Mean Season

Queen Creek is such a desolate place that when the Arizona Boys Ranch Spartans play football on a Friday, the lights of the stadium become a beacon in the desert.

On October 15, the lights are blazing for the Spartans' homecoming game, but the spectators are getting bored.

The inept Boys Ranch team -- a once-feared 3A high school Goliath -- is actually playing its most competitive football of the year, trailing the Sahuarita Mustangs by only seven points midway through the second quarter. But a palpable fatigue is spreading through the crowd.

Officials of the Boys Ranch -- a 50-year-old privately operated reform school for juvenile offenders -- have tried to create a celebratory homecoming flavor for this game. The home bleachers are adorned with dozens of green and white balloons (the Spartans' colors). Banners dutifully proclaim: "We Love Spartan Football," "Stomp the Mustangs," and "ABR Pride."

Most important, the paltry crowd that typically turns out for Boys Ranch home games (often less than 30 people) is bolstered by more than a dozen parents visiting from out of state. There are also about 100 Marines from Camp Pendleton in California, who happen to be on campus this week for training exercises. It's not exactly Lincoln, Nebraska, on a Saturday afternoon, but compared to most Boys Ranch games, the house is rocking.

But all the banners and balloons can't hide the fact that this is no normal high school, and this is no normal homecoming. Most of these kids are hard-core juvenile delinquents from Indiana, not Arizona. They were sent by judges who decided the Boys Ranch was a promising alternative to a detention facility.

There will be no coronation ceremonies, no postgame dances at the gym. This school has no cheerleaders and no band. Unlike such powerhouses as Desert Vista or Mountain View, where walking around with a letterman jacket gets you cachet on campus and acclaim in the community, playing football at the Boys Ranch merely means you get to spend two less hours a day baking in the sun on work detail, because you're spending those two hours baking in the sun at football practice.

At most high schools, when the game's over, you get in your car and drive off to hang with your friends. At the Boys Ranch, you're walked back to your supervised cottage, where you do homework before going to bed.

Maybe it's a sense of this bleak reality -- on top of a winless season -- that's spreading through the crowd in the second quarter against Sahuarita. But just as the energy level begins to ebb, the Marines get rowdy. They start chanting "We want number three," a tribute to tiny freshman running back Andre Taylor, who looks about four inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter than his 5-foot-3, 100-pound listing in the team program. Taylor never gets into games, and is rarely acknowledged by coaches, unless they're chewing him out for loafing through sprints in practice or not cheering for his teammates during the games.

But because Taylor is so much smaller than everyone else on the team, the Marines instantly adopt him as their favorite player. Each time they chant his number, several of his teammates respond by hoisting him on their shoulders. Eventually, the Marines start calling him Bobby Boucher, the name of Adam Sandler's character in The Waterboy. A new chant starts:

"We want Bobby Boucher! We want Bobby Boucher!"

Again, the Boys Ranch players lift Taylor in the air.

Finally, assistant coach Pat Taylor has had enough of this merriment. He turns to the jovial players with a glare that could scorch metal and bellows: "Knock it off!"

Taylor is one of four coaches on the Boys Ranch staff with NFL playing experience, and he won't abide a cheerful attitude about losing. To him, defeat is a knife in your gut that tears you up inside.

But for his players, defeat is their most faithful companion. Eight games into a nine-game season, the Spartans have been outscored 320 to 18. They have been mercilessly drubbed in every game, usually falling behind by four or five touchdowns in the first half.

It's a steep, painful drop for a football program that had built an impressive 40-17 record since debuting in 1994, and made it to the state finals three years straight, from 1995 through 1997.

Before this season, football was a major part of life at the Queen Creek campus. It was the one obvious source of pride in an otherwise joyless atmosphere. It was a way for the Boys Ranch to tell the community -- not to mention judges and probation officers -- that this facility must be doing something right.

Practically everyone you meet at the Boys Ranch has a football background, whether it's chief recruiter -- and former Arizona State coach -- Frank Kush, Boys Ranch President/CEO Saunders Montague, or the several "work specialists" who supervise ditch-digging and other labor projects on campus, but double as coaches. Football was the glue that held this place together, and this year the adhesion has worn thin.

Of course, you could make the case that merely fielding a football team this season is a miraculous accomplishment for the Boys Ranch. Since the March 1998 death of 16-year-old Nicholaus Contreraz at the school's now-defunct Oracle facility, the Boys Ranch has seen its enrollment plummet from 276 to 45. The Queen Creek campus is the company's only remaining facility.

After state officials found that Contreraz died because of mistreatment by the Boys Ranch staff, the state of California withdrew most of the teens it had sent to the facility. Three ex-employees based in Oracle face charges in the Contreraz case -- two for child abuse and another for child abuse and manslaughter. And former Boys Ranch president Bob Thomas -- the person who'd done more than anyone else to build a successful facility -- resigned under pressure last year.

With the football program in limbo, head coach Gary Galante resigned last summer and took a job as an assistant coach at Gilbert High School. A month before the Spartans' September 3 season opener, Boys Ranch officials had yet to decide whether to even field a team. What's more, although the school was small enough to qualify for 1A competition, it was already locked into the 3A level, which would force it to play juggernauts like Coolidge, Payson and Globe.

When the Boys Ranch decided to give it a shot, coaches found only one returning starter from last year's 5-4 team. Few of the others who showed up knew how to strap on their shoulder pads.

"The closest they've come to organized football is Nintendo 64," sighs Boys Ranch head coach Jay Reichenberger. "They play a lot of that. And I would have thought they would have learned more from it."

The burly Reichenberger played right guard in college, and comes from the blue-collar, meat-and-potatoes school of football -- the Vince Lombardi school, where games are won in the trenches through rigid discipline and simple execution.

Of course, Vince Lombardi's most famous credo was "Winning isn't everything, it's the only thing."

That's not an easy mantra to sell to a group of kids that got clubbed 60-0 by Coolidge, or 52-0 by Globe.

"This football season here is not really designed for us to go and beat the snot out of people," says Aaron Woodard, a 15-year-old tight end on the team. "It's designed to teach us some valuable lessons of life."

But how do you motivate yourself to get pounded every week? For years, Boys Ranch heard the whispers from opposing schools, who looked upon the Spartans as oversize, antisocial thugs. Those whispers were easier to take when the Boys Ranch was winning. Now the team is hearing snickering instead of sniping. There's nothing worse than being viewed as antisocial thugs who can't even find the end zone.

Jay Reichenberger always imagined that the Arizona Boys Ranch would be a great place to coach. After college, Reichenberger coached for eight years at Arizona's Navajo Reservation, and one year at Winslow High School before moving to the Boys Ranch in 1997 as an assistant under Galante.

His previous teams had occasionally played the Spartans, and he had come away impressed, not just by the talent of the athletes but by their manners. They never failed to say "Yes, sir" or "No, sir" when addressed by an adult.

"After we played them when I was at Winslow, all the young men were shaking our hands and saying, 'Coach, that was a great game,'" Reichenberger recalls. "I thought, 'Those kids are respectful; I really like being around them.' So that's when I kind of got an interest in it.

"Then I got here for the first practice and I thought, 'Holy cow, this is nothing like I expected.' You've got kids saying, 'I don't want to practice. I quit.' So you're dealing with behaviors at the same time that you're trying to get your team ready. Maybe that young man got a phone call saying his brother was shot and killed that day. So he's mad at everyone."

Reichenberger had some understanding of the rebellious behavior he encountered at the Boys Ranch. A native of the "red clay" of Oklahoma, Reichenberger played football in high school and got a scholarship to play at the Division II school, Northwestern Oklahoma State University. But Reichenberger questioned whether he was college material. For one thing, he'd been an incessant troublemaker as a teen.

"I wasn't Johnny B. Goode, I was Johnny B. Bad constantly. I did some stuff that I hope the statute of limitations has run out on, so I'm not going to comment on it," he says with a laugh.

He does admit this much: "We used to throw eggs at police cars, we used to throw stuff on the road to cause cars to go sliding. I, or associates that I know, took a big old lion-head water fountain out of the park and stuck it up on top of the school. We burned tires going down the middle of the main drag."

He credits his high school coach with turning his attitude around, but Reichenberger still had doubts about his academic abilities.

"To be honest with you, I was scared shitless that I didn't think I was going to make it. I just felt like, 'I'm not a real smart kid.' I loved to play football and that's the reason I went to college. Once I got there, I ended up graduating an academic All-American, and I owe it to my coach. He put me up against a wall and slammed me into a door, because my first semester I had about a D+ average or something."

Reichenberger has the pugnacious, no-nonsense manner you'd expect of someone who specialized in knocking defensive linemen on their posteriors. With his dark, slicked-back hair, thick mustache and chunky frame, he most resembles a younger version of New Orleans Saints coach Mike Ditka. His perpetually hoarse voice is strikingly similar to that of actor Gary Busey.

Like the other coaches at the Boys Ranch, Reichenberger works more than one job at the facility. In his case, that means teaching social studies and history. But until this year, the football coaching staff had always been paid an additional salary for their coaching duties. This year, with funds squeezed to the marrow, there was no money for coaches.

So Reichenberger asked the coaching staff if they'd be willing to volunteer their time this season. He was amazed to find that they all said yes.

In early August, Reichenberger and his staff asked the Boys Ranch residents if anyone wanted to join the football team. He told the students not to expect many victories this season. Nonetheless, most of the kids raised their hands.

When the team began practice on August 9, there was little cause for encouragement. Two years ago, 150 kids were on the field for the first day of practice. Many had experience from a year at the junior-varsity level. This year, practice began two months later than usual, with only 32 kids in uniform. The coaches had only three weeks to get ready for the first game, and they found themselves explaining the most basic concepts of football.

One of the tough decisions Reichenberger faced was who to start at quarterback. No promising candidates were apparent, but one bold volunteer stepped forward.

Brandon Walker, a native of Rochester, Indiana, had played outside linebacker on the JV team last year. He had absolutely no experience at quarterback, but he promised he'd give 100 percent if he got the job.

Walker has been at the Boys Ranch for three years. It's an unusually long stay at a facility where most kids get sent back home within 18 months. He says he finished the program last December but came back in May to get his high school diploma. He has two older sisters and was raised by his mother.

"I didn't have no father figures in my life, and growing up with three women in the house, I was struggling in school and not really following directions," he says.

"I wasn't doing good in school, I used to hang out with the wrong group. I was stealing and doing drugs. I had a real bad temper, and I didn't really like to talk to anyone. I didn't like to go to school."

A shy, quiet kid with a blond crew cut, Walker's mental toughness has been tested repeatedly this season. At 5-foot-6, he has a hard time simply seeing downfield with much taller defensive linemen charging at him. Also, his arm is too weak to get the ball more than about 10 yards with any accuracy. Worst of all, he's been cursed with an unskilled offensive line that often forces him to run for survival as soon as he takes a snap.

Walker also plays defensive back for the team, and he seems to prefer the defensive side of the ball, saying, "That's where I get my revenge" for all the abuse that comes with the quarterback position.

He admits that he was scared to take the field at the beginning of the season. The Spartans began the season with a 41-0 opening loss at Cobre, New Mexico, but the game that really had this green unit spooked was the second contest, on September 10 at Payson.

The Payson Longhorns were coming off a stunning state championship last year, in which they snapped Lakeside Blue Ridge's state-record 63-game winning streak. Before the Payson game, the Spartan sideline is a sea of thinly disguised terror.

Whenever Payson scores, the Payson band plays the Notre Dame fight song. On September 10, it feels like they're playing one continuous, two-hour version of the tune, as Payson builds a 35-0 halftime lead on the way to a 49-0 win.

The inexperience of the Spartans is such that coaches often have to yell the most fundamental instructions to players, like reminding defensive players when to take the field, or encouraging punt returner Manuel Rivas to move back several yards in anticipation of a punt. In a way, it's like a practice, but executed at full speed, with a merciless group of attackers on the opposite side.

At one point, Reichenberger looks at the other coaches and asks, "Why are we lined up like that?" The coaching staff erupts in laughter, as if the reality is too pathetic to take seriously.

As they would continue to do for the rest of the season, Spartan coaches practice a quirky brand of tough love during the game against Payson, barking at players when they make a mistake, but usually following it with a quick hug or word of encouragement.

Line coach Alphonso Taylor -- a huge former defensive end who played pro ball with the Cardinals and Broncos -- takes Walker aside, puts his shoulder around him and says: "You've got to put more snap on it, baby. That's a quick slant."

Late in the game, when the Spartans mount their only drive of the game, Walker limps back to the huddle and asks for an injury timeout, which would require him to leave the game for a play. Reichenberger is livid. He walks out to the field and tells Walker that he needs to tough-out such injuries. The Spartans reach the two-yard line of Payson, but fail to score.

On the sidelines, Montague watches and remembers the good old days of 1997. "We used to be the team that would beat people 60-0 or 50-0, so I guess everything comes around," he says.

The 41-year-old Montague is the son of a minister, and he peppers many of his sentences with references to "the Lord." He paces the sidelines like a coach, and, in fact, he worked as an assistant coach at the Boys Ranch until becoming its president in September 1998. He played defensive back at the University of Wyoming.

Now, because of the Ranch's tight budget, Montague also drives the team bus. With a few minutes left against Payson, he walks back to the bus for a short snooze before heading back to Queen Creek. It's only a two-hour drive, but it'll feel much longer.

Frank Kush keeps a low profile at the Boys Ranch, but you can feel his presence everywhere.

The 70-year-old coaching legend, who led Arizona State to its greatest gridiron heights before being fired in October 1979 for allegedly punching a player, is a fixture at Spartans games, silently watching from the bleachers. The athletic complex that houses the team's stadium and training facilities is named after him. One of the team's assistant coaches, Alvin Moore, played for Kush at ASU and was brought to the Boys Ranch by his old mentor. In addition, both the team's nickname (Spartans) and its green-and-white uniforms are a direct homage to Kush's alma mater, Michigan State, although the idea came from former Boys Ranch president, Bob Thomas, also an MSU alum.

Thomas took over the Boys Ranch in 1977, at a time when -- much like now -- the facility was under attack from state agencies and the media over what was viewed as its excessive use of force. Its resident population had dropped from more than 100 to 40. Under Thomas' leadership, the Boys Ranch's enrollment grew to unprecedented levels, but it also drew increasing criticism from the state's Department of Economic Security for harsh treatment of its kids.

Kush came to the Boys Ranch in 1986 when Thomas asked him to evaluate some of the facility's programs. Kush had resigned as coach of the Indianapolis Colts in 1984 to take over the Arizona Outlaws of the upstart USFL. When that league folded after two seasons, Kush was looking for something new.

At 57, his coaching career had reached a dead end. Working at the Boys Ranch would allow him to instill the same sense of discipline that Kush's parents taught him as a child. It had helped him climb his way out of a life of destitution, as one of 15 kids growing up in Ohio in a home above a coal mine.

What started as a voluntary role turned into a full-time position as executive administrator of the Boys Ranch. At Kush's suggestion, the Boys Ranch put more emphasis on vocational training. It also sought accreditation as a legitimate high school, allowing it to start a high school sports program.

In the fall of 1994, Kush helped launch the football program, primarily concentrating on instructing the offense. He says he merely "helped out" for a year, to educate the other coaches on how to put a team together. His co-head coach that year was Rayotis Perkins, a University of Virginia alumnus who played defensive end in the NFL for both the Cowboys and Cardinals. The 34-year-old Perkins is now an assistant coach at the Boys Ranch, but rotator-cuff surgery this summer has limited his ability to work with the players.

That first-year team was raw, but hungry to learn, and it achieved a respectable 4-5 record. The following year, Kush stepped aside as coach. He returned to what had been his primary role at the Boys Ranch: promoting the facility to other states, and interviewing prospective residents to see "if they have remorse and want to be helped."

His promotional role has taken on greater importance since Contreraz's death and the media firestorm that followed.

"I get involved extensively with judges and probation officers," Kush says. "For example, I was in Indiana a few weeks ago and I took judges and probation officers -- unfortunately -- to the Arizona State-Notre Dame game. Also, I visit with the parents, and kind of give them inside information about how their youngsters are doing. Basically, community relations is a significant part of it."

It's a strange irony of the Boys Ranch's current PR dilemma that it's trying to shake a reputation as a haven for brutality by relying on the credibility of a man once vilified as the cruelest coach in America.

Nonetheless, Kush has been a powerful advocate for the Boys Ranch, and his controversial coaching methods seem in tune with the facility's emphasis on unyielding discipline. And, somewhat surprisingly for someone often perceived as a win-at-all-costs tyrant, Kush sounds remarkably sympathetic when discussing this year's winless Boys Ranch squad.

"I feel sorry for those kids," Kush says. "None of them really played to any degree prior to coming out here, so they have no concept and you can see that in their play, but you can also see the gradual progress our people have made with them.

"What I'm impressed with is their intensity on defense, and that's where you can really tell, because they haven't quit. Normally, kids get clobbered as badly as they have and they get so discouraged. Fortunately, they haven't done that, and they continue to hang in there."

One of Kush's strongest supporters is Alvin Moore. Moore, 40, works with the Spartans offense, specializing on the running backs. He only played a year-and-a-half under Kush at Arizona State, but Kush's methods continue to shape his own philosophy.

"He was a good man," Moore says of his ex-coach. "He made players out of a lot of guys who didn't want to be players. The ones who really didn't want to play football, either they were going to get off the pot or they were going to quit. He's a good motivator and he knows how to get the best out of people. To me, the guys who couldn't play for coach Kush, they didn't have much guts anyway, they were basically quitters."

Of the four Boys Ranch coaches with NFL experience, Moore's football résumé is the most impressive. After an outstanding career as a running back at Arizona State, he was drafted in the seventh round by the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts in 1983. He played two years with the Colts, two with the Detroit Lions and wrapped up his career in 1987 with the Seattle Seahawks. At Detroit, he helped fill the gap between the golden eras of Billy Sims and Barry Sanders. Moore's best season came in 1985 with the Lions, when he rushed for 221 yards, caught 19 passes for another 154 yards, and scored five touchdowns.

When Moore retired from the NFL, he returned to his hometown of Coolidge, where he worked as a substitute teacher, assistant football coach and track coach. But he says he was going out frequently at night, and blowing a lot of the money he'd earned in the NFL.

"I saw coach Kush one day and he told me, 'Why don't you get a job at the Boys Ranch, and save some of the money that you've made?'"

Moore started in 1991 as a work specialist -- a job that requires no counseling or social-services training, but involves working with the residents on manual-labor projects.

He joined the coaching staff when the Boys Ranch launched its football program three years later. He began this season as a tough, Kushian taskmaster, but quickly found that the harder he pushed, the less he got out of his players. By mid-September, Moore had adopted a lighthearted approach, good-naturedly teasing players when they dropped a pass or missed a block, and mumbling, "Man, that's F Troop, Bad News Bears out there," when he walked off the field.

Unlike other coaches on the staff, Moore thinks the major difference between this year's Boys Ranch team and past editions is not a shortage of talent and experience, but a lack of hunger. He suggests that the street-tough gang kids commonly found at the Boys Ranch before Contreraz's death were simply grittier than the current bunch of players.

"Right now, we've got practically all kids from Indiana," he says. "We never had this many kids from Indiana. Most of these kids from Indiana would probably have been on intramural sports here. Before, we had kids that might not have had a lot of athletic ability, but they were aggressive kids and you could teach them how to play.

"Those kids were hungrier to learn. These kids here, for some of them, it's just about putting on a Spartan uniform, so they can write home that they played football. There's not a lot of intensity out there. As soon as you try to correct a kid, show him what he's doing wrong, he thinks you're trying to get on him."

Before the season, Alvin Moore looked at the Spartans' schedule and put a question mark next to any game he thought was a possible win for the Boys Ranch. One of those question marks was next to the Spartans' September 17 home opener against Globe. Moore had no idea how strong the Globe Tigers would be this year. They've emerged as one of the state's 3A powerhouses, and they manhandle the Spartans from the opening kickoff, on the way to a 52-0 win.

It doesn't help matters that the contest feels more like a home game for Globe. They've brought a band and cheerleaders, and their crowd is much bigger and noisier than the Spartans'. The only semblance of a fan base for the Boys Ranch is a sullen group of about 40 kids from Project Challenge, another program for juvenile offenders, whom Montague invited to the game. They leave early in the third quarter.

Aware that the Spartans have no passing attack, Globe puts all 11 defensive players at the line of scrimmage, all but daring Walker to throw the ball. With few options, the Spartans stubbornly cling to their running game, and fullback William Naydol is repeatedly dumped in his own backfield.

In the locker room at halftime, Reichenberger goes to his chalkboard and tells his offense: "To be honest, we can't run up the middle, because we're outnumbered. We have to try to hook them and run outside. Hold the blocks a little bit."

After Reichenberger finishes his low-key pep talk, Pat Taylor addresses the defense. Taylor, a 35-year-old Montana native who played for Arizona State before going to the Green Bay Packers in 1988, is by far the most intimidating figure on the Spartans' coaching staff.

A blond, steel-jawed ex-linebacker, Taylor can send tremors through the locker room simply by staring down a player. At halftime against Globe, his voice reaches frightening decibel levels: "It's 28-0! Do you want it to be 56-0?"

"No, sir," the players respond.

"Start competing," he says. "Get a little fire in your belly! Are you gonna go out there with that waggy-dog look on your face?"

When the score balloons to 42-0 in the third quarter, Taylor pulls his exhausted players aside and tells them, "You've got to decide whether you want to suck it up, or you want an embarrassment. I don't mind getting beat, as long as you go at full speed. You're not going at full speed!"

Taylor is at his most sadistic in practice. During one-on-one "pride drills," in which two players jump up from a flat position on the grass and try to outmuscle each other, Taylor spurs them by challenging their manhood: "Look, two marshmallows about to get married. Poof!" Later, he asks the team, "Who wants to take on Woodard? He's an easy win; a bowlegged cowboy."

For someone who appears so driven toward football excellence, Taylor downplays his coaching work at the Boys Ranch.

"Coaching these guys, I wouldn't really call it coaching," he says. "It's more like therapy work."

Taylor should know, because he worked for several years as a recreation specialist in a psych hospital in Cerritos, California. His job at the hospital prepared him for the Boys Ranch, where he often supervises manual-labor projects. He proudly notes that residents not only maintain the facility's lawns, but also helped with the construction of the football stadium and basketball gym.

He came to the Boys Ranch in 1995 to visit a friend, and decided to interview for a job. After being hired as a work specialist, he was also asked to coach, but he chose to wait a year, because he didn't feel familiar enough with the Boys Ranch environment.

While his locker-room rants often have the look of unbridled rage, Taylor suggests that most of his tactics are carefully calculated.

"You've got to see who reacts to each situation," he says. "As long as you're not being so negative to someone that you'll shut them down, and that's what's working for you, that's my philosophy: a higher intensity, raise the tone, over and over real quick. Then if someone's not picking it up, you don't totally single that person out to where you're going to decimate the kid."

He suggests that his red-faced intensity is sometimes directed at himself, as a way of keeping his own energy level up.

"[The kids] see me biting my lip, jumping up and down, pulling out my hair, but none of them have seen me just fold the tent," he says. "We, the coaches, get heated amongst ourselves. But the players recognize it as a passion for the game. We can't let them see us get dejected."

On a team devoid of fundamental skills, William Naydol stands out as a real football player. He's not a particularly swift runner, but he consistently shows amazing toughness, carrying defensive linemen on his back for every extra yard he can manage. And even when he gets banged up, as he often does, he seems able to will himself into staying on the field.

Naydol grew up in Monticello, Indiana, the youngest of four children. His parents are divorced and he was raised by his mother, who works at a nursing home. He played football in fifth and sixth grades and played free safety on the junior-varsity level in Indiana before being kicked off the team "for failing a urine test."

He came to the Boys Ranch on December 15, 1997, after getting into trouble for a series of probation violations. He says he committed several thefts and was caught breaking into liquor stores.

Like many Boys Ranch residents, he's uncomfortable talking about his past. He explains his misadventures in Indiana by saying, "I stopped listening to my parents, that's when things got bad. I wasn't going home at all. I was staying at friends' houses and partying all the time."

Also, like other residents, Naydol admits that he hated the idea of coming to the Boys Ranch. He ran away twice, most spectacularly last December, when he left the facility and scampered all the way to Sky Harbor Airport, a good 30-mile trek.

"I just ran there, I don't know why," he says. "I called my mom, and she told me that my probation officer said for me to turn myself in."

Naydol was put into reorientation and given a yellow shirt to wear. Residents who've gotten into trouble wear yellow shirts and are put on work detail all day, until they've worked themselves off with good behavior.

Naydol says his attitude toward the Ranch changed about nine months ago. "I started thinking ahead, I guess," he says. He now talks about staying in the Valley after he leaves the Boys Ranch, possibly to attend junior college

It's a sentiment echoed by split end/punter Manuel Rivas. One of the few remaining Boys Ranch residents from California, Rivas is from east Los Angeles, where he says he was involved with a gang called Primero Flats.

Rivas speaks softly, with a thick accent. He rarely lifts his head to make eye contact. He came to the Boys Ranch two-and-a-half years ago after getting into a series of fights, being busted for possession of marijuana and being caught in possession of a gun. He says he was given the choice of going to jail for 18 months or attending the Boys Ranch.

"I saw a calendar and I thought, 'Whoa, this is probably Disneyland," Rivas says. "I decided to come here and it was more than I expected. But I learned a lot. It's made me realize what kind of dumb choices I was making, and it's taught me how to control my anger. How to take responsibility. How to live with normal people. I used to think I was an outsider, and that society was against me. And I've learned how to talk to people. And I've learned how to work.

"I've had times where I've said, 'Fuck this, I'm not doing nothing.' But in the end I still lost, because I still had to do it, so why fight?"

He says that after he graduates next month, he doesn't plan on returning to L.A., but instead plans to live with his aunt in Phoenix.

For Rivas and Naydol, all their hard work on the practice field finally started paying off on October 1 at Safford. For the first time all season, the Spartans look like a cohesive football team.

After a quick Safford touchdown, the Spartans mount an impressive drive, with Naydol carrying the mail most of the way.

Reichenberger had jumped on his team with unusual ferocity during the week, clearly showing the exasperation that comes when players fail to learn what they're being taught.

"An excuse is a reason not to get better," he'd shouted at the offensive linemen. "When you say you can't do something, you're telling me you don't want to get better today. I don't care if the son of a bitch is a two-foot midget: Block him!"

The Spartans' improved blocking carries them to a first-and-goal at the Safford one-yard line. Spartan players begin jumping up and down on the sidelines, anticipating their first score of the season. Rarely used offensive lineman Jonathan Evans unleashes the desperate, guttural bellow that can be heard every Friday at Spartans games, regardless of the score or the situation: "Let's go!"

It takes four plays, but Walker finally sneaks across the goal line for a touchdown, and the Spartans' bench erupts in a fit of euphoria to rival New York on V-E Day. A botched two-point conversion leaves Safford ahead 7-6.

Playing with newfound confidence, the Spartans march down the field again in the middle of the second quarter. Walker even manages to complete a couple of quick-strike passes over the middle. They reach the Safford 35 when the offense begins to derail. Walker is sacked for a huge loss, and they're forced to punt.

The breakdown owes something to the injury loss of two key offensive linemen: Tyrone Owens (at 6-4, 220, the team's biggest player) and Aaron Woodard.

Woodard, 15, is pretty skinny for a tight end, but he's one of the few returnees from last year's team, which automatically puts him in a leadership position on this squad.

One of the most talkative, ebullient personalities on the team, he's also had one of the darkest childhoods. From Kokomo, Indiana, he's the youngest of seven girls and two boys.

Woodard says his father was murdered in a dice game when Aaron was 10. "Up until the point that my dad got killed, I was on the honor roll every year in school, all you could ask for," he says. "Once he got killed, I felt like, 'I don't care anymore. That's my heart right there.'"

Two months before his father was killed, Woodard's mom had left the family and moved to Tennessee. Woodard says she's currently serving time for selling drugs. He was raised by his father's parents, who helplessly watched as he stopped going to school and often sneaked out of the house.

After a series of probation violations, he was put on house arrest, which he violated by going out and getting drunk on a Friday night. He was found passed out in a stranger's yard the next morning.

He came to the Boys Ranch in 1997, and was sent back to Indiana last December after finishing the program. Five months later, he was back, because he'd stopped attending school and was "going out to clubs with the older cats." He says he was busted coming out of a club in possession of cocaine, which he intended to sell.

He says he won't make the same mistakes again.

"I wasn't so focused on changing last time," he says. "I just wanted to go home. And now, in my heart I want to change. My main goal is to get my high school diploma."

Woodard's frame is more suited to basketball, and in fact basketball is his favorite sport. He played on the Boys Ranch hoops team last year before going back to Indiana. His interest in football, at least initially, was more superficial.

"When I first came here, I was out at orientation, and I saw the team practicing," he says. "And I thought, 'That looks kinda fun.' I'm kind of a physical guy, so the next year I went out for the team. Now I've got the passion, I've got love for the game, but at the time I didn't really know much about it. I just wanted to be able to go out there and hit people."

With Woodard and Owens on the bench, the Spartans offense begins to falter. A fluky Safford touchdown on a tipped pass at the end of the first half turns what had been an evenly fought game into a 17-6 score.

In the locker room at halftime, Pat Taylor is fuming. Sensing that the Spartans have a chance to win, he's determined to push them to their limits. "This is the closest you've been to victory," he shouts. "Are you going to tuck your tail in and hide? Are you going to be happy that you scored one touchdown, or are you going to try to win? Do you want to pout for three hours on the way back again?

"Can't you tell that there's something different about this game?" Taylor asks. "What you're seeing is four weeks of frustration starting to pay off. You're starting to jell out there a little bit. You're starting to move the ball a little bit."

Reichenberger assures the Spartans that Safford is not a good second-half team, that they tend to get tired. Of course, the same could be said of the Spartans. A series of turnovers in the second half and some outrageously poor tackling turn the game into a blowout. Final score: Safford 37, Boys Ranch 6.

But, for at least a moment, the Spartans get a glimpse of the team they could be.

Gary Galante got out of the Boys Ranch before the football program hit the skids. Last May, he took a job as an assistant coach at Gilbert High School, where he's working under his father-in-law, Jesse Parker, a former Mesa Mountain View coach who returned to the Valley after four years in Texas.

You'd think that Galante would be relieved to have avoided the nightmarish season that the Spartans have experienced this year. But he sounds like he misses the Boys Ranch.

"There's multiple challenges in coaching with that population," he says, "but there's also multiple thrills. Most of those kids do not have the experience, or the know-how of what it takes to win, or what it takes to be a teammate. So that's the biggest challenge that I had when I was there. But seeing that happen is also very fulfilling, more sweet."

Galante recalls the frustration of coaching the Boys Ranch team last year and watching players get pulled out of the facility over the course of the season.

"We lost a lot of players, and the problem was they didn't pull them out all at the same time," he says. "We kept losing players as the season went on. Before the fourth game against Santa Cruz, they told me we were going to lose five offensive starters, a defensive lineman, and our kicker."

He says he didn't leave the Boys Ranch because of the shortage of players, but because of job security.

"Matter of fact, the challenges at the Boys Ranch are the kinds of things you strive for as a coach," he says. "I just had to make a choice for my family. And I didn't know if I was going to be around or not. There's no need for a football coach if you're not going to have a football team."

Maybe it's his team's tenacious effort, or maybe it's the homecoming spirit, but Pat Taylor is unusually calm at halftime of the Sahuarita game.

With the Spartans down 7-0, Taylor tells his defense, "Helluva job," but warns them not to let down in the second half.

In the third quarter, the homecoming spirit seems to affect even the Sahuarita cheerleaders, who temporarily move to the Boys Ranch side and begin doing cheers for the Spartans. It's a gesture of goodwill rarely seen in prep football. Not quite sure what to cheer, the squad forms a pyramid and starts chanting: "A-B-R."

As usual, the Spartans run out of gas in the second half, and the game gets out of hand. Sahuarita ends up with a 39-0 win.

Any other week, Pat Taylor would be exploding in the locker room after the game. Tonight, aside from a dig at "those knuckleheads" who were cheering for Andre Taylor to get in the game, he's fairly positive. He tells the team that at least they're improving.

Reichenberger speaks last. In acknowledgement of the parents sitting in the stands tonight, he reminds his players how lucky they are.

"There's not one of you who can say that a year or two ago you thought your parents would be able to see you play high school football," he says. "So when you see them tonight, tell them you love them, because they've stuck by you. Okay?"

The team bursts into a resounding cheer.

The Spartans wrap up their season on October 29, at San Manuel. It's their last chance to salvage an ounce of pride from a disastrous season.

"It's really tough, because you're sitting there thinking, 'We should know these things,'" Reichenberger says. "You coach and you coach, and you come back on Monday and the players don't remember what they're supposed to be doing. But that's the way it is. You can sit around and piss and moan about it, or accept that that's just the way it is."

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address: [email protected]

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia