Longform

Mean Season

Page 3 of 10

"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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia