Like many offensive-minded football coaches of the era, Steve Da Prato liked to script his team’s first 20 plays.
The first few years I covered Modesto Junior College’s team for The Modesto Bee, I would ask Da Prato almost weekly for a copy of the script, and he always turned me down.
But on one Saturday late afternoon in 1999, after he probably already decided he was leaving the program, he walked up to me about 30 minutes before kickoff and handed me a sheet of paper. It was that game’s offensive script.
It was unspoken but understood that no one could know I had it. That was sacred, but it didn’t mean I couldn’t have a little fun.
MJC’s first possession started inside its 20-yard line, and a blast to the left side picked up two yards. I looked down at the script and smiled, then the devil on my shoulder took over and I spoke up loud enough to make sure the 10 people seated closest to me in the press box could hear.
“You know,” I said, with the most serious tone and poker face I could muster, “MJC has been working on a flanker reverse option pass all week, and with the ball on the left hash and the way the safety came up to attack that last run this would be a great time to run that play.”
No one except Da Prato would ever know how I could make that call, so 82 yards and 7-0 Pirates later, I was a press-box genius.
Given the time and space, I could fill this section with memories just like that one – tales funny and heartwarming, inspiring and tragic. Well, space on the Web is infinite, but my time at The Bee is up. As many of you already know, I’m excited to be joining the Office of Communications & Public Affairs at Cal State Stanislaus as senior writer, and this goodbye is my last piece as a Bee staff writer.
It has been my great honor to be able to write about the endeavors and achievements of local athletes for nearly 19 years. But the greatest joy of this job hasn’t been watching the games, it’s been building friendships and earning the trust of the people we cover. Those friendships aren’t going anywhere, and (I hope) the trust remains.
The only way to build such trust is to spend time around the programs, to show interest and write fairly – positive and negative – about the team’s achievements. Still, it takes time to earn that trust.
Part of my job in the late 1990s was also to cover Merced College athletics, and that likely was part of the reason it took so long for Da Prato to give me his script. He never was one to hide his disdain for all things Blue Devil. And that’s OK. I’ve come to discover that the longer it takes trust to blossom, the deeper the roots.
And there have been moments the depth of that trust has moved me.
Like the time, again on a football field, when Central Catholic coach Mike Glines invited me and fellow Bee staffer Will DeBoard into the Raiders’ fieldhouse – the inner sanctum – to watch his pregame speech before a playoff game. My memory might be fuzzy, but as I recall, Glines levitated. Ten minutes later, I was looking for a helmet.
Several times over the years, coaches have come up to me just to say something I wrote about a game was so honest it made them cry, and then there were times I’ve been moved to tears. Nothing’s tougher than writing the obituary of a friend or longtime acquaintance, and then there have been other exceptionally emotional moments I’ll never forget.
On Dec. 1, 2012, just before the Central Catholic-Escalon Sac-Joaquin Section Division IV football championship game at Lincoln High School, a Raiders assistant coach told me the father of lineman Spencer Stark died unexpectedly the day before. Again, he trusted me enough to know I would handle the situation and story appropriately.
So I watched Stark – a junior at the time and now a defensive lineman at Oregon – the entire game. He was stoic and dominant. I waited until well after the postgame celebration and team huddle finished, to catch Stark alone on the field. Only then did he let down his guard and, during the interview, we both cried.
On the other hand, there are few better feelings than to be able to witness and share the great accomplishments of those teams and athletes you’ve come to know, such as those spurred by the ongoing commitment of the coaches and staff behind the football programs at Oakdale, Escalon and Central Catholic, the basketball programs at Modesto Christian and Sierra. All are programs so solid it’s easy to take their successes for granted, but doing so would discount the remarkable effort it takes to ascend and stay at the top.
It can be even more thrilling to watch the sudden rise of a program, particularly a public high school team whose cycle of senior athletes peaked at the perfect moment to grab the surprise league championship, section title or make a run at a state football bowl, knowing all along this might be their school’s only shot.
The recent Beyer and Summerville basketball teams come to mind, but I’ll never forget Jeremy Plaa’s 2002 Gustine football team.
This is a school that had been playing football since the 1920s and never had a game as big as when it got to host Central Catholic for the section title. About 5,000 fans crowded the stadium that night, and one of the first fans through the gate asked me how I thought the game was going to turn out.
I didn’t want to disappoint the red-clad rooter, but I had to be honest and I told him the game could turn into a blowout. He raised an eyebrow and said, “You really think Gustine will win by that much?”
I’d say I’m going to miss that kind of spirit and unwavering loyalty to the home team, but I won’t. I’ll miss writing about it, but I’m not leaving the area and I’m not retiring.
Now that I’m taking a day job, I’ll be able to rediscover my inner fan – the guy who hasn’t been allowed to root in the press box through a 38-year sportswriting career that took me from Modesto to Fresno to San Diego to Hanford to Dover, Del., and Newark and New Brunswick, N.J., and finally back here in 1996, amassing a byline count, including blog posts, of more than 11,000 stories.
You’ll see me in the area’s stadiums, gyms and ballparks, supporting all the teams. I’ll be in the stands at John Thurman Field, finally getting the chance to root for the home team with a craft brew in my hand after covering more than 1,100 Li’l A’s and Nuts games.
I’ll be the guy without the notebook, and – exactly as it has been for the last 38 years – I’ll be having fun.
And all of it has been fun. Trust me, it has.
Follow Brian VanderBeek on Twitter @ModBeeSports.