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Adversity no longer keeping O.C. team down
Buena Park's players are learning to win in life, and they're doing it on the field, too.
The words come out of a dark silhouette, detailing a story of abuse, of seeing Dad, drunk and raging, beat Mom, until he could force himself between the two, turning the incensed old man back into the night.
The room is still and faintly black, the shadows meant to blur the speaker's features and sharpen the listeners' attention. The kid stands alone and talks, his voice wavering, his story a cold, straight line.
OK, next. Now a second boy is up, sharing his details. One by one they rise and offer something about themselves, their home life, their situation. The stories almost always begin with unsettling confessions – a scab ripped raw – and end with building tears. A group of high schoolers sitting in a classroom, a place where growth is supposed to happen.
So, this, this is part of coaching football? Hearing kids tell tales of domestic violence and drug-addicted parents and nights spent homeless? It is here, at Buena Park, where they have all sorts of situations.
"We know why each other cares, why each other is out here, you know?" Anthony White says. "People always talk about coming through when adversity shows up. It's a little different around here. Here, we live adversity."
He is in his first year coaching at Buena Park. The day White arrived last spring, he found his offseason program – 24 players in all – chugging laps around the school's dirt track, under the supervision of the girls volleyball coach.
Of those 24, White would learn that 13 were academically ineligible.
He had been handed a program with five victories total the past four years, a 9-50 record since 2004. The Coyotes' lone Freeway League victory since '02 came by forfeit, in 2007. On the field, they lost that night to Troy, 45-7.
But all that stuff? Just numbers, gone the instant they switch off the scoreboard lights. That's not adversity. Half the high schools in Orange County lose every Friday night.
No, adversity sticks around. Adversity is still there in the morning, when you're shaken awake by your mom telling you the family has to vacate the motel – And now! – because there's no more money.
Adversity is being greeted by your foster parents with the news that, we're sorry, but you won't be reuniting with your mother like we all had planned. She failed the drug test.
Adversity is waking up in a house where 15 other people live, and you all share one bathroom.
It has been 34 league games since Buena Park won on the field. So what? Of the 43 players on the Coyotes' varsity roster, White says only two live with both parents.
"We're not beggars," the coach explains. "I hope people understand that. We're fighters. We're playing for more than points around here, more than memories. We're playing for each other."
In trying to rebuild, White first is attempting to repair. In trying to establish something concrete, he is selling something most of his players know only as crumbling.
The Coyotes are always locking arms and holding hands. And their hugs, at first rigid and clumsy, are now the hugs of brothers. Moving two-by-two, side-by-side, they walk on and off the field together, to and from their pregame meals together, their palms pressing the whole time.
Sharing skin is nothing after you've shared your soul, after you'd stood before the group and aired your details through pooling eyes. So the shoulder-to-shoulder processions now come naturally.
The parade is a brilliant rainbow, this collection of kids all dressed in the same colors – black polos and khakis on game day. The Coyotes are a mesh of whites, blacks, Hispanics, Pacific Islanders, Chinese and even a Frenchman. One of the water girls is from Pakistan, the other Iraq.
Who knew a rainbow could last into its teens?
On Sept. 2, the Coyotes won their opener over Costa Mesa, 40-17. Afterward, as others craned their necks and tiptoed to take cell phone photos of the delirious mess in the winning locker room, the players dumped a giant bucket of water over their head coach.
They aren't alone, no. Other schools have stories, have tears, have situations. But Buena Park represents well all those schools. In volume. In intensity. In potential. Yes, potential, the team that rarely has succeeded the past decade suddenly about-facing and finding a new path.
White has preached accountability, demanding that players stand in front of their teammates, their brothers, to explain missed workouts or failing grades. He has instituted an academic boot camp and 6 a.m. weightlifting, believing a group can become one through brains as well as muscle.
Like any bad habit, losing must be unlearned. So Buena Park's coaches stage "Coyote Wars," locking two players against each other in fitness tests, the loser reminded that defeat always – always – carries consequences, in this case extra conditioning.
Discipline has been redefined here in everything from the way the players enter White's office – knock first, every time, no exceptions – to the way they stand during practice – hands folded, chins up, eyes focused.
More than games have been lost by this program; respect has eroded away, as well. But before respect can be received, of course, it first must be given.
Each of the Coyotes has been trained to answer "Yes, sir" and "No, sir," "Yes, ma'am" and "No, ma'am." The lesson has been so completely learned that one mother asked White to let up because her son's "ma'am" references were making her feel old.
White and his staff also went searching for something else lost: pride. They found the words to Buena Park's alma mater and taught the song to their players. The group recites it after every game and practice, often kneeling while clutching hands or wrapping arms over each other's shoulders.
"Don't believe the lies!" White, 29, likes to tell his players in a rising voice. "Buena Park is not a bad place to be. Don't believe the lies!"
He is something of a rainbow himself, the son of a black man and a Mexican woman, a boy who grew up to speak English and Spanish and marry Chinese. If anyone here can represent the whole as one, it is the head coach.
And White knows how losing can ache. He starred at Rosemead High, was the best player on a team that won three games combined his junior and senior seasons.
Then, there is this: When he was a defensive back at the University of Utah, White's phone rang. An unfamiliar voice explained that he had been watching ESPN a couple nights earlier and saw White playing for the Utes.
"I'm your dad," the voice said. White, 22 at the time, didn't know the man. The two have since met in person but only maybe five times.
"I understand how it is with these kids," says White, who was raised by a single mother. "The assistant coaches do, too. We've all got the same stories. We all live right here, in or around Buena Park.
"We understand this place, this community. Jeez, one of our players lives in the same house where one of our assistant coaches lived when he was growing up. The same house! Can you believe it? Seriously, we've been in these kids' shoes."
Sometimes, shoes are about all these kids have. White estimates that 12 of his players are "displaced," meaning the home they stay in tonight might not be the one they stay in tomorrow night. Six kids live with foster families.
White's office is choked with piles of jeans, notebooks and T-shirts, donations he passes on to players in need. His mother, Lupe Anaya, collected change in a jar at her office, took the money and bought toothpaste, deodorant and soap, packed the essentials into Ziploc bags and her son passes those on, too.
Remember Buena Park's game-day attire, the polo shirts and khakis? In the morning, White distributes the pants to players who can't afford them and collects the pants again after school. When the Coyotes posed for their individual head shots for this newspaper, the players shared a single polo, passing it on, one to the next, like a relay baton, skinny receivers handing off to doughy linemen who couldn't pull the shirt below their chests.
"I was standing on the field with a CIF championship team last year," says assistant Ollie Lynch, who coached at La Mirada in 2009. "But the stuff we've done here in just a few months is 10 times more rewarding than any championship. Here, you can change so many kids."
On Sept. 10, the Coyotes won their second game, their home opener, over La Quinta, 27-0. As they marched off the field together, they chanted in sing-song, "WHOSE HOUSE!" "OUR HOUSE!"
Our house. The refrain of a bunch of happy kids, so many of whom know what it is to be homeless. Six of the Coyotes have parole officers. One of them has a daughter, a 6-month old. Only two players have cars, "and one," White jokes, "has a driver's license."
A player missed a recent workout because of a paternity test aimed at finding his father. Kids have had to skip practice to visit a parent in jail or, in one case, both parents in jail.
"There are some real legitimate excuses," says Greg Portis, another assistant and Buena Park's freshman coach. "But these guys know we aren't going to feel sorry for them."
Jeremy Crow knows. The team's quarterback doesn't have a traditional home life, currently living at the end of a cul-de-sac, next to the 5 Freeway, on 8th Street, a stretch of Buena Park many people would turn down only if they're lost.
While sparing the details for the sake of his privacy, understand that Crow stays with a teammate's family, knowing, as one of the older kids and a senior, he's an example for his brothers who are Coyotes and, more so, for the three little brothers who are his kin.
"They look up to me, those three," he says. "I want them to have better lives than me. I have to set the bar high."
How is this possible, White and his assistants will ask one another. How do some of these kids live the way they do and still manage school and football, still keep the X's straight from the O's and pass pop quizzes?
This is a football team with a lot to think about. Buena Park has players prohibited from seeing their mother or father because of restraining orders and one kid who expresses himself with silence. He has said almost nothing since his dad was imprisoned months ago.
"These kids have so many reasons to fail," Lynch says. "Sometimes, I'll look at one of them and think, 'How is he doing this?'"
David Fulivai's explanation is simple – love, that's how. That's how he's playing football, leading as a senior co-captain and caring for his mom. Love is why this 6-foot-1, 300-pound son awakens every day, bathes his mother, dresses her and makes her breakfast. All before leaving for school at 7 a.m.
In 2006, Laukau Fulivai suffered nerve damage that paralyzed her from the waist down. Then, last year, her husband of 36 years, Kemoeatu, died.
As a Tongan, Fulivai explains that his culture calls for children to care for their parents when those parents become elderly. Even if they arrive there before reaching the age of the elderly.
"Since my father died, I skipped a lot of childhood stuff," says Fulivai, his full-moon face emotionless. "The moment he died, I became a man."
Love is why he leaves school two, three, maybe four times a day, walks across the street to their apartment and makes sure his mother is fine. Love is why he left the sidelines during Buena Park's second game – yes, during the game – ran to Laukau's wheelchair and, leaning over a chain-link fence, checked on her again.
"Mother comes first, you know?" he says, his face beginning to light. "It's sad. No one cares about tradition anymore. There's not enough love for the parents. Kids gotta love their parents.
"Mom knows best. She went through life before you, right? That's why she knows best. This world needs to slow down sometimes and go back to the old ways."
On Thursday, the Coyotes won their third game over Estancia, 21-13. Afterward, asked what he hoped his players were learning, White said: "We're not lying to them. This is real. If you believe in yourself and what you're doing, you can do anything in life. We're not lying to them. This is real."
And this is football at Buena Park High, where the players have long known real but now are discovering what this real can be all about.