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DOWNEY - There is a particular pride and uniqueness that comes with being part of the Downey High School football family.
One hears about the epic teams of the past and all their accomplishments, often taking the form of mythical characters and settings. To this day, people still talk about what many consider to be the "best game in high school history," when Downey faced Anaheim in the 1956 CIF championship in a game that faced two legendary running backs against each other as the fog rolled in on the L.A. Coliseum.
More than 45,000 people filled the Coliseum, according to reports, the highest attendance ever recorded for a California high school football game.
This Saturday night at Cal State Fullerton, Downey High School will embrace a new chapter in its history. This game is destined to be talked about for decades to come as the 2012-13 Vikings add themselves to the list of historic Downey High football teams, joining the squads from '56, '57, '96 and '01.
Leading the team is head coach Jack Williams, a down-to-earth guy and as Downey as they come. Spend five minutes with Williams and most likely you'll be laughing and sharing stories - he's that type of person.
"In high school, I was kind of out of it, always getting into trouble. I was a wannabe cholo," Williams said. "There were a lot of things going on in my life."
Williams didn't start playing football until his senior year at Downey High in 1994 and he's the first to admit he didn't like it much. But to his surprise, Williams discovered he was actually a pretty good football player.
He went on to play at Long Beach City College, BYU and eventually became a Junior Heisman at Azusa Pacific University, where he played on both sides of the ball as a running back and defensive back. After college, he played professionally in Barcelona and spent a month in the Oakland Raiders' training camp in 2001.
When his attempts to join an NFL team didn't pan out, Williams returned to Downey, where he rehabbed from a career in football and started to slowly rediscover his roots. In need of a job, he turned to longtime friend Downey High principal Allen Layne, who offered him a permanent substitute teacher position in the special education department.
For Williams, it was a chance to get back on his feet and embark on a new career as a teacher and high school coach.
He started as coach of the junior varsity football team and was eventually named defensive coordinator of the varsity team in 2005. In 2009, he was named head coach, replacing Will Capps.
It wasn't a position Williams initially wanted or was prepared for.
"I didn't want to become head coach until I was mature enough to assume the responsibility of being a role model for my players," he said. "By 2009, I was ready and it has been one of the best decisions I've ever made.
"I'm not too concerned with making football players but rather men that can one day walk back onto campus and share their life stories with us. That's what I want most from this program."
As head coach, Williams brought in a new staff and culture to the football program. Rap music blared as players warmed up before their two-a-day practices. Players laughed and joked with the coaching staff. But when it was time to work, they worked. Players followed a high intensity and strictly disciplined practice, and while they were allowed to express themselves freely, they were also expected to take orders without talking back.
At the conclusion of games, win or lose, the team took part in military-style exercises that exhibited their Viking pride.
The balance between free-wheeling fun and a hard-nosed work ethic appears to be working.
"More than a football coach, I wanted to be someone that the kids could turn to," Williams said. "Some of my best moments as coach have been off the field, where former players have turned to me for help and advice. This is what I value most."
After three seasons, Williams and his staff have changed the football culture at Downey High, reviving a school spirit that has not been seen since 2000.
"There is something very special about this community," said Grant Warhurst, who coached the team from 1993 to 2006. "Former football players come out to the games when we have a good year and as we start making a run in the playoffs. It brings people together - it's a good feeling."
That sense of community was on display last Friday, before the semifinal game against Santa Fe Springs, when hundreds of Downey High alumni gathered for a tailgate and also to celebrate the life of former teammate Alfred Nungaray. Nungaray, a captain on Downey's 2001 team that made it to the CIF semifinals, died Nov. 19 from lung complications.
The tailgate raised more than $3,000 to help Nungaray's family with funeral expenses. Downey players will have Nungaray's initials on their helmets when they play La Serna on Saturday.
"This is the type of community and brotherhood we have in the city of Downey and as former Downey High football players," said Valentin Flores, a captain on the 2001 team. "We are tribal in the best of ways. Though we all went to different elementary and middle schools, we grew up together, playing DJAA and hanging out in the summer. We've always known we were a special group. To this day we feel that. Alfred represented that. I am glad he will be running around with our boys this Friday night."
Williams, however, isn't getting caught up in the nostalgia. He's busy preparing for La Serna High School, which beat the Vikings, 28-27, in overtime in Week 2.
In that game, Downey scored a late touchdown to get within a point of La Serna. But instead of going for the extra point which would have tied the game, Williams made the gutsy call for a two-point conversion. It failed but Williams has no regrets.
"That loss made us hungry," Williams said. "And we're a totally different team now. We have an entirely new defense."
To capture their first CIF championship since 1957, Downey will have to get past a tough offensive line to get to junior quarterback Frankie Palmer, who has thrown for 1,925 yards and 19 touchdowns this season.
Whether Downey can beat La Serna and earn their first CIF championship in 55 years remains to be seen, but regardless of Saturday's outcome this has already been a dream season for Downey High.
"Going into the season, we thought this was going to be a rebuilding year," Williams admitted. "Maybe we're a little naive, but we think we can win this thing. We want that championship."
Game time is 7 p.m. Admission is $9.
Downey High alumni will host a tailgate Friday. For details go to stay-gallery.com.
Editing and additional reporting by Eric Pierce.
Published: November 29, 2012 - Volume 11 - Issue 33