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.