Head start | TheUnion.com

Head start

The sun dances off the domes of the players sweating through another late-afternoon practice at Hooper Stadium when the whistle blows.

The sound, carried high above the field to the bleachers, signifies the end of a human traffic accident: Hard plastic crunching into steel plates. People screaming, yelling. The only thing missing are the skid marks and the ambulances.

Step down from the bleachers, and the picture becomes clearer: A knot of men, each with whistles around their necks, simply barking orders in a cadence familiar to anyone who’s ever attended high school football practice.

“Push-push-push-push,” yells Nevada Union head football coach Dave Humphers, as members of his offensive line plow into metal blocking sleds the size of adolescent steers.

After a few minutes, the players are panting, but Humphers is still fuming over a blown assignment minutes earlier.

“You owe me four,” he mutters to one of his charges, pointing to the fence in the distance. “And the clock’s runnin’.”

Nearby, 10-year-old Ashton Smith, the tallest kid on his Junior Miners team and the guy his parents call “Steroid Baby” takes his position on the defensive line.

Ashton’s mother, Paula, says her son dreams of the day he can join the really big boys under the Friday night lights at Hooper Stadium.

The sound of crunching plastic and scraping paint off the helmets? That’s what her son lives for.

That’s why he’s here, instead of playing “Mortal Kombat III” on a Game Boy Advance for the zillionth time. Someday, he hopes to play in a jersey that has his name on the back, where the announcers can bellow out his name after a quarterback sack, sending the crowd into a frenzy of adoration.

“He’d rather do this than school,” his mother said. “He told me one time he likes that he can hit a kid and not get in trouble for it.”

Truly, this isn’t a game for armchair quarterbacks, even at this level. Just ask the young men (and a young woman) who play for pride every weekend, in the hopes of catching Bear River Bruin Fever or concocting some “Miner Magic” when they get older.

On the field, the junior football programs are factories that eventually feed the varsity programs at Nevada Union and Bear River high schools. More than 400 students in the combined programs run the same drills and learn the same playbooks as the teams that draw large crowds each fall in western Nevada County.

Off the field, the intricate web of parents and volunteer coaches keep the players capped in clean, shiny helmets and the cheerleaders carrying pom-poms, while casting a watchful eye on each student’s studies and personal growth.

Down here, in the mud and the grass, is where many children chase their dreams.

“There’s a lot of hard hitters out here, and you’ve got to know the game well,” said Magnolia eighth-grader Brandon Marshall, 13, a halfback on the Junior Bruins midgets squad. “I don’t want to play a wimpy sport. I want to play a sport where you hit someone hard and be aggressive.”

Brandon Robinson, 13, whom teammates call “Rudy” because of his sparkplug size, says simply, “I like to play hard. There’s times that I believe I can’t do it, but that’s OK.”

Marc Charvoz, head coach of the junior Miner midget squad of mostly 11, 12- and some 13-year-olds (each grouped by weight) agrees.

“Intensity through fun is what we’re doing out here,” he said. “We’re simply trying to have as much fun as possible.”

And so the practice continues, with Junior Miner coach Kelly Graham imploring them: “Get off the ball. Explode!”

The program that has inspired success under the Friday night lights was born 28 years ago, when Don Saunders, who was heavily involved in youth football in Solano County and in Southern California, moved to Nevada County.

Don and Blanche Saunders’ three older children and four grandsons all played Junior Miners football. Now, the clan’s third generation plays youth football.

The passion Don and his wife created nearly three decades ago burns within them still. They keep lawn chairs, a blanket and a cooler tucked in the trunk of their car for games on Saturdays.

“You really can’t explain it,” said Blanche Saunders. “It’s just been a part of our lives. It keeps us young.”

When he started the program, Don Saunders, a track-and-field star who participated in 100-meter races and long-jump competitions well into his 70s, mandated that the practices would be more than just smashing helmets on shoulder pads. Today, the students who participate in Junior Bruin and Junior Miner programs must follow a code of conduct that includes weekly homework checks.

“It’s a holistic view,” said Eric Kraus, whose son Brock is Don and Blanche’s great-grandson. “We want them to make friends for the rest of their life.”

Mike Gatto, who helped start the Junior Bruin program years ago, likes to point out that while his teams are small – some of them have just enough to fill out a 25-player roster – they play hard.

“We’re a small little family,” he said, noting that teams from Granite Bay and Loomis draw from a much larger talent pool.

The “family” at Bear River started with a bang, winning three state youth football championships from 1997-1999. As those players grew older, they went on to capture league championships for the Bruins as well.

Like all families, the programs at Bear River and Nevada Union are run under strict guidelines. Wary of the overzealous parent, the programs are governed by a code of conduct that both parents and students must sign. In some ways, it’s more important for a defensive back to make grades than make weight.

Scott Savoie, head coach of the Bear River varsity, puts it bluntly.

“Being their coach means being more than just teaching them how to play football. … It’s given me the chance to develop great relationships with them,” said Savoie, whose double duty coaching the varsity Bruins and a Junior Bruins team means he gets to spend plenty of time with his family.

Savoie’s sons, Landon, now a junior offensive lineman with the Bruins; John, a 2004 Bear River graduate, and Jake, 10, have all suited up for the Junior Bruins.

Many times, it’s less about the X’s and O’s than it is about growing up.

“Football is second nature,” said Troy Spangler, president of the Junior Miners, who also coaches a team and serves as the defensive coordinator for the Nevada Union junior varsity. “More importantly, we want to teach them to trust each other. We’re family,” he said, repeating an oft-quoted mantra.

Like many of his whistle-wearing coaching fraternity, Spangler played football at Nevada Union, an undersized 175-pound linebacker for former head coach Randy Blankenship, whose top assistant, Humphers, was Spangler’s position coach. His junior year, the Miners went 9-1-1, followed by a 13-1 campaign the next year, when the Miners lost to Merced 31-29 in the 1989 section finals.

“If it wasn’t for football, I probably wouldn’t have graduated from NU,” Spangler said. “The experience I try to give my teammates now, is the same experience I went through.

“We were a family, and it was a passion.”

Talking about junior football, Spangler’s voice jumps, and his eyes become watermelons. You half expect him to take a three-point stance.

“I love it,” he said. “It’s a great thing to know they’re learning something and not at home playing video games.”

Indeed, these players first strap on pads in July and, depending how the season progresses, are still on the field through December, if they make the playoffs.

Spangler’s approach is one of equal opportunity. Though there are tryouts for 35 players, the decision to cut a player takes a toll on the coaches, many of whom are parents.

“It’s not about talent. It’s all about effort. (Cutting) players is the hardest thing for us to do,” Spangler. “I mean, we work on plays for weeks, and, gosh, it tears your heart out to have to do that.”

Back on the football field at Bear River’s J. David Ramsey Stadium, Dean Sweeney is barking and cajoling instructions to his team of 11 year olds.

It’s his 11th season as a coach, and on this particular summer day in August, he’s coaching as if it’s his first.

“This is addictive,” he said, as parents sprawled out on the lawn look up from fastening chin straps and blow-drying stickers on a new batch of helmets to cheer on their young stars. “I keep doing it because I’d be afraid to see what I was missing.”

Sixteen miles up the road, a group of 8-year-olds are running up a hill at Nevada Union High School, their legs carrying them as fast as they can down the other side until they reach the grass at Hooper Stadium, cheering as if they’d just downed the Grant Pacers for the Metro Conference title.

It’s a dream now, but who knows? In a few years, it just might come true.

Sierra Youth Football

Season Schedules

Bear River Jr. Bruins

9/11 vs. American River Jr. Raiders

9/18 @ Oakmont/Orangevale Jr. Vikings

9/25 @ Fair Oaks Jr. Broncos

10/2 vs. Placer Jr. Hillmen

10/9 vs. Nevada Jr. Miners

10/16 vs. Granite Bay Jr. Grizzlies

10/23 @Citrus Heights Jr. Dolphins

Nevada Union Jr. Miners

9/11 @ Oakmont/Orangevale Jr. Vikings

9/18 @ Fair Oaks Jr. Broncos

9/25 vs. Granite Bay Jr. Grizzlies

10/2 vs. American River Jr. Raiders

10/9 @ Bear River Jr. Bruins

10/16 vs. Citrus Heights Jr. Dolphins

10/23 @ Rocklin Jr. Thunder

For more information on Sierra Youth Football, click onto http://www.syfc.us

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