MODESTO — For as long as I can remember, I've loved high school football. I was born in Dos Palos, a football-crazed town of about 5,000 on Merced County's Westside, which has a football tradition just about as rich as anybody's in the state. I got a football helmet for Christmas when I was 5.
The first thing I did was draw horseshoes on the side to make it look like DP's.
My first real job was covering high school football for the Merced Sun-Star back in 1986. My first assignment was to cover Jerry Van Lengen's great Hilmar team led by tailback Ave DeSilva.
DeSilva was a little runt. He was listed on the roster at 5 feet, 6 inches, and you know what that means he wasn't. He probably didn't weigh a buck forty, either. But talk about tough. The kid was fearless. I say "kid." He was about 18 months younger than I was.
And, now, after 15 years away from the sidelines, I'm back at it, leading The Bee's prep sports coverage.
Funny how it's come full circle. I started out watching DeSilva, and now I'll be closely watching two more undersized tailbacks in Central Valley's Ja'Quan Gardner and Orestimba's Steven Machado.
Gardner and Machado both stand 5-foot-7, and weight 170 and 175 pounds, respectively. But both can make themselves bigger in Stanislaus District lore this season. After two varsity campaigns, Gardner has rushed for 3,547 career yards, while Machado isn't far behind at 3,220.
The Stanislaus District career mark is 5,140 by Louis Bland of Central Catholic (2004-2007). Essentially, if Gardner and Machado repeat what they did last season they'll both break the record. Gardner needs 1,594 to surpass Bland. Machado needs 1,921.(In case you're wondering, the single-season District mark is 2,195 by Hughson's Homer Garza in 1997.)
"It would mean a lot to me to break the record, just to help my whole program," says Gardner. "It would put us on the map my school, the program, the whole city of Ceres."
Machado has similar motivation.
"It would mean the world to me because where I come from, not many players have success beyond high school," says Machado. "It would definitely mean a lot to me."
More than being great running backs, both seem like wonderful young men. Polite, articulate and funny.
But don't take my word for it.
"Ja'Quan is obviously a greatly skilled athlete, but he's very humble and very grounded in his values and in his beliefs," says CV coach Jason McCloskey. "He's funny and witty and he's the type of young man I wish my daughter would date. He's just like a son to me."
McCloskey calls Gardner the best football player he's ever seen, and he's been coaching 15 years, including a stint on the staff of a state championship team in Minnesota. He says he's timed Gardner at 4.37 seconds (hand-held) in the 40-yard dash. And even though he's added about a dozen pounds of muscle to his frame Gardner can bench press 275, and squat and deadlift 405 he's faster than last season. Plus, he hasn't fumbled in two varsity seasons.
"Back in June, Fresno State clocked him at 4.42 ... twice," says McCloskey. "He has that uncoachable ability to be elusive and powerful at the same time. He feels things on the field before he sees them. I have the game film to prove it."
Orestimba coach Aaron Souza gives a similar description of Machado.
"Start with natural ability, then an unparalleled work ethic, then he has heart and a passion for the game," says the Warriors coach. "Put all those factors together and he's an all-around, complete player."
Machado worked out at the Chabot combine in Hayward last April and ran a hand-held 4.44 in the 40. His second attempt was 4.37. The timer didn't believe his own stopwatch and made him do a third run.
Machado clocked a 4.38.
"The knock on Steven comes down to size," says Souza. "With his strength, his vision and his breakaway speed, he has all the other requirements to be a major college back."
Both backs begin their chase for the record on Aug. 30. Gardner faces a talented Manteca squad to start the season, and has has Division 4 state champ Central Catholic on the schedule not to mention Los Banos, Pacheco and Patterson.
Machado opens against three-time defending Sac-Joaquin Section D-5 champ Le Grand, and will also face Hilmar, Escalon and Hughson, which held him to minus-11 yards last year.
When it comes to which game Gardner is most anticipating, he'll only say, "All of them starting with Manteca."
As for the current record holder, Bland didn't even realize he was No. 1.
"Honestly ... I didn't even know I held the record," said Bland, who is an academic coordinator for the Weber State football team in Ogden, Utah. "Playing for Coach (Mike) Glines, who nitpicks every little thing you do right, there's no time for records. If he even thought you were thinking about records, you'd be running or not playing. He needed your mind on winning, not records.
"But it's wonderful, I love it. This stuff needs to happen for the game to evolve."
Let the chase begin.