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NFL Meets Friday Night Lights

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By Ron Kroichick

 

John Parrella watched as two orderly rows of young football players jogged onto the practice field at Dublin’s Valley Christian High. The players wore red-and-black shorts, gray T-shirts with Vikings Football across the chest, and glistening maroon helmets fresh from the factory.

 

“The helmets look sweet!” the former Oakland Raiders defensive lineman bellowed.

 

Not all of the players knew what to do with their brand-new gear. Sophomore Taylor “Tex” Bartlett wandered over, held out the chin strap, and sheepishly said, “I don’t know how to put this on.”

 

Parrella, the head coach, has embraced an ambitious project at the 310-student high school: starting a football program from scratch. The 38-year-old—who played in three Super Bowls during his 12-year National Football League career—understands football’s value to a community. He played at a 150-student Catholic school in Grand Island, Nebraska, and says, “It changed my life.”

 

“Football teaches so many lessons about life, hard work, and discipline,” Parrella says. “And I think it’s going to bring school spirit like they’ve never seen before.”

 

It doesn’t hurt that Parrella has assembled a big-name coaching staff for the small school’s team, including former Raiders teammate Rod Woodson, voted one of the top 50 players in NFL history; another former Raider, Josh Taves; and a respected longtime high school coach, Craig Cook. Although the new program may lack history, it will not lack coaching expertise.

 

“We’re taking all that NFL experience and bringing it to high school,” says Woodson. “The kids are going to learn at the NFL level. Hopefully, that knowledge will lead to wins and also lead to the kids respecting and understanding each other.”

 

Parrella and his wife, Leigh, settled in Pleasanton when he joined the Raiders in 2002, after eight seasons in San Diego. They enrolled their four kids in Valley Christian Elementary School at the suggestion of one of Parrella’s coaches, Paul Kelly, and the Parellas soon came to savor the small classes, spiritual inclination, and community atmosphere.

 

The 36-year-old school had one missing ingredient: football. Valley Christian officials had talked about starting a program over the years, but the idea was always derailed by financial obstacles, meager facilities, and modest enrollment. That changed under the leadership of Ray Noah, the school’s former senior pastor.

 

Noah worried about Valley Christian’s reputation as a football-less school and how much it hurt enrollment. Over the years, a steady stream of boys left the school after eighth grade because they wanted to play the sport in high school. “There came a point where I thought, ‘We really need a football program,’ ” says Noah, who has since left for a church in Portland, Oregon. “I always believed money would follow the vision. I thought the biggest part would be launching the vision.”

 

Noah and Parrella were friends through the church at Valley Christian, and the passionate former football player struck the pastor as the ideal choice to lead the new football team. At one of their weekly breakfast meetings, Parrella recalls, Noah suddenly said, “Let’s do it—and you coach it!”

 

Parrella was hired as head coach in January 2007, and players began a conditioning program in September 2007. The junior varsity launches its first season this month with 50 boys expected to come out, and the varsity will debut in the fall of 2009. Parrella expects football to help expand the school’s enrollment not only because players will stay but because of the camaraderie generated by fielding a team.

 

Here lies the great unknown for Valley Christian: How soon can the school actually win games? In an area rich with strong high-school programs, from De La Salle to Foothill to Monte Vista, it could take years for Parrella and his dream-team staff to carve out significant success on the field.

 

“We’ll win from day one,” Parrella says in a moment of unrestrained bravado. “We firmly expect to win and win often.” Then, he catches himself and repeats his mantra, “But if we build good Christian men, everything else will take care of itself.”

 

The beneficiaries are the fresh-faced kids who will form the first football team in school history. They are kids such as running back Max Kurth and offensive linemen Adam Brissey and Andrew Aqua, all polite and respectful and restlessly excited to face Harker School of San Jose on September 6, the opening game of their long-awaited first season.

 

“We’re pioneering,” Aqua says with pride.

 

 

Published: Diablo, September 2008

 

Author bio: Ron Kroichick covers sports for the San Francisco Chronicle.

 

 

NOTE: They won the game referred to at the end of the story, 41-22.

 

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