Mean Season

Page 8 of 10

"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.

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Gilbert Garcia
Contact: Gilbert Garcia