Here, in the hills fanning east from the San Francisco Bay, perch some of the most pleasant suburbs in all of California. Temperatures float between mild and balmy. Crime rates are low. Complaints tend towards such trivialities as traffic on the freeway or the length of the checkout lines at Trader Joe's. Central Contra Costa County is often called the East Bay's quintessential bedroom community, and the description seems apt. It's a comfortable, sleepy place; "a land of lotus eaters," jokes local guidebook author Don McCormack. Folks, for the most part, rest easy. � For anyone lulled by the mellow rhythm of these suburbs, the scene at one particular Contra Costa high school can be a shock to the senses. In a small, poorly ventilated weight room tucked into the back of the school, three dozen boys are training with a ferocious intensity. While half of the group rotates among a crowded assortment of barbells and hand weights, the other half is moving through an exacting circuit of push-ups, sit-ups and other calisthenics on a walkway between the gym and the weight room. Every so often a young man supervising the workouts blows a whistle, and the boys, sweat soaking their white T-shirts and green gym shorts, hustle to the next station. Because his charges continually urge one another to keep up the tempo, the supervisor has little more to do.
It's March, and this is an "off-season" football workout at De La Salle High in Concord, where, from the middle of January through the start of preseason practice in late summer, players attend voluntary workouts that last up to three hours a day, four days a week. While football may start with the school year elsewhere, it's a year-round preoccupation for a team that is shouldering perhaps the heftiest expectations in all of sports. By the end of the 2003 season, De La Salle had won 151 straight games, a record for an American football team at any level. That streak will be on the line when the Spartans, with only seven returning starters, go into Seahawks Stadium in Seattle on Sept. 4 to face Bellevue High, the reigning Washington Class 3A champion.
So while other De La Salle students step around the exercising athletes on their way to their Jettas and Jeeps, chattering about the usual teen distractions--homework, girlfriends, music--the football players push on, their thoughts flickering to a game that is still far off.
There are those who will cluck disapprovingly at this tableau. They'll talk about tunnel vision, about how teenagers are more susceptible to overuse injuries because their bones are still growing. But coaches who have faced De La Salle can only marvel at the effects of this year-round training. Delbert Tengan, for instance, is the former coach of St. Louis School of Honolulu, which played De La Salle in September 2002, in the Spartans' first-ever foray outside of California. He remembers only too well how his Crusaders, enjoying a decided home field advantage at Aloha Stadium, were defeated by the mainlanders, 31--21--a score that didn't reflect the lopsidedness of the game--relegating the pride of Hawaii to No. 127 in a mounting list of De La Salle's victims.
Alone in his coaching office after the loss, Tengan popped a videotape of the game in his VCR to find out why his team had failed, despite detailed scouting reports, rested starters and even new uniforms for the game. He watched as the California kids took their three-point stance in military unison and then reacted to the snap as if jerked by a single leash. He noticed how their undersized linemen charged without fear into brawny Hawaiians who outweighed them by an average of 48 pounds, and how their running backs protected the football as they zipped into the end zone. Tengan pushed the rewind button again and again, searching for the mental errors that every high school team--hell, most Division I college teams--make. He found none.
Tengan sighs heavily when asked to sum up what makes De La Salle special. Where to begin? "I've seen more purely athletic teams," says Tengan, "but you're not going to see a group more precision-oriented, more disciplined. It's incredible."
How is it that of the more than 13,000 high school football teams in the U.S., none has attracted as far-reaching a following as this Catholic school of 1,007 boys? Perhaps it's the sheer dominance that the team displays. Since the Spartans' last defeat, on Dec. 7, 1991, they've won those 151 games by an average score of 49--7, and the vanquished have included some of the nation's most storied programs. Besides winning 12 straight North Coast section titles ( California, because of its size, does not have a single state championship), De La Salle has twice toppled Long Beach Poly, a Southern California pipeline to the NFL, and has also beaten Louisiana's mighty Evangel Christian while finishing No. 1 in USA Today's high school rankings five times in the past six years.
Though De La Salle's success naturally fosters some jealousy among local rivals, most everyone who follows high school football is fascinated by what is simply referred to as the Streak. In the past two years it has inspired two books and a feature-length documentary. Spartans games have also been aired nationwide on DirecTV and ESPN2. "When they've been on television, most people I know were watching," says former 49ers coach Bill Walsh, who wears a Spartans jacket that was given to him when he spoke at a recent De La Salle banquet. "Is this unusual? Sure. This is a high school team that plays like a very good college team."
Even more remarkable than such endorsements is how unimpressed the school seems to be with itself. De La Salle is among 45 U.S. high schools that are operated by the De La Salle Christian Brothers, an order that follows the teachings of St. John Baptist de La Salle, the 17th-century saint who emphasized the importance of faith and community service in education. In the spirit of that mission, the school's facilities are deliberately unassuming. The De La Salle receptionist often fields calls from confused tourists who have driven right past the squat brick school building, convinced that the mighty football factory must be farther down the road. The football field, squeezed between a quiet boulevard and a private home, has only a modest set of bleachers. There's no roadside marquee to promote football games, and the locker room and gymnasium have not been renovated in 39 years (though there are plans afoot for a schoolwide renovation, including the lockers). When De La Salle's parking lot isn't filled with boys bustling from car to class, it's likely being swept clean by one of the Christian Brothers teachers and administrators.
"What amazed me immediately about De La Salle is how low-key football is, at least away from the field," says Brother Christopher Brady, the principal since July 2000. He doesn't care much for football but knows a thing or two about its rabid fan culture thanks to his nephew Tom, who has quarterbacked the New England Patriots to two Super Bowl wins. "These players are humble enough to keep striving year after year."