ESCALON -- Danny Thompson figures he hasn't missed an Escalon High football game since 1995. Thomas Martin remembers getting hooked by Cougars' football the first time he saw it. Spencer Franceschetti is the third member of his family to be Escalon's starting quarterback.
Similar stories can be found throughout this country in one-school towns that have football at or near the center of their existence, towns in which football serves as both social hub and barometer of that city's self-esteem.
Thompson and Martin are two-way senior starters this season for the Cougars, while Franceschetti is a junior. They are three of the 43 young athletes who see tonight's game against visiting Patterson High as not just a great early-season battle, but another chance to uphold the purple and gold tradition that is as much a part of Escalon as the railroad tracks that bisect the town.
"Old guys at the coffee shop are always talking about Escalon football, because it's important to this town," Thompson said. "As a player, you feel that support. You get the feeling that you're playing for them.
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"When they talk to you, you realize that they helped build what we stand for. This has been an amazing football program for years and years. There's pressure that comes with that, but it's a good pressure. It's our duty to uphold the tradition."
Both Escalon and Patterson have morphed beyond the idea that their high schools merely have football teams. No, both schools have bona fide programs. The difference? A team reinvents itself each year, while a program picks up where it left off and builds from there.
Escalon's football program has been in place for a generation, riding a streak of success unmatched at the small public school level, while Patterson is a giant-come-lately, built from the ground up by coach Rob Cozart.
"Robbie has a different kind of athlete to work with right now, and with the size of the school, realignment will take care of a lot of things in a couple years," said Escalon's Loureiro. "They've had a growth explosion. With Robbie being a great coach, they've been able to build and take big steps toward becoming what they are."
Enjoy this instant rivalry while you can, since league realignment in 2010 is certain to move Patterson up at least one level. Escalon began the year with an enrollment of 979, and with the city's strict cap on housing starts is unlikely to grow. Patterson reported to the CIF an enrollment of 1,666 -- a figure that would make it the second-largest school in the Valley Oak League behind Manteca's 1,679.
"Our enrollment is going backward," Loureiro said. "They're projecting that as these kids now in fifth and sixth grade reach high school, we're going to have about 850 kids here.
"There are two ways to look at that. You have a lot of loyalty and fan support, like in a lot of one-school towns. The people here bleed purple and gold and being a part of Escalon football is the thing to do in this town. Everybody buys into the program, and everybody wants to be a part of this, and that's the very nice part of it."
Loureiro played football for his father, Bob Loureiro, at Escalon, and is in his 20th season as the Cougars' head coach. That's a measure of continuity that breeds a great deal of trust, so if you're playing football in Escalon at any level you're doing it Loureiro's way, which means 12-year-olds are running the wing-t offense.
"All our Pop Warner teams run the same stuff," Loureiro said. "Many of these kids have been ball boys and have lived for years wanting to be a part of this. There's a loyalty built-in here with the kids, and they grow up loyal to the program, even though they might not realize it at that age."
But some did.
"I came to the games when I was little and I dreamed about playing here," said Martin, a lineman. "It's the glory, it's the fight and it's having the whole town behind you. You go to the Donut Shack and see old guys there, and they know what's going on with the team. We have businesses closing on Friday nights so they can come out the stadium and root us on. As soon as I saw an Escalon football game and saw how people got into it, I knew I wanted to be a part of it."
Thompson, a receiver and defensive back, is part of a larger Escalon football community, since his mother is a teacher and helps to coach the Cougars' cheerleaders.
"I've been to pretty much every football game -- home and away -- since I was four or five," Thompson said. "I've seen it all, seen the guys wearing the purple and gold and knowing at a very young age that I wanted that. I was the Pop Warner kid, the ball boy, the waterboy, the whole deal."
Franceschetti's father, Bob Franceschetti, was a three-sport athlete at Escalon in the late-1970's, and quarterbacked the Cougars. Brother Zack Franceschetti quarterbacked the Cougars to a Division IV section crown in 2000.
"You always feel like you're playing for a lot more than the school," Spencer Franceschetti said. "You're playing for the town, you're playing for all the people who have come through here and you're even playing for family."