This article was originally published in the Nov. 21 print issue of The HUB.
By Thomas Oide,
It was finally over.
Outnumbered and overmatched, the 2014 varsity football team ended its season with a painful 60-24 loss to Monterey Trail on Nov. 7.
The week leading up to the game, the Blue Devils’ numbers were so low that they couldn’t even have a full-contact practice due to state rules.
Fans, players and coach wonder: are the glory days of Blue Devil football over?
Or the unthinkable: is there a future for football at Davis High School?
On the wall of math teacher Jim Johnson’s classroom hangs a picture. It inconspicuously hangs next to a laminated sheet of school rules.
In the image, Johnson and two of his assistant coaches jump in the air, hands and clipboards raised high above their heads. His defense had stopped Nevada Union, an area powerhouse at the time, on a two point conversion that would have won the game. The victory all but sealed a berth in the playoffs for the 2007 team, the last DHS football team to ever make the Sac-Joaquin Section playoffs.
It reminds Johnson—head football coach from 2004-2007—and the student body of what DHS football once was.
In 2007, the football roster had 50 players, about the current roster sizes powerhouses such as Folsom, Del Oro, Granite Bay and Grant.
The larger roster size was due in part to Johnson’s recruiting efforts.
“I did recruit, and I tried really hard to get good athletes who were only playing one sport—like a lot of baseball players—to play football,” Johnson said. “That first year, I was able to get two baseball players who were really good athletes to play and turned out to be good players.”
After his computer’s hard drive malfunctioned, Johnson lost many of his pictures from his three-year coaching tenure. The photo on his wall is one of the very few pictures he has left. For Johnson, his days as a football coach are long behind him.
And the success the DHS football program once has disappeared along with the rest of Johnson’s hard drive.
After the Blue Devils lost to Pleasant Grove in the 2007 playoffs, Johnson stepped down from his head coaching position. Dan Gazzaniga took over as the next Blue Devil head coach, but didn’t see much success, going 2-8 in both 2008 and 2009 before leaving for Del Oro, his alma mater.
After Gazzaniga, special education teacher Steve Smyte stepped in as the head coach. In three years, he took the program from a 1-9 record in 2010 to 5-5 in 2012.
In 2008, Smyte fielded as few as 18 healthy players but was able to build the high school program to a healthy roster size of 46 by the time he stepped down.
Smyte rebuilt the Blue Devil program from the bottom-up through the Junior Blue Devil program, the football program for kids not of high school age. In three years, Smyte tripled the enrollment in the JBD program from 60 to 180 and by 2010, every level in the program fielded at least two teams.
“We were one program, not a bunch of separate teams. Cradle-to-grave program was the term we often used. We started from the beginning and went all the way to the varsity team,” Smyte said. “The thing that had to happen was there had to be a big impetus in creating a groundswell at the lower levels so that they could feed into the varsity level.”
Smyte’s plan worked and created a positive cycle: increasing the number of players in the JBD program led to better numbers for the varsity team, better numbers led to more wins and more wins led to more interest in football.
But Smyte was fighting an uphill battle against a changing Davis culture.
“A lot of people have been priced out of the Davis market,” Smyte said. “So the dynamics of our school has changed a little bit; we’re not as diverse from a socioeconomic level as we have been. I think when you are diverse, I think it creates a better situation.”
“When I came in, I wanted to change the culture from being a country club town to a football town,” Smyte added. “I felt that if we worked hard enough at it, I thought that we could do it. And we showed that we could do it. Going from 60 to 180 kids shows huge growth.”
But when Smyte stepped down in summer 2013, the hard-earned stability of the program took a hit, with two head coach turnovers in the past two years. Smyte’s immediate successor, Marc Hicks, took his team to a 5-5 season but saw even more hope in the 2013 JV team.
As soon as the 2013 season ended, the coaching staff started to search for their team’s non-league opponents for the next season.
Then-head coach Marc Hicks called every team that he knew of, but kept having his requests for games denied by opposing coaches. No one wanted to play the Blue Devils.
“You know why they won’t schedule games with us?” defensive coordinator Ty Brown asked. “It’s because they’re scared of the 9-1 JV team that we have coming up over the next two years. They’re scared because we’re on the rise.”
At that point in time, Brown was right. The 2013 JV team came off an impressive season in which it only lost to Grant in brutal Delta Valley Conference play, and had a signature win over area powerhouse Elk Grove in the final game of the season to clinch the league title.
But the success Brown predicted never reached fruition because seven defensive starters and many other players from that 9-1 JV team quit before the 2014 football season started.
During the season, football runs six days a week: four days of practice from Monday-Thursday, a game on Friday and film watching on Saturday. That doesn’t include the strength and conditioning class during seventh period and zero period during the offseason.
For junior Danny Medina, a linebacker on last year’s JV team, school was a major reason why he didn’t return.
“My intentions for leaving football were only persuaded by one factor: time,” Medina said. “Football took too much time, and I needed that time for work and school. If football had less of a time commitment perhaps that would have persuaded me to stay. However, it is almost impossible for a football team to compete with other teams if they practice less than their opponents.”
For others, football just stopped being fun or the draw of other sports was too great.
“For me, I left to pursue lacrosse more,” junior Jake Hammond said. “There wasn’t anything wrong with the team, it’s just that DHS isn’t a big football school.”
“[The possibility of a college scholarship] was definitely a factor,” Hammond added. “I’m trying to train so that I’ll be good enough to get an athletic scholarship somewhere and seeing a lot D1 and D3 programs pop on the East coast is really encouraging me to pursue lacrosse instead.”
This rise in single-sport specialization greatly impacted the varsity football team as it lost many players like Hammond to other sports.
“That does exist and to me, from a personal standpoint, it’s a shame,” Smyte said. “I think that it’s shortsighted and unfortunate situation. I think that it’s parents sometimes more than it is kids. Parents are putting pressure on their kids because they’re living out a dream through their kids instead of allowing a kid to be a kid and let them play different sports.”
With less athletes playing football, it was hard to succeed with a roster as low as 24 players during the current season.
After the Elk Grove Thundering Herd dominated the Blue Devils 56-13 on Homecoming, Wiley was already thinking about what he would tell the team the next day during its film session.
On Saturday, when everyone was sitting down in the team room, Wiley asked a simple question:
“How many of you believed that we could have won last night?”
Five players of the 35 on the roster raised their hands.
That is what Wiley calls a “recreational” culture–something he wants to change in the years ahead.
“To me, a recreational culture is being okay with losing,” Wiley explained. “Having a recreational culture means that we’re okay with showing up and giving effort and then everyone gets a ribbon.”
To emphasize his point, Wiley pointed at all of the other school sports programs that have had success over the past few years.
“First of all, you have to win,” Wiley said. “If you look at all the DHS sports that are having success right now–soccer, lacrosse, water polo–they win. I know I wouldn’t want to be a part of a program that works me just as hard and finishes 2-8.”
And that draw of the other sports may be the downfall of DHS football. Compared to other schools across the area, DHS is unique. The best athletes in Blue Devil uniforms aren’t suited up in helmets and shoulder pads.
This is a new challenge Wiley will have to face, something that he didn’t see while he was at Christian Brothers.
“The difference at Christian Brothers was that our best athletes play football, basketball and baseball,” Wiley said. “I know that isn’t the case here, and I hope that basketball and baseball players at DHS think about playing football. The other thing is, don’t put all your eggs in one basket; the goal of high school sports and high school in general is to create opportunities.”
Now it’s Wiley’s turn to fight the same uphill battles previous DHS football coaches have faced. And just as Smyte did before him Wiley knows that rebuilding the program will have to start from the JBD program.
“At any high school, football success starts from the kids playing Junior Blue Devils. I have to do better,” Wiley said. “We have to be able to get and keep the players who start playing Junior Blue Devils.”
One of the first things Wiley hopes to accomplish is bringing the freshmen football team back into existence.
Wiley has Smyte’s support.
“To build depth, having a freshmen team is a great idea,” Smyte said. “They disbanded the freshman team last year, which I think was a huge mistake and we see it now with the decrease in numbers. The varsity coaches need to go to the junior highs and show the kids that football is a viable thing to do.”
But convincing parents may be even harder.
In 2014 alone, three high school football players died from playing football in the United States. With the increased worry of head and other injuries, the number of children playing football has been steadily declining.
Sophomore Ben Easton played for the 2014 JV team until he suffered a knee injury. Upon recovery, he returned for one game before his parents told him that he would not be playing for the rest of the season.
With a smaller roster size, Easton and his parents felt that the injury risk greatly increased.
“At first I was kind of mad that they weren’t letting me continue the season,” Easton said. “But then I realized that if I got injured again, I might not be able to do other sports. And after some of the players we had got pulled up to varsity, I was definitely more of a target for other teams which increased my risk for getting hurt again.”
Wiley and the rest of his coaching staff have their work cut out for them. Rebuilding the DHS football program is possible but it won’t be easy.
There’s a lot to tackle.