Director Don Grable helped put together a big ceremony for Brian Ford (soccer, UC Davis), Chase Watson (water polo, USC), Emery Molnar (water polo, USC), Lindsey Luke (soccer, Wake Forest), Peter Markel (football, University of British Columbia), Trevor Russell (crew, UC Berkeley) and Michael Delahanty (crew, UC Berkeley).
Grable had the athletes sit at a scorer's table on a stage at the school's quad area. Athletes who signed for colleges earlier in the year sat behind the seven. Music blared before Grable took the microphone and began the cermony. It was short. All the kids had to do was sign and smile for photos. But it was special. Something tells me this is a first of many signing day ceremonies at CdM.
At Estancia, the Eagles honored Jackie Freiberger (soccer, Cal State Dominguez Hills) and Kassie Stratton (basketball, University of Colorado, Colorado Springs), who had committed earlier, with ceremonies. At Costa Mesa, Sami Feinstein (soccer, Cal State Dominguez) also signed at a table in the Mustangs' gym.
There were plenty of photos, athletes posing with friends, coaches, teachers and teammates. Teamwork. Family.