The shriek of the referee’s whistle stops play on the Richmond High football field and means it’s time for Juan Esparza, a Richmond junior, to start moving. Esparza walks up the sideline, toting the chains. He’s spending a lot of time on what is, for a fan of the Oilers JV football team, the wrong side of the field this afternoon, marking first down after first down for the opponents and standing around for the Oilers, but Esparza can’t stop smiling.
It’s a brisk afternoon, and Esparza wears a black hooded sweatshirt under a white Oilers jersey — distinguishing him from his teammates on the field, who are wearing the Oilers’ home blue. Esparza, as an inactive player, lines up with his teammates on the sideline before the game, and the white jerseys of the chain and water crews stick out from the home jerseys like the sharps and flats on a piano.
The newcomers don a different uniform because they are not yet able to play on the field. So they prove their dedication to the team by practicing all week and helping out on the sidelines at games, until the day they earn pads and suit up to play in the games.
Esparza, adding to his sweat equity with each first down, doesn’t necessarily look like a football player — and actually, before a few weeks ago, he’d never played football. Esparza is part of an influx of players this year who are not only new to the Richmond football program but new to the sport itself.
The Richmond varsity football team finished last season with 19 players, not even enough to have separate players for offense and defense in an 11-player-on-the-field sport. This year the team has grown to a horde that is 70 strong, with two female athletes included among its ranks, said Robert Collins, the school’s athletic director. With so many players available, the football program has been able to field its first junior varsity squad in two years.
Last February Andy Odisio, a lifelong football player and Richmond native, stumbled upon a news article that profiled Richmond’s new head football coach, Tashaka Merriweather. The article noted that Merriweather had started coaching in September of that year. “Nobody gets hired in September for high school football,” Odisio said. “That’s the toughest time to take over a program.”
He emailed the new coach. The new coach emailed back. Odisio, who is from central Richmond, wondered if he might help out coaching the Oilers. He’d already spent six years teaching football strategy at Marin Catholic High School across the Bay.
“I had my eye on coming to coach in Richmond for a long time,” Odisio said.
To be a JV coach, though, Richmond High would need enough players to have a JV team. That’s where Merriweather came in. Coaches and players say he’s led a resurgence in interest, attracting more underclassmen than in previous years, many of whom, like Juan Esparza, are playing football for the very first time. With Merriweather’s ability to recruit, though, Odisio was needed. The email exchanges led to a 90-minute phone conversation with Merriweather that ended with Odisio as the team’s new JV coach.
“We started the season with one kid who had played football before,” Odisio said. “It’s new for me, this level, to teach from ground zero.”
Odisio is tall, with a muscular build and a no-nonsense nature that demands the respect of his players. Discipline takes the form not just of extra laps – Odisio gives it to his players verbally.
Before running a play at a recent practice, Odisio helped a player struggling to tighten his helmet strap, like a father helping his son tie a shoelace. On the next run, the play went according to plan, and Odisio clapped with delight.
“I would have tightened that helmet up a long time ago, Edgar, if I knew it’d make you run faster,” he said.
Odisio is a lifelong football player and fan, and on weekends he makes the drive to San Luis Obispo to watch his son play college ball at Cal Poly. Along with football, family is the center of his world, he said.
At practice Odisio ordered the team to run a play. “Make this play a good one,” he said. “It’s my wife’s favorite.”
Two weeks before his debut on the chain gang, Juan Esparza was just a kid who liked to watch football. He sat in the shade of the stands writing in a notebook. He had played soccer before, not football, he said, but a few of his friends were on the team and told him he should come out to play. After practice, he lingered on the sidelines, waiting to speak with Odisio about joining the team.
A week later as the Oilers JV ran its warm-up lap around the field, there was Esparza dressed in mesh shorts and his Vans sneakers. Throughout practice, the newcomers worked on learning the basic skills of football. Injured players who could not practice on the field taught them how to finesse a proper 3-point stance, and while other students goofed off with one another or lost interest, Juan practiced his over and over again.
Being new to football is not only a physical challenge for the young athletes on the Richmond team. Participating in the sport pushes many of them beyond the cultural norms of their families.
“Many times, at Richmond High not only is it the first time they’re playing football, it’s the first time somebody in their family is playing football,” varsity coach Clyde Byrd said. “Not only are they breaking new ground for themselves, but they’re breaking cultural ground for their family.”
Maria Navarro, the mother of JV newcomer Leo Parilla, said though that she’s happy that her son is the first in her family to play football.
“I used to wonder where he was after school, but now I know he’s here, safe,” she said.
Other players, like Alejandro Aguilar, Jovani Moreno and Enrique Alegria, are also breaking cultural ground in their families. At a recent game, while Juan Esparza waited his turn to play Jovani Moreno ran onto the field while his father Romero clapped loudly from the stands. “I’m so proud,” he said.
The Richmond parents aren’t the only ones proud of the JV players. The players show a sense of pride for themselves in their dedication to the sport, Byrd said.
At practice, players run play after play—among them “Oiler left, belly right” and “Queen’s ram 60”—asking questions in between runs to improve the next time around.
Byrd said there are positives—a sense of school pride and belonging—that result from students’ decisions to participate in the team, even if it means being pushed to their limits by the coaches.
“They could have gotten that same sense [of belonging] by joining something negative,” he said, “but instead of doing that they decided to come out here and have somebody holler and scream at them.”
Before each game, JV coach Marlyn Baldonado Johnson leads the team in prayer.
“Touch your brother,” he tells the players as they form a kneeling huddle. His voice echoes from the sidelines, like a preacher speaking from the pulpit. As he nears the prayer’s end, his voice crescendos until all of the players have joined him for the last few lines. “Day by day, we get better,” they shout. “The team that can’t be beat won’t be beat.”
With that, the Oilers take to their feet and play.
Marlyn Baldonado Johnson has roots in Richmond. He grew up in the city, the fourth of 10 siblings in a single-parent household. “I have a lot of fond memories coming out of Richmond,” he said. “I wear that as a badge of courage everywhere I go.”
Johnson got an early start in football as a player for Pinole Valley High School. He even had a brief stint at Richmond High his junior year, but poor academic performance by the athletes meant the school at that time had no varsity team, so he played for the JV. Eventually, through the support of his father, Johnson went on to a career at the collegiate level as an offensive and defensive lineman for Menlo College. A knee injury at the end of tryouts for the San Jose Sabercats ended his shot at the pros, and his football career, early. Converse All-Stars and a long ponytail make him look now a bit more rock star than a football coach, but his broad shoulders are evidence of his athletic past.
As a coach Johnson provides the same kind of support for his players that he received from his father early in his football career. Along with Odisio, Johnson’s passion shows in the careful attention he gives to each player’s understanding of the game.
At practice one afternoon, Johnson instructed one of his players on the strategy of a strong defense; covering his own position area while also guarding that of his other teammates, who through a series of choreographed moves had left an open space vulnerable to the offensive line.
After several runs of the same play, one player kept chasing the ball and Johnson grew frustrated. But on the final attempt, the play ran according to Johnson’s instruction, and the coach and player rejoiced.
“Just by doing your job, what happened?” Johnson asked. “You sacked the quarterback. It feels good when you do it right, doesn’t it?”
Johnson and Odisio want the kids to feel good. It’s part of why they’re coaching, and part of providing stability and focus for their team.
“I try and just organize the kids successfully in a way that will allow them to win or feel good about themselves,” Odisio said. “I organize them, give them structure and teach them the game.”
But varsity coach Clyde Byrd said the efforts of the coaches extend beyond the field into the classroom and the future after high school.
“We teach them what they’ve got to do in a football sense, but also in academics and in life,” he said. “Of course, I always expect wins and losses, but I’m expecting a better attitude and kids to maintain their grades. I’m expecting kids to go to college.”
For Robert Collins, a first year athletic director at Richmond High, improvement is not only about changing the players’ attitudes and understanding of the game, but changing the outlook of the Richmond community. Though he said that winning is not the only priority this year, Collins recognized the impact a successful season could have on Richmond fans.
“Our community is tired of the football team losing, and so are we,” he said. “We’ll keep knocking away at it here at Richmond and try to get the community to believe we are making it better.”
This year, for the first time in several years, the effort is being carried by scores of new recruits. They’re out there for practice and every Friday they’re on the field – some of them in pads, some of them on the sideline, some of them, like Juan Esparza, carrying the first-down chains.
As the recent game – a dispiriting loss to Fairfield — ends, Esparza finishes up his duty on the chain gang. First-in-their-family players on a first-in-a-few-years team make for storybook seasons, but that doesn’t necessarily mean storybook endings to every game. When the final whistle blows, Esparza drops the marker and races across the field to join his teammates in congratulating their opponents. The defeat wears heavy on the faces of the Oilers players, but Juan Esparza maintains that wide smile.
Just two weeks earlier he was sitting in the stands and watching the team practice as he did his homework. Now he is part of the team and he wears the jersey to prove it. Esparza said he is eager to get out to practice next week and prove to coach Odisio that he is ready to play in the next game. But in this moment, he is happy to relish in just being a part of Richmond football.
“It feels like I’m out there representing Richmond,” he said. “It makes me want to get out there and work harder.”