August 16, 2014
(Center L-R) Michael Chiklis as Terry Eidson and Jim Caviezel as Bob Ladouceur in 'When the Game Stands Tall.' (Tracy Bennett/Sony Pictures)
The story of the De La Salle High School football program that will flash across movie screens this week -- "When the Game Stands Tall" -- is wrapped around an unprecedented 151-game winning streak that the Catholic boys school in Concord assembled from 1992 to 2004.
The streak was built across 12 perfect seasons, including 32 playoff games, during which De La Salle outscored opponents 7,092-1,323 (average score: 47-9) and was five times ranked the No. 1 high school team in the nation by USA Today.
The program has barely blinked in the 10 years since -- a 126-12-2 record, with 10 North Coast Section titles and five state championships. Last season, the Spartans' first in 35 years without coach Bob Ladouceur at the helm, they were 14-1 and state runners-up under Justin Alumbaugh, who once played for Ladouceur.
How does this happen -- in the East Bay, of all places -- at a private school with barely 1,000 students?
Let's begin at the beginning, with the basics any football fan will recognize -- grueling practices and endless repetition of fundamentals.
"It's basic, it's the minutiae, and it's very boring," said quarterbacks/running backs coach Mark Panella. "It's the mechanics and fundamentals. We go over and over and over and over them, day in and day out. It's monotonous."
Panella played on Ladouceur's first two North Coast Section champions, and he said the fundamentals have always been pounded into players.
Then there's the unrelenting emphasis on conditioning, from the weight room to the torturous drills, in which sweat-soaked players are expected to run full out while dragging car tires across practice fields when they're not pounding on blocking sleds. Players put in anywhere from 16 to 17 hours a week in practice, film sessions and conditioning.
"There have been times when we've been successful against them for a half," said George Zuber, who's faced the Spartans twice while coaching at James Logan High in Union City and five times when he was at San Leandro. "But they'll wear you down in the second half, and that's where they excel with their conditioning and strength."
And always there are the players. De La Salle seems so loaded with talent each year -- 12 players have gone on to become NFL draft choices since 1994 -- that opponents regularly tar the school with charges of illegally recruiting talent, a claim that school officials have learned to laugh off.
"I was at a meeting years ago," said Brother Robert Wickman, the school's principal, "when a principal from another school said to me, 'I hear that every time one of your football players scores a touchdown, he gets a tuition reduction.' I told him, 'No, you've got it all wrong. When they score touchdowns, we give them cars.'"
Annual tuition at De La Salle is more than $15,000. The fact the school provides scholarships to low-income students -- some of whom are athletes from well outside Concord -- inevitably is linked to the recruiting assertions. School President Mark DeMarco tackled that one head-on.
"Out of 50 kids on scholarship, maybe three or four are on the varsity," he said, "and some others are on the J.V. team -- maybe 10 or 12 total out of the 50. The financial aid and tuition packets are handled in a blind process."
Defensive coordinator Terry Eidson, who has been at Ladouceur's side for 34 seasons (Ladouceur now is an assistant coach), said there's a simpler explanation for why the school attracts students from far and wide.
"We're a private Catholic boys school, and we're the only one in Contra Costa -- 75 percent of our (school's) population is Catholic," he said. "Most of our kids come from a 10- or 12-mile radius, like Maurice Jones-Drew. He came from Holy Rosary Parish in Antioch. If you're a Catholic, where else do you go?"
Give the final word to Zuber, who has gone 0-7 against De La Salle: "De La Salle doesn't recruit. They don't have to. Their winning recruits for them."
But not even highly trained, talented athletes can fully explain the stunning run of excellence for a small school like De La Salle. That traces to the way-back years and the vision for the football program shared by Ladouceur and Eidson.
"We knew it could be about a lot more than just winning and losing," Eidson said. "It could be a vehicle to get to kids and share lessons about growing up and maturing. A lot of coaches give lip service to it, but it really starts with the fact that our coaches see themselves as educators. The football field just becomes an extension of our classroom.
"Our plan wasn't domination of the area. We started out just trying to get De La Salle into the playoffs."
Author Neil Hayes, the former Contra Costa Times columnist who wrote the book upon which the movie is based, said what has always set the football program apart are values that Ladouceur drilled into his players: Never give anything less than your best and always be accountable to your teammates. No half-efforts are tolerated; no excuses accepted.
It's no coincidence that Ladouceur and Eidson both were teachers before they were coaches. From the outset, they viewed football as a tool to impart life lessons. Victories are a byproduct of fulfilling responsibilities, as is success in life.
"The football program isn't about winning," Hayes said. "It's about maximizing your potential. I've seen 'Lad' furious after a 44-0 victory and pleased after a loss when his players gave full effort."
Said Panella: "He has an innate ability to know what each individual kid needs to motivate him to become not just a better player but a better person."
One of Hayes' favorite passages in the book comes from Ladouceur:
"Kids respect true humility and that you stand for something more than winning. They'll fight for you and your program if you stand for more than that. It boils down to what you believe in as a person, and I'm talking about how life should be lived and people should be treated. Kids see all that. It's a whole package of things that have nothing do with standing in front of a team with a piece of chalk."
Make no mistake, though. Ladouceur knows his way around x's and o's.
The veer offense he installed -- a run-first attack powered by quick, disciplined offensive linemen -- dares opponents to stop it from chewing up yards between the tackles. If perimeter defenders pinch in to help, the quarterback fakes an inside handoff and squirts around end, or pitches to a trailing running back for a free run down the sideline. De La Salle runs these plays to the right and runs them to the left, always probing for weaknesses that can be exploited later.
About the time opponents believe they're committed to the run, the Spartans rev up the passing game or unveil a gadget play. Halfback options and reverses are a staple of the playbook. Even the special teams have gimmicks -- fake punts and onside kicks -- in their arsenal.
Zuber remembers a game in which the Spartans offense came off the field on fourth down, so he sent in his punt-return unit. Then De La Salle sent its offense back onto the field, and he had to call timeout so his defense could return.
Then De La Salle jumped into punt formation and began calling signals. Flummoxed defenders, unaccustomed to special teams duties and anxious for the snap, jumped offside, and De La Salle had a new set of downs.
Through it all -- the perfect seasons, the state championships, the unfathomable streak -- the school has never posted a sign or hung a banner on campus celebrating its success. ("That's one thing the movie gets wrong," DeMarco said. "They have a banner hanging from the front of the school. There's no way we'd put a banner up.")
That's a reflection of Ladouceur, Wickman said. "Bob says let your performance on the field speak for itself."
Obviously, it did. It spoke loudly enough to capture Hollywood's attention.
Contact Tom Barnidge at firstname.lastname@example.org.