Benefield: Healdsburg's football timeout a painful pause

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HEALDSBURG — Four years ago, Jackson Hernandez considered going to high school somewhere else. The Healdsburg High School senior has played football since he was 7. He understood that unlike days of old, football isn’t king on the Prince Avenue campus anymore.

But Hernandez’s dad played for the Hounds. So did his uncle. As did his grandfather. As a kid, he would show up to Hounds’ practices just to watch them play.

“It was actually a really big thing,” he said. “I knew Healdsburg wasn’t the best team around, but I still wanted to go because of all the previous generations.”

But on Monday afternoon Hernandez saw his football career come to an abrupt end. Fresh on the heels of two losses in which Healdsburg was outscored 102-0, a team meeting was held and players voted to end the season right then and there.

It is a decision that has sparked confusion, disappointment and — already — regret.

Of the 13 kids on the roster who participated in the vote, two were at least temporarily academically ineligible, according to Healdsburg High athletic director and head coach Dave Stine. They had just enough bodies to field a team.

In an interview at Healdsburg School District offices Friday, Stine said this was not a knee-jerk reaction to losing. The vote was a long time in the making. He said last spring he had 42 athletes who expressed interest in coming out for the team. Uniforms were ordered, numbers were assigned.

But come summer, the turnout at workouts was scant. Players who showed up felt it.

“People complained about commitment,” Hernandez said.

Stine said there was little he could do under current North Coast Section rules to require that guys show up. He could not make workouts mandatory.

“We did everything we could as a coaching staff to motivate and try to encourage kids to play,” he said. “That’s what’s so frustrating. I’ll be damned if I would go into a room and say, ‘We’re not going to play the rest of the season,’ after all the work I did.”

Senior Andy Castro was a guy who missed a lot of summer workouts.

“To be honest, I did not do that,” he said of regular attendance. “I did not do my part in the summer. I worked a full-time job in the summer, but I went when I could.”

Castro is one of the players who voted to shut the season down. He says now that his vote in that moment does not fit with how he approached the game.

When the roster started to shrink, Castro said he was a guy who would play both ways, play every down.

“I’m the type of person, I’ll play the game, I’ll play the rest of the game,” he said. “But with everybody else not being committed, it makes me not committed.”

Castro said Stine could see the discontent building. It’s not hard to notice when the team has to cancel its first scrimmage because of lack of numbers and then gets beaten 41-0 and 61-0.

“He would say, ‘Look, we may have low numbers, but I have seen it in the past that teams with low numbers can do it. Look at small schools — El Molino, Elsie Allen, they can do it,’” Castro said.

But the rumbling of discontent grew.

“I think they don’t like losing, they didn’t want to keep going,” Castro said of some teammates. “They kept putting negative thoughts out there, it goes from one teammate to another teammate. Coach Stine would say, ‘It’s like a cancer.’”

It was clear things were coming to a head.

“I had kind of got some rumblings that something was up,” Stine said. “I spent about a week and a half talking with kids about character, not quitting, overcoming obstacles, moving forward — those are life lessons they needed to learn now because they are going to have a lot of obstacles in life that they can’t just quit and they have to take one at a time.”

Shrinking roster

But on Monday, when yet another player told Stine he was turning in his uniform, the coach called a team meeting. The roster was down to 13.

“The first words out of my mouth were… ‘Coach and I are committed to finish the season, who is committed to stick it out?’” he said.

One kid said he was week to week. Another eight kids raised their hands indicating they were still in, he said. The coaches decided to confirm the decision with a blind vote. In the anonymous tally, only six voted to stay the course.

“Already low numbers, you only have six committed kids who say, ‘I will absolutely continue through the whole season,’ you can’t field a team,” he said.

But that moment is where some are saying a different tack should have been taken.

“I don’t understand how it was decided by kids on Monday afternoon and done by Monday night,” said Jackson Hernandez’s mom, Amy. “You are letting them decide the fate of a varsity program?”

“It’s ‘Let the troops decide what the army does,’” she said. “I don’t get that you are going to pull the whole season, no pause button, no ‘Let’s give it a night to think about it.’ Nothing.”

But Stine said he did meet with parents. He said over the spring and summer he met with a number of parents of “team leaders” with messages of “we are counting on your son; these expectations aren’t being met. We need some help here.”

It was not a secret that this program was struggling. Two years ago, there was not enough interest in football to field a junior varsity squad with this cohort of players.

“We had already had five or six kids quit in two weeks,” he said. “We’d been struggling all summer and we weren’t getting any support then.”

They had already pulled up two sophomores. Stine said there was perhaps one junior varsity player, on a 30-player JV roster, who could safely play at the varsity level. Reinforcement was not coming.

But Hernandez wanted a heads-up, something more than her son coming home crushed.

“I don’t understand why they didn’t have a parent meeting,” Hernandez said. “I would have had that teaching opportunity as a parent to talk with my kid.”

Hernandez said she’s not angry, just hurting for her son.

“I’m not mad at anybody personally,” she said. “I just don’t understand.”

But Stine said parent intervention would not have made a difference. If that many people have to be called upon to rally enthusiasm for continuing on, what’s the point?

“I’m the head coach. I had a group of kids that were not committed to play,” he said. “Regardless of what the parents wanted to do, I already know those kids don’t want to play, so I can’t put them back on the field whether or not the parents want them to play or not. They are not going to perform.”

So I had to ask: Was it Stine’s job to hold it together?

“As a head coach, yes it is,” he said. “It’s my job to put it together and hold it together.”

But he said he doesn’t know what else he could have done.

“I feel pretty discouraged,” he said. “I can’t hold myself personally responsible; I did everything I could do.”

Would he do anything different? No.

Teaching opportunity

Healdsburg Unified School District Superintendent Chris Vanden Heuvel said that despite the disappointment, this truly is a teaching opportunity. On Friday, wearing a Healdsburg High football shirt, he expressed support for the process that put the decision in the hands of the players.

Teachable moments are about “the ability and right of students to make decisions like this for themselves.”

Those lessons “might be positive and it might be negative,” but they will be valuable. Along with Principal Bill Halliday, he met with the athletes on Thursday. They talked about numbers, they talked about safety, he said.

“They were very articulate about their feelings and why they made the decision they made,” he said. “And while certainly we don’t ever want to encourage kids to quit in something, I wasn’t disappointed in them after meeting with them.”

Vanden Heuvel said the school could have done a better job of communicating with parents. It’s better to overcommunicate, he said, and that didn’t happen. An e-mail went out Thursday.

“I would have liked to communicate school-wide to all the parents once the decision was made; we didn’t do that right away. We could have done that,” he said. “But in the end, it’s the boys who put the pads on and the helmets and are out there all summer working. And they are on the ones who made the decision.”

Vanden Heuvel said he felt for the four seniors on the team, who won’t get another chance to play. The rest of the team has the option to play junior varsity and on a revived varsity team next season. Two sophomores and four juniors moved to the JV squad, Stine said.

Citing national numbers that show participation in football is declining at almost every level, Vanden Heuvel was adamant that the school is not letting its varsity football program go gently into that good night.

“This is a blip,” he said. “This is a one-year blip. We will rebuild a program.”

But he acknowledged the difficulties, not only with increased concern over the safety of the game, but on sheer numbers. Enrollment at the high school last year was 552, according to California Department of Education records. In 2007-08, it was listed at 895.

“We recognize the challenge in that and we will do our best to resurrect the program and bring back a strong tradition that Healdsburg has enjoyed for many years,” he said. “There is no undermining effort to kill football in Healdsburg.”

But it’s dead for Hernandez and it’s dead for Castro. And it hurts for both of them.

Castro may have voted to end the season, but he said he isn’t a quitter. And he takes umbrage at any suggestion on social media or otherwise that says he is. The athletes in the room Monday were the ones still standing, not the ones who had abandoned ship along the way.

“Be in our situation and then you understand,” he said. “They should be in our shoes and not be judging too fast and saying we are quitters.”

And more painful still? He wants his vote back.

“I 100 percent regret it,” he said. “I made the wrong decision. I should have kept going. I should have listened.”

And Hernandez’s regret is not that he didn’t listen, but that he didn’t speak.

“Not too many of the people who (wanted to) stay spoke up,” he said. “I regret not speaking out. I wish I would have.”

Few among us likely understand what it feels like to be on the losing end of a 61-0 game. And not everyone knows or understands that particular heartbreak when a season ends. But for this group of players, some of whom will never play again, the sudden end brings with it a public sting and an entirely personal ache.

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707-526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield. Podcasting on iTunes and SoundCloud, “Overtime with Kerry Benefield.”

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