Mean Season

Page 4 of 10

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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia