Questions linger, character shines at Prep

"It's like feeding them to the wolves."

Antonio Harrison

Flintridge Prep coach on what it would have been like if he would have elected to play his team against Campbell Hall.

With dark clouds looming and the rain sure to fall on a bleak Tuesday afternoon in early October, Antonio Harrison made a disheartening decision for an unprecedented second time.

Nearly two weeks have passed since Harrison and his Flintridge Prep football team forfeited their Prep League opener against Webb — their second forfeit of the season after a loss to Campbell Hall on Sept 24.

Ahead of them this week is a return to action and a homecoming game against Viewpoint that the Rebels see as a game of the utmost importance. Not because of Prep League standing, playoff implications or rivalry, no, it's something more now.

"The way we respond in these next few games is how we can change the point of view of how football is perceived at Prep," says Rebels junior Kurt Kozacik.

Right now, football at Prep should be perceived as a program in danger with warm bodies falling by the wayside and getting slimmer and slimmer by the play, the week and, perhaps, the season. But for the 16 or "hopefully 17" players, according to Harrison, that will suit up on Saturday at La Cañada High and however many finish out the 2011 season, it's clear that this autumn's challenges and hardships, while they've unveiled some serious concerns about the Prep program, have also revealed who these Rebels truly are.

As in any sport and with any team, this football season for these 2011 Rebels will likely be judged by wins and losses. Currently, they are 1-4 with four consecutive losses — two by forfeit and the other two by more than 40 points. Looking deeper into the numbers, these last four weeks have seen only one Rebels football game, with two forfeits and a bye week cluttered around a lopsided loss to Malibu. And, of course, there's the depleted roster that has bounced between 12 and 19 — figures that prove eye-popping for all the wrong reasons.

But as the focus for Flintridge Prep has moved to forfeited games, you get a more accurate glimpse when you look at their practices.

There was hell week. That's when all the work started and too many stopped showing up.

"It's just kind of unfortunate, because we've been working so hard since hell week," says junior Chad Cosse, who's played defensive end, defensive tackle, linebacker, offensive tackle, guard, punter and kicker. "After a certain point, you're just like c'mon, what else can happen?

"We want to play, but we can't when we have 15 players."

Just before hell week, Harrison's program lost 12 players combined from its junior varsity and varsity ranks.

So then, you take another look at the practices.

"We practice against air," Harrison says.

It's air or trash cans or sometimes JV opposition. But even then, Harrison has been forced to pull back the reins on physicality — not exactly an approach a football coach is excited to take, but in this season it's been a necessity. It's also been part of a vicious circle.

"The only game simulation they have is when they're in a game," Harrison says.

Indeed, one could only presume that a team denied full-speed contact isn't going to be ready or, at least, as ready as it should be come Friday or Saturday night when faced with live opposition.

And so this is the current state of Prep football. It is a program that won a CIF championship in 2003, culminating a run of more than a decade's worth of consecutive postseason appearances. Since then, the Rebels have put together but one winning season, three playoff appearances and not a single postseason win to speak of. It's an especially difficult reality for Harrison, a 28-year-old Prep graduate who played both ways on the football team, played three sports year-round and speaks about when it was Prep and archrival Pasadena Poly battling for league titles and taking lengthy playoff trips season after season.

Harrison also speaks of the decline of multi-sport athletes, the fact that, "people have forgotten what it means to be a football player."

But at Prep, there are other gridiron pitfalls. He has kids quitting because of school plays and devoting all their time to this extracurricular activity and that. He realizes he can do little, but encourage them. After all, what can you say and what would you want to say when somebody decides to devote all their time to their studies. It's not a problem singular to Rebels football either, as graduation isn't the only thing that takes players away from the softball team or the volleyball squad or the cross-country team, as they seemingly are always dealing with returning letterman lost to other activities or kids concentrating on one sport.

"Kids decide to go in different directions and I support that," says athletic director Alex Rivera, who's seen the highs, lows and everything in between at Flintridge Prep. "We just try and make it work as best as we can and be as positive as we can. With football, it's tougher because of how physical it is."

But yet this year, it's safe to say, has been the toughest.

Just ask Cosse or Kozacik or Clayton Weirick or Chris Wirthlin or any of the less than two-dozen Rebels that simply hope to suit up and play more than anything else. They've had the misfortune of learning that the sting of a forfeit is far more than that of a lopsided defeat on the field. They're the ones who have become recruiters trying to get others kids on campus to come out and play. They're the ones playing every play and often playing positions they're unfamiliar with. And they're the ones that deal with the jokes and the cracks around school.

"It's easy to look on and say, 'Why don't you guys win a game, why don't you guys play a game,'" Cosse says.

But when asked if he's ever contemplated quitting the team like those before him, Kozacik replies, "No," with exclamation and without hesitation before Cosse retorts in stereo.

"It's kind of a true test to see how we can stick in there," Kozacik says. "You just gotta have the attitude of playing football. It's a different game."

If there is a silver lining within this season — and believe me, there most assuredly is — it is what this weary and worn group of ironmen will take out of it. Sanctimonious as talk of moral victories may very well be at times, there are such instances in which they apply and this is one of them. In the battle of attrition that has become the Rebels' 2011 season, they have proven themselves to be winners every time they've shown up for practice, every time they've shown up to play against superior numbers, every time they've gotten up after they were knocked down and every time they've walked past a snide remark from a classmate who couldn't carry their jock and doesn't have the courage to go through what they're going through.

It's easy to play when you're injured, to show just how much heart you have when you're playing in the Super Bowl. But when you've got the fortitude and the courage to get up and keep playing and keep showing up when you're losing by lopsided scores in a season long since decided, that says something else. That shows the kind of character that stays with a man forever.

"It takes a special kid to step up and face this," Harrison says.

Through all the tribulations and struggles, these Rebels, win or lose on the field, have showcased the kind of spirit that will carry them beyond their high school days.

As for the Flintridge Prep program, as a whole, that is clearly a predicament that will not be remedied by any easy answers.

At the end of the day, you can't force kids to play a sport and you can't force them to keep playing a sport.

"The problem's not getting them as freshman, the problem's keeping them," Harrison says.

How that can be changed is an arduous quandary, because the effort to change it has clearly been put forth. Harrison is set to lose five seniors to graduation and only has three sophomores to promote from the JV squad next year. Rivera, citing previous seasons' problems with small numbers at the small school, believes it will get better, while he admits, "We do need to pick up our numbers. We have to work on it."

Just how serious this problem is to the future of Flintridge Prep football will only be answered in the future, perhaps next summer or perhaps farther down the road.

"It can go either way for this football program," Harrison says. "If we don't have a proactive approach and go out there collectively and try and change things, it can be the dire end of the program or it can be a new beginning to getting things back to how they need to be."

There are few certainties for a program hoping that its glory days are not merely in the past, but also ahead.

One certainty is that these are historic days for the Rebels. Historic not in aspirations of title glory and championship expectation, but historic in the aspect that like these 2011 Rebels have done time after time, play after play, practice after practice and game after game, now more than ever, Flintridge Prep football has to find away to keep picking itself back up. If nothing more, these players that keep showing up have displayed that a heartbeat is still healthy within the program, but something has to change, and support — from the student body, the faculty, the parents and the community — must be had to ensure that this is, in fact, the genesis of change and not the end of once storied Rebel days.

That's just the way I see it, playing second string.

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