It’s 5:29 a.m. Thursday in La Mesa and a snap-you-awake 48 degrees. A crescent moon hangs in the dark sky. Helix High’s football players, 57 total, bound for a 13-hour bus ride to Sacramento to play a state championship football game today, arrive in various states of early-morning daze.
Carson Baker, sporting TOMS slippers, pajama pants and a thin sweatshirt, demonstrates a quarterback’s preparedness. One backpack, which might exceed an airline’s maximum weight limit, is reserved strictly for snacks.
“That thing is loaded!” cries defensive end Jonathan Roots.
“Got my fluids in there,” explains Baker.
Lopaka Rojas, a Hawaiian who goes 6-feet-2, 305 pounds, opts for comfort, lugging a stuffed purple sheep bigger than anything you’ll see at a state fair.
“I like stuffed animals,” says Rojas. “They’re more comfortable to sleep with. My mom bought me the sheep. I used to have a teddy bear.”
The Highlanders (13-1), winners of 12 straight, face the Folsom Bulldogs (15-0) at 8 tonight at Sacramento State in the Division I-AA state championship. Atop a pedestal once occupied by Oceanside, Helix is the current gold, silver and platinum standard of high school football excellence in the San Diego Section.
Since the Open Division was established in 2013, the Scotties have played in the last four championship games, winning two of them. By knocking off Mission Hills in this year’s title game, Helix won its ninth section title.
Remarkably, the football program has suffered one losing season in the last 42 years.
Helix, the home of Reggie Bush and Alex Smith, owes its four-decade dominance to multiple factors, the most obvious being talent, culture, tradition and the sheer, athletic-arrogant belief that the team is supposed to win football games.
Says 6-foot-1, 250-pound center Mathew Avi’i from the back of the bus carrying offensive players, “We have a saying here: Tradition never graduates.”
Nestled in a hardscrabble section of La Mesa off University Avenue, Helix benefits from a diverse student enrollment. The 2016-17 student demographic was made up of 48 percent Hispanics, 20 percent whites, 16 percent blacks and 16 percent labeled “other.”
That melting pot is ideal in football, where a blend of ethnicities and talent is beneficial in a sport spread across 22 positions requiring diverse skills.
Part of that 16 percent “other” in Helix’s enrollment are sturdy, muscular, football-mad Samoans, like Avi’i , middle linebacker Tyreece Tarrant-Patane and sophomore running back Elelyon “Fatto” Noa, who has rushed for 889 yards in four playoff games.
“Samoans love physical contact,” says Avi’i. “Most of us are humble and quiet and God-fearing. One thing about football, you get to really show another side of you. God blessed us with this game. We get to use this platform to do something greater in life.”
Two hours, 40 minutes after the Helix buses edge out of the back parking lot, they pull in front of a Montebello hotel. The drivers change buses. Players step out, goofing off. Others dart to the bathroom.
Baker, in socks with no shoes, begins running in a zig-zag pattern across the blacktop. He is the quarterback CEO, all business.
“We’ve just been laying around so much,” says Baker, who has thrown for 2,410 yards and 33 TDs this season. “I thought I might as well run a little bit, tire myself so I can sleep tonight.”
Back on the bus, “War for the Planet of the Apes” plays on TV monitors. The apes are not fond of Woody Harrelson.
Few football programs embrace traditions more than the Highlanders. The Scotties walk onto the field behind their kilt-wearing, bagpipe-playing band, which is making the trip to Sacramento. The scene and sound are distinct.
“Every time I hear those bagpipes, something in my brain just flips,” says Avi’i. “It’s game time. It gives me chills every time.”
Minutes before kickoff, the team huddles tight and following the lead of its Samoan players, executes a Haka war cry similar to New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team.
“It’s a chant, calling our ancestors to come with us,” says Avi’i. “We’re preparing our minds, body and souls for coming to war, let the other team know we’re coming for them.”
About six hours into the Sacramento haul, the Scotties pull off the freeway for a defense walk-through at Bakersfield College. Donned in shorts and sweats, defenders review multiple alignments and stunts they’ve honed for Folsom.
Leaving the field, head coach Robbie Owens breaks the news to defensive coordinator Damaja Jones that he’s been stealing five extra minutes of practice all week for the offense.
Says Jones, laughing, “What do you expect from the guy who calls the offensive plays?”
Owens, 44, in his second season as Helix’s coach, is the antithesis of the cliché, militant football coach. He smiles easily and often. Music blares before 7-on-7 passing league games. He carries interests other than football, including writing a book on poker.
“I really do enjoy playing for Robbie,” says cornerback/wide receiver Rashad Scott. “He makes it more than just football. He makes it a family. He relates to everyone on the team.”
“The whole reason I’m a football coach is because of the influences coaches had on me,” says Owens, who was a high school quarterback and small-college wide receiver. “This game allows you an opportunity to teach people things about life.”
A former Highlander who played under the architect of the Helix dynasty, Jim Arnaiz, visited Owens this year and shared one of Arnaiz’s legacies. Arnaiz, who coached at Helix from 1973 to ’99, issued players dog tags that came engraved with a specific theme for that season.
Owens heard of the tradition last season, let it slip his mind but this year, during the bye week before the playoffs, he pounced. The tags are white. On one side it reads “Helix” with a picture of the Scottie dog. On the other side it reads “Respect the Name #win9.”
Beating Mission Hills earned the Highlanders that ninth section title. The players also took an oath, striving not only to achieve the goal, but to honor the Helix players who came before them.
“I love the dog tags,” said Scott, who has committed to San Diego State. “It really opened my mind to the players who made the same sacrifices way, way before us.”
During lunch at a Bakersfield all-you-can-eat buffet, cornerback Isaac Taylor-Stuart steps to the front of the room and pretends to be answering press-conference questions. On a team that landed nine players on the All-CIF San Diego Section squads, Taylor-Stuart, a St. Augustine transfer, is not the Scotties’ best player.
Scott was selected the section’s Defensive Player of the Year. Taylor-Stuart, though, carries the team’s highest profile, including more than 57,000 Twitter followers. He became a bit of an instant high school celebrity last summer when he won 40-yard sprint contests at two national camps. At 6-feet-2, 190 pounds, he is freakishly athletic.
He wlll be tested by Folsom, which averages 48 points and whose quarterback, junior Kaiden Bennett, has thrown 53 touchdown passes.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” says Taylor-Stuart, “but it’s nothing new to me.”
One of the nation’s most highly recruited players, Taylor-Stuart has narrowed his college choice to six schools: USC, Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
He scoffs at the rumor he’s leaning toward USC.
“That’s just Twitter talk,” he says. “I’ve got to do what’s best for me.”
Twelve hours after departing Helix in the dark, the Scotties were still chugging along in the dark on state Route 99. The mood was light, laughter emanating from the back of the bus. A Sacramento barbecue restaurant hosted the Scotties for dinner.
There would be a review in a hotel meeting room, sleep, a morning walk-through at Sacramento State, then one final game.
Multiple Internet sites are picking Folsom.
“They picked Mission Hills. They picked Oaks Christian,” says Owens.
He did not sound intimidated. Nor do his players. They hail from Helix. They wear dog tags. They did not sit on a bus more than half a day to lose.
HIGH SCHOOL FOOTBALL STATE CHAMPIONSHIPS
Division 1-AA: Helix (13-1) vs. Folsom (15-0) at Sacramento State, 8 p.m.
Division 3-A: Half Moon Bay (14-0) vs. Steele Canyon (11-4) at Southwestern College, 6 p.m.
Division 4-A: Milpitas (13-1) at EC Southwest (14-0), 6 p.m.
Division 6-A: San Francisco Galileo (10-2) vs. Vincent Memorial (12-2) at Calexico High, 6 p.m.
Norcross is a freelance writer.