I’ve covered high school football pretty much nonstop since I was in high school myself.
And every year, the dog days of summer let me know that another season is just around the corner.
Every year as high school football season approaches, I find my thoughts drifting back to the summer of 1981, as I prepared to try out for the football team at my alma mater, Castle Park High School in Chula Vista, Calif.
At the informational meeting we had just before school let out for the summer, I connected with a friend named Carlos Perez, whom I’d known since I moved to Chula Vista the year before. I was going to Portland to spend the summer with my dad, but Carlos and I agreed to keep in touch and keep each other motivated to do the offseason workouts the coaches gave us.
“Keeping in touch” in 1981, by the way, usually involved writing letters – an involved process that involved putting pen to paper, writing out your thoughts, then going to the post office, buying a stamp, affixing it to the envelope, and mailing it.
Or talking on the phone – which in 1981, was attached to a cord, which was attached to the wall.
Over the course of the summer, Carlos and I kept in touch by both archaic communication methods.
Finally, the end of July rolled around, and it was time to head home. My flight home from Portland got into San Diego International Airport early in the afternoon, and when I got home, the first thing I did after unloading my stuff was ask my mom for the phone so I could call Carlos and we could make plans to meet up the next morning and head to practice together.
All the color drained from my mom’s face.
She told me to sit down.
That’s never a good sign.
As gently as she could, my mom informed me that Carlos had collapsed and died during a preseason conditioning workout the day before.
My friend was dead of a heart attack at 15.
I retreated to my room, closed the curtains, got under the covers, and laid there for the rest of the day and night – the only sound coming from the soft whir of the ceiling fan and my ancient clock radio as the minutes changed with t gentle “click.”
The next day, after not sleeping one bit all night, I reported to practice with my teammates. We shared some tears and memories of our fallen comrade – and then we got to work.
All season long, we felt Carlos with us as we took the field. Win or lose, he was always on our minds and in our hearts.
That was 36 years ago last week, and though the pain has eased with the years, every fall when the siren song of the Friday night lights begins to call to me again, I think back on my friend, the brief shining moments we shared on and off the football field – and I smile. Somewhere, I know Carlos is smiling too.
Good luck to all the area prep football players out there as they battle through the heat and sweat of another preseason camp. Enjoy the ride while it lasts, guys – and don’t take a single thing for granted.
Contact Gridley Herald sports/news reporter David Vantress at 846-3661, ext. 123 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @dvantressGH.