On one of the hottest days of the summer, 23 football players gather in the campus basement under a loading dock that serves as the Belmont High weight room. The place has air conditioning, but many of the players’ T-shirts are soaked to a charcoal color by perspiration, and the sound of their work — the clang of weights hitting the floor — can be heard over music blaring from a speaker.
The players are training to represent a downtown Los Angeles campus that in the 1990s was home to 5,500 students each year, the largest enrollment in California. But times have changed, and Belmont is projected to have a student body of fewer than 700.
That’s because the Los Angeles Unified School District went on a building spree to relieve overcrowding. Roybal, Contreras, West Adams, Downtown Business Magnet and Ramon C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts are among the new high schools competing for students within blocks of Belmont.
Scott McLane, a lanky, 6-foot-6, fourth-year coach and special education teacher with a graying beard, never knew how important it would be for him to speak Spanish when he was hired. It wasn’t a prerequisite for the position, but almost every day, his bilingual skills come into play as he searches the hallways seeking to convince students to try football.
This season he has four new players who are taking classes to learn English.Most come from Central America, so they are learning a new language at the same time they are learning a new game.
You can’t simply tell someone to “go deep” or “hit the hole” and have them look it up on Google translate. Fortunately, most of Belmont’s returning players are bilingual, so they can help translate and offer tips to their new teammates.
“Football is a lingo-heavy language sport because you have to have a playbook with certain languages and words,” McLane said. “’Power’ means everything in football language, but means nothing naturally. There’s also explaining like, ‘Cut.’ You have to figure out how to do a better job communicating.”
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One player’s primary language is a rural dialect from Guatemala. His second language is Spanish. Third is English. McLane is trying to pass on his offensive playbook using computer software that’s similar to a video game.
One player, now in his second year of football, recalled how difficult it was for him as a rookie. “I remember,” he said, “every play I had to ask, ’What am I supposed to do?’”
Several of the English as a second language students are receivers, so it’s no surprise if assistant Carlos Reynosa is yelling, “Sigue corriendo,” which means “keep running ” in Spanish. McLane’s wife, Veronica, is a teacher fluent in Spanish, and she helps translate at parent meetings.
“In the big picture, it’s not a negative,” McLane said. “I think it’s a good thing because it helps us work together as a team.”
It’s another challenge for McLane, and not unique among the 68 high school football coaches in the diverse LAUSD. What’s happening at Belmont is similar to what’s happening elsewhere. McLane said the $2,811 coaching stipend he gets from the district is nearly gone by the end of the summer, even though he’s not supposed to officially start work until July 29. He uses the money to pay for conditioning ropes, passing competitions, food and other miscellaneous but important items not covered by student body budgets.
Then there are the daily frustrations that stem from basic preparations in advance of the upcoming season, from making sure players set up appointments for required physicals to finding them transportation to attend practices.
McLane said players have had to skip practices to stay home and watch siblings while mom or dad is at work. Others couldn’t show up because they had to work. Belmont’s all-weather football field has been condemned and needs to be replaced, forcing practices to move to the softball field and games this fall to be rescheduled.
“Don’t matter, get better. That’s the saying every day,” McLane said. “I told our kids, every team in order to win has to learn to overcome challenges. We just have ours right up front and every day. At a certain level, it’s sort of making us better.”
He continues to search the hallways for prospective players and tells current players to ask their friends.
“If you’re willing to learn and give it a try, I’d love to have you on our team,” he tells candidates in English and Spanish.
Right now, there’s just one incoming freshman out for football — and that’s because his brother was on the team and he knew who to contact to join practices. Whether Belmont has a junior varsity team will depend on how many players come out once school begins. The current roster lists 32 players in the program.
Belmont won its first and only championship in football in 2015, winning the Division III championship the year before McLane took over for a retiring coach. The Sentinels have been known for powerful cross-country and soccer teams and have an 86% Latino student body.
McLane has succeeded in recruiting players from the soccer team. Juan Ariza, a 5-foot-3, 127-pound junior soccer player with a 4.0 grade-point average, is trying to become a defensive back. He considered giving up football a couple weeks ago after realizing he would be taking four advanced placement classes in the fall. But he decided, “I think I can handle it.”
Said Ariza: “A lot want to try it but are afraid to ask. A lot of people regret not playing.”
One of McLane’s star players is 5-3, 135-pound safety Rafa Padilla. A captain, leader and fundamentally perfect tackler, Padilla might get carried a couple yards while on the back of a bigger ballcarrier, but McLane said, “If I had 100 players like him, I’d win a championship.”
McLane was asked why he coaches when there are so many daily obstacles to overcome.
“At the end of the day, like any coach in the City Section, I’d love to win a ring for a City championship,” he said. “But what I hope is in 10 years these kids are able to buy a house and have been able to establish themselves in a way that’s going to be good for their future.
“And I tell them, ‘Make sure I’m the first person you invite over and cook a good meal.’ At the end of the day, I can go to sleep at night with that. That’s what keeps me going.”