Tre Fields, a co-captain of the Carl Hayden Community High School Falcons football team, slipped into that place between consciousness and dreaming.
A thought rolled into Tre's mind and stuck.
"We are going to win this game."
New Times feature
The 17-year-old senior lineman was resting in bed at his home near 35th Avenue and Buckeye Road. He lives there with his paternal grandmother, some of his nine siblings, and a few cousins.
It was September 16, one night before the Falcons would take the field against the San Luis Sidewinders, a school tucked away near Yuma on the borders of Arizona, California, and Mexico.
Soft-spoken and thoughtful, Tre's not shaken up by much anymore:
His mother long has been out of his life (he calls his beloved grandmother "Mom"), and his father died in prison when Tre was 11. Tre wears number 73 in honor of the year his late dad, Tim Fields, was born.
His uncle Albert Tellez, a surrogate father and best friend, died in his sleep last year after suffering a seizure.
But Tre isn't a bitter kid. Actually, his consideration for those around him is infinitely larger than his 310-pound body.
Tre has been playing varsity football since late in his freshman year, and he is capable on the field. He says emissaries from better football programs have approached him over the years with under-the-table offers to transfer.
But Tre has stayed put.
"Started as a Falcon, and that's what I am," he says. "This is where my friends are, and this where I'm supposed to be."
Tre was very excited about the game with San Luis. Carl Hayden had lost close games to the Sidewinders in the previous two years.
The game was scheduled for Thursday night instead of the usual Friday to accommodate the Jewish holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It was a coincidence of the calendar that would not personally affect anyone on either squad.
"One win; all I ask," Tre said on game day to no one in particular. "Been a long time. It's right here. I can taste it!"
Minutes before the opening kickoff, the public-address announcer at Falcon Field spoke to the several hundred fans in attendance (an especially large crowd for the school), his voice echoing into the neighborhood around 35th Avenue and Roosevelt:
"Welcome to tonight's game. Varsity is 0-2 at the moment, looking for its first win!"
That was an understatement.
Carl Hayden High had lost 66 games in a row, the longest losing streak of any high school football team in the United States. The Falcons hadn't won a varsity game since 2002, before anyone on the current squad had reached his teens.
The school seemed to be careening toward the national record of 81 straight defeats, set during the 1990s by tiny Glascock County in east Georgia.
Cleveland Dansby, Carl Hayden's head coach, would go into the San Luis game with a record of 0-42 at the school.
No wins in four years and counting for a man whose outstanding football pedigree included selection as Arizona Coach of the Year in the early 1990s while at South Mountain High.
Coach Dansby read his team an e-mail from a Virginia man shortly before sending them onto the field. The writer, Mike Bell, had heard about the Falcons' losing streak and felt moved to contact the coach, a stranger.
"I know a little about bouncing back against the odds," he wrote, explaining that he suffers from late-stage cancer.
"My odds aren't terrific, but I don't plan to lose, even if I run out of time. The Falcons may be statistically running uphill, but you have built a team and shown young men that it is their character of participation that will define their team way beyond the scoreboard."
He concluded, "I don't gamble on sports, but if I did, I could not bet against the Falcons. Their time is now!"
No one dared to even breathe too loudly after Cleveland Dansby finished reading. A burly man in his early 50s, the coach appears at first blush to be a hard case, but he's got a big heart and his players know it.
"Hey, fellas," Dansby said to the 28 young men in their blue-and-gold uniforms. "That guy put the nut in the shell for us! He's not going to quit, and he's playing for his life. We've been through this adversity, been through it together! Haven't won shit! Have heard the laughs, the cheap shots! Now is our time! Right now!"
What happened at Falcon Field that night was as good as it gets for a football program that long has endured outrageous misfortune.
Carl Hayden ended its awful losing streak, beating San Luis by a score of 44-21.
Winning that one game allowed the team to rid itself of its longtime unwanted role as "The Little Team That Couldn't."
But the monumental victory alone does not an extraordinary story make. Carl Hayden Principal Steve Ybarra, an educator blessed with an open mind and a penchant for innovation, explains what does:
"In this community, at this school, athletics — at least not football — isn't a priority. Surviving is. The kids have too much going on to make it through a season in many cases. They have to go to work or do chores or take care of their little brothers and sisters or whatever.
"Those kids of ours who show up for practice every day — even after losing — and all of our kids who attend school and graduate and keep moving . . . To me, those kids are everyday heroes."
Built in 1957, Carl Hayden High School sits in one of the Valley's poorest neighborhoods, a mile or so west of Interstate 17 and just south of Interstate 10.
Crime is rampant in the area, where folks scramble to stay safe and keep food on the table. For many of the school's students, the temptations of gangs, drugs, and whatever else can lead them astray are ubiquitous.
The school's student body is 94 percent Latino, with the rest sprinklings of African American, Anglo, Native American, and Asian.
More than two-thirds of the students at Carl Hayden High reside in homes where Spanish is the primary language. Ninety-two percent are eligible under federal guidelines for free or reduced-price lunches — which means they are poor.
And there's this stunning anecdotal statistic, provided by Principal Ybarra: He says perhaps 80 percent of his students have at least one parent who entered this country illegally, usually from Mexico.
Many of the students themselves are here illegally, though no one has conducted an in-house census to tag a precise number on the percentage.
In 2004, four Carl Hayden students surprised everyone, including themselves, by winning a national underwater robotics competition in Santa Barbara, California. In the process, the school defeated runner-up Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other big-time institutions.
But the feel-good story took a curious turn when it came to light that the four winning students were illegal immigrants, having sneaked into the States with their families as children.
That didn't matter to Carl Hayden High administrators.
A still-binding 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision bars public schools from refusing to enroll students who can't prove they are legal residents.
(A proposed Arizona law sponsored earlier this year in the Arizona Senate by anti-illegal immigration scion Russell Pearce would have required public schools to make parents show documentation of their child's legal residency. The bill died in the Rules Committee.)
Studies in the past year or so have revealed a steady exodus of illegal immigrants from Arizona. Those leaving are almost all Latino, and their numbers surely have included many from within Carl Hayden High's boundaries.
The primary explanations usually given for the flight are the shrunken economy and the not-irrational fear among illegal immigrants that Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies may snatch them up for deportation at any moment.
But for reasons yet to be sorted out, Carl Hayden's enrollment for this school year is almost exactly the same as it was last year, about 2,300 students, according to the Phoenix Union High School District.
Not only are kids continuing to attend the school, an increasingly impressive majority are earning their high school diplomas, even as the school's SAT scores remain well below the national and state averages.
A decade ago, just 48.9 percent of Carl Hayden seniors graduated. By 2006-07 (the most recent year that official statistics were available), that number jumped to 82 percent.
The turnaround may be attributed to the school's dedicated teachers and administrators, its cutting-edge programs designed for the dominant Latino demographic, and substantial funding through public and private grants.
Principal Ybarra suggests that the energized student body largely seems to have bought into the concept that education really does matter.
"I never thought I could be much of a student, but I guess I am," says football senior co-captain Gaby Manquero, a diminutive receiver/defensive back revered by his teammates and coaches. "I like my classes, though I'm not doing so hot in AP [advanced placement] pre-calculus."
The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation of Atlanta has been funding some of the school's most important projects since 2006. Co-founder of The Home Depot, Arthur Blank is best known as owner of the Atlanta Falcons pro football team. But his foundation's generosity to Carl Hayden so far has extended to academic pursuits, not athletics.
The projects include an intensive English as a Second Language summer school and a Saturday school that allows kids to catch up with their high school courses and even earn college credits.
Though he is upbeat by nature, Steve Ybarra doesn't dwell solely on the sunny side of the street.
Long ago, the native of Superior, a town in the mountains east of Phoenix, worked in a copper mine to pay for college.
He never has forgotten his hardscrabble days and still can relate to what many of students have to endure. But Ybarra says that students' lives outside school are worse, in most respects, now than when he became principal at Carl Hayden nine years ago.
"We provide a safe place where kids can just be high school students," he says. "But just outside our gates, it's a whole different story. Dangerous is one word. It's tough for the kids whose parents have moved away on their own or have been deported by the government. It's tough when food becomes an issue. It's just tough."
Ybarra and his staff — which includes a bevy of alert security officers — seem to be everywhere on campus. Students and staff must wear identification badges around their necks, and the entrances and exits are monitored closely.
Ybarra calls it "management by being there."
That includes standing under a large pine tree on campus during most lunch hours, asking and answering questions of his students.
He says district personnel wrongly predicted that Carl Hayden would be closed within three years after he became principal. But Ybarra resolved, whatever happened, to turn the school into something special.
"When I started, I just wanted to make sure everyone here had the same chance to get through high school as anyplace else," he says.
"Now, it's about getting them through college. The kids here are like everyone else: lots of hopes and dreams. But we don't live in a melting pot. Our kids have to learn to read and write English and Spanish and to be proficient in computers. Once they do that, they can get a job, a decent job. But a college education still is the great equalizer, period."
As for sports, the onetime football and basketball coach says he knows "firsthand how important athletics are to the life of a school and its students. It's huge."
But Steve Ybarra has a more global perspective than, say, Coach Dansby, who would love more institutional emphasis on his beleaguered football program.
"I want us to excel in every way," Ybarra says, "and I would love for us to win all of our games. But I don't expect too many of our athletes are going to become pro athletes. However, I do expect many of them to become professionals in their chosen fields. That is what matters most to me."
Cleveland Dansby toook the head-coaching job at Carl Hayden before the 2005 season. He would become the school's fourth head coach in five seasons.
Dansby's first practice in the sweltering August heat was less than auspicious.
"No one came out," he recalls.
"Well, one kid kind of wandered on out there. That was it."
The veteran coach knew he was taking on an epic task in trying to resurrect a program that, at the time, had lost its previous 24 games.
Dansby says he wanted to cancel that first season and start fresh the following year. Carl Hayden administrators soon announced that the school was done with football for the year, which would have been a first for a 5A school in Arizona (classifications generally are based on the size of a student body).
But within a few days, 28 boys — most with zero football experience — volunteered their services to salvage the season.
Predictably, the Falcons didn't come close to winning, and a mere 18 players suited up for the final game.
But Coach Dansby persevered.
He did it aware that few in his pool of players ever had participated in youth Pop Warner football and would have to learn the fundamentals of the game on the fly.
Junior high school "feeder" programs that are the norm around Arizona don't exist for Carl Hayden (Isaac Junior High, just up the street from Hayden, plays flag football only).
Dansby also knew that fútbol — not football — is the sport of choice for most Latino boys.
Still, the coach began approaching athletic-looking boys on campus and broaching the F-word: football, American-style.
"Got a lot of funny looks," Dansby says, but eventually he got enough takers to field freshman and junior varsity teams.
But his varsity team couldn't manage to win a game in the next three seasons. "The Streak," as it became known on campus and in the community, took on an ugly life of its own.
The handful of four-year players who stayed the course until this, their senior year, endured an awful lot. One of those four-year guys was Gaby Manquero, who came out as a freshman during Coach Dansby's second season.
"I told coach that I was committed to the Falcons if he wanted me," he says. "All of us have heard other kids laughing at us because of our losing. But I like to stick to my commitments."
To be honest, Cleveland Dansby wanted anybody he could get.
A youngster of Gaby Manquero's strong character and scrappiness was a plus, the kind of kid who attracts others to the fold. Gaby weighs just 130 pounds (he's dropped about 20 pounds since the start of this season) and seems to come up hobbling during most games.
But the young man rarely has missed even a practice since joining the team.
"You gotta practice or you play like crap — guaranteed," is how he puts it.
Gaby and the team's other veterans, including Tre Fields and Andres Renteria, the two other captains on this year's team, hungered to start the 2009 season.
This year's team, they reckoned, had to break the flippin' Streak.
It would be their last chance.
Football in the Valley's Metro Region is a fragile affair.
Most of the nine schools have limited rosters and have to use many players on both offense and defense during the game's 48 minutes.
The ecosystem that governs these high school programs can implode in a flash — be it by a wrenched knee, a failing grade, a family in need, whatever.
With that in mind, Carl Hayden entered this season with what the players and staff still seemed to believe was a bona fide chance at winning some ballgames.
The Falcons had three mammoth interior senior linemen who seemed poised to dominate opposing teams. Tre Fields and Emanuel "Shaq" Caddy had been with the program for three long years. Added to the mix was Marquise Douglass, a raw talent new to town from the Los Angeles area who weighed in at 290 pounds.
Among the team's other returnees were Nestor Maldonado, Oscar Vega, Francisco Bustillos, co-captain Renteria, Jayme Clark, and quarterback Marcos Matta.
Matta had won playing time as a junior and proved he had ability. But he could be as skittish on the gridiron as a child wandering in the dark, not a good trait for a quarterback.
Bustillos was an enigma, a mostly likeable kid with a tendency to put his foot in his mouth around coaches and teammates. Clearly one of the Falcons' best players, Bustillos had won second-team All-Region honors in 2008 as a defensive back, no small feat on a winless team.
But Coach Dansby briefly had suspended the young man during the previous season for insubordination. After great deliberation, the coach granted Bustillos a reprieve this season, over the objections of some teammates who considered him a disruption.
Nestor Maldonado was another key. Another of the Falcons' two-way starters in 2008, Maldonado, a running back and linebacker, provided both a calming influence on those around him as well as demonstrating an exceptional will to succeed.
Coach Dansby greeted about 45 would-be players at the team's first official practice in late August. It was a typically sweltering afternoon, but the heat didn't seem to bother anybody.
It was time to play some football.
Certainly, it was a long way from four years earlier, when just that one lonely student showed up on the first day.
Flanked by his able assistants, Jeff Kunes (an art teacher at South Mountain High) and Paul Ferrero (a 24-year-old math teacher at nearby Isaac Junior High), the coach said this:
"Fellas, one thing up front. I do not run a nursery school here. I run a football team. I got no promises for you but one: If you stick with me and ride this out, you will have some memories for life, and I mean good memories. And I promise you that you will get closer to those guys standing next to you than you ever dreamed. You might even learn some football. Got it?"
"Yes, Coach!" the returnees answered, remembering the drill.
Coach Dansby and his team got bad news shortly before Carl Hayden's season opener against Rincon High in Tucson.
Nestor Maldonado, one of the squad's most important players, was done for the season because of a lingering wrist injury that hadn't healed properly.
Things went poorly in Tucson, as Rincon pummeled Carl Hayden 43-0.
Francisco Bustillos, the mouthy kid put on a short leash by Dansby after his previous season's antics, hammed it up in the locker room after the loss.
Under the circumstances, Bustillos' act played poorly with his teammates.
A few days later, the team confronted Bustillos at a players-only meeting before practice. They pointedly asked him whether he cared even a little about the butt-whipping handed the Falcons by Rincon, a mediocre team that would lose its next six games.
"I'm not all about the winning. I admit that," Bustillos said sheepishly, as he stood before his teenage tribunal. "I'm about playing some ball and chilling, okay? You guys want me out of here, I'm out."
Marcos Matta, the quarterback, shook his head.
"Dude, we lost 43-0. Ain't no time to be singing in the shower, or some such shit."
Big Tre Fields said softly, "Man, you can chill on your own time. We all chill on our own time. But this here, this is team time."
One thing about the Carl Hayden football team: Win or lose, its players are very tight, seemingly blind to skin color or ethnic origin.
For example, before the Rincon game, many players quietly donated what they could so one of the poorer players (none of them has much money) could pay for a mandatory physical exam.
Coach Dansby strolled in midway through the meeting, looking surprised.
"Team meeting, huh?" he asked. "Well, cut out the language now that I'm here, and don't be talking over each other. Pretend like it's the United Nations or a court of law or what have you."
Dansby retreated into his small office and shut the door behind him.
The players knew Bustillos' situation hadn't been easy: His mother decided months ago to leave Arizona for Compton, California, and he'd been living with some older pals at an apartment. It was remarkable that he showed up for school most days, much less practice.
But their compassion had limits.
In the end, Bustillos promised to try to turn his attitude around in the season's second game, against Trevor Browne.
The northwest Phoenix school has a proud football tradition but has been down on its luck (not nearly as down as Carl Hayden) for some time.
But the Bruins are much improved this year and whipped Carl Hayden 41-0 in a game most notable, perhaps, for what happened late in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons had cobbled together a rare offensive drive to the Bruins' 6-yard line. It looked as if the squad might score its first points of the young season.
But Trevor Browne Head Coach Randy Gross returned his first-team defense to the field, to try to preserve the shutout.
The Carl Hayden offense soon moved backward rather than into the end zone.
The teams shook hands politely when the game ended, but Cleveland Dansby then wanted a piece of Gross.
"What was that about, Coach?" he asked the younger man. "Is that about teaching your kids to rub it in? Last week, you were bitching about [César Chávez Coach Jim] Rattay running it up on you. Now this? It's bullshit!"
Gross replied, "I wasn't thinking about that."
"No, you weren't," Dansby said. "Stuff like that has a way of coming around."
All the bad moments, all the bad things were forgotten — at least for the moment — in the aftermath of Carl Hayden's historic September 17 win against San Luis.
The game actually was much closer than the final score, 44-21, would suggest. The Sidewinders had several early opportunities to grab the lead, which could have spelled trouble for the Falcons, whose players, consciously or not, seem to expect things to go wrong on the field.
But halfback Mario Valladares scored late in the first quarter to give Carl Hayden a lead it never would relinquish.
Holding a 20-6 lead at halftime, the Falcons sprinted to their locker room joyously shouting, "We're going to break this Streak!"
Assistant coach Paul Ferrero quickly cautioned them, "This ain't over yet, guys. You never been winning before."
But San Luis never seriously threatened to catch Carl Hayden in the second half.
Up in the stands, the school band set down its instruments and improbably began to sing an a cappella version of "Don't Stop Believin'," the early-1980s hit by Journey.
As the clock ticked down — the final five minutes seemed to last an hour — some of the Falcons' girlfriends sneaked down to the sidelines to hug their sweaty and smiling heroes.
The players surprised the coaches with ice-water baths, something they'd never had the chance to do before.
Finally, the horn went off, signifying the end of the game and the end of The Streak.
The on-field celebration after the game was unbridled, the tears flowing. The smiles wide.
The San Luis players were forced to watch for several minutes before the post-game handshakes. Some wanted to leave, but their head coach made them stay put.
"Hey, let them have their time; they haven't won in six damn years," the coach told them. "Let them have their party. They deserve it."
Back in the Falcons' dressing room, Francisco Bustillos — who played well — told his teammates, "We got to tell that guy from Virginia with cancer what we did!"
News of Carl Hayden's win went national.
Radio announcers from as far away as Alaska called the school the next morning, requesting an interview with Coach Dansby.
The damned Streak was over!
The next afternoon, the school's student body amassed at Falcon Field to celebrate.
Principal Steve Ybarra sat in a chair on the field, prepared to fulfill a promise he made to himself. When (or, perhaps more accurately, if) the football team won a game, he would allow the players to shave his head.
Wearing their uniform jerseys, a few of the seniors lathered Ybarra's pate with shaving cream under the bright sun and carefully began their task.
Gaby Monquero got into the act, as did Tre Fields, Andres Renteria, even Francisco Bustillos.
Steve Ybarra wound up with a quasi-Mohawk cut, and happy memories to last a lifetime.
Coach Dansby stood to the side in shorts and a ball cap, just beaming.
If this were Hollywood, Carl Hayden would have gone on a long winning streak after busting The Streak.
But Phoenix isn't Hollywood.
The Falcons have lost each of their five games since beating San Luis by a wide margin.
The simmering situation with Francisco Bustillos exploded after a disappointing 32-0 loss a few weeks ago to Camelback High, which had not won until that point.
Bustillos confronted Cleveland Dansby in the locker room after the coach angrily marched past his waiting team without comment (he usually says a few words to his players under the north goalposts).
"You quit on us!" Bustillos shouted at his coach, who was sitting at his desk, his head in his hands. "You can't do that! I played my heart out for you!"
Speechless for a moment, Dansby told Bustillos to get out, that he was off the team — for keeps this time. Bustillos stormed out of the locker room, trailed by a few teammates who would return a few minutes later.
Minutes passed, and the coach asked his players to gather around, which they did.
"You want to think about frustration, about walking out on somebody?" Dansby said, his voice seared with emotion. "If I had wanted to walk out, I would have done it years ago. I'm just pissed off, and I want you to know that. If I would have stopped out there and given you all a big wet kiss, what am I telling you?
"'It's gonna be all right.' Is that what you want to hear from me? I'm not gonna kiss and sugarcoat. My feelings are hurt, too, because we lost to an inferior team tonight.
"How dare Francisco question my loyalty to this team? It cuts me like a knife. But he is gone now, and he's not coming back. I haven't quit on you. I've been here through thick and thin, and it's been mostly thin, for sure. I care how you feel and what you think, and I love you. But I am frustrated! And I wasn't going to rip on you out there in front of everyone after a loss like that."
Dansby told the players to return by 9 a.m. the next day to look at videotape. Then, he returned to his office a few feet away.
The players dressed quickly (some of them didn't even shower) and stepped out into the cool October night, happy to be out of there.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
Co-captains Fields and Monquero shared a moment as they moved slowly toward the school parking lot.
"No worries," Tre told his friend, putting his arm around his teammate. "We'll get through this."
"Cool," Gaby replied softly, dredging up a smile. "No worries, man. See ya tomorrow."