Rafer Johnson: National treasure

Rafer Johnson photo

By John Murphy 

Rising above pastoral Kingsburg where grape fields and stone fruit orchards eventually give way to stores and churches is a unique landmark.

It is a 1911 water tank adorned with a spout, lid and handle and painted in a Scandinavian style as a nod to the city’s Swedish population that numbered 94 percent of the town by the early 1900s.

So prevalent were the Swedes that local track and field star Rafer Johnson, according to his autobiography, once heard a fan from another town tell a friend, “I’m really looking forward to seeing this Swedish boy, Rafer Johnson.”

That amused Johnson, who for a time belonged to the only African-American family in Kingsburg.

“If you look in the Kingsburg phone book, it was and still is filled with names like Anderson, Swanson and Johnson,” he said. “I guess when that guy read my name, he just thought I was another Swedish kid.”

Johnson was a percolating force of nature who would win the Olympic gold medal in the decathlon, be named Sports Illustrated’s Athlete of the Year, Sport Magazine’s Sportsman of the Year, the Associated Press Athlete of the Year and be given the Sullivan Award as the Outstanding Amateur Athlete. And all that was just in 1960.

Throughout his remarkable journey, Johnson was not only an Olympic champion but played basketball at the University of California, Los Angeles for coach John Wooden. He was also friends with presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy and boxing champ Muhammad Ali. He championed the Special Olympics and lit the cauldron at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

Now 81 years old, the Sherman Oaks resident has lived an incredible life, and it all largely began in Kingsburg.

Finding a home

Johnson’s meager origins are like something out of a dime novel, almost too corny for a movie script.

He was born in 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, where his father Lewis Johnson was a farmhand. Later, the family moved to an impoverished neighborhood west of downtown Dallas called Oak Cliff. They lived in various old, wooden houses during their years there and had no electricity or indoor plumbing. Johnson slept in the same bed with his brothers Ed and Jimmy. Jimmy later became a Hall of Fame defensive back with the San Francisco 49ers.

In Texas, Johnson experienced segregation, including separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites, so it probably came as a relief when Lewis Johnson moved the family to the San Joaquin Valley, where it eventually landed in Kingsburg.

Once known as Wheatville, Kingsburg began as a flag stop on the Central Pacific Railroad. By 1946, when the Johnsons arrived, the city had grown and Lewis Johnson took a job with the railroad.

The future gold medalist later described Kingsburg as a “Norman Rockwell painting come to life” – full of fruit orchards to run in and irrigation ditches to swim in and canneries on which to ride elevated belts as if they were amusement park rides.

By Johnson’s high school years, he had grown to a sturdy 6-foot-1, 185 pounds, and he starred in four sports for the Kingsburg High School Vikings. He averaged nine yards per carry in football, 17 points per game in basketball and hit better than .500 in baseball. However, it was track and field where he really excelled under the tutelage of late Viking coach Murl Dodson. No dummy away from the track, Johnson was also a top scholar and student body president.

“When I was a kid, I’d go with my dad on trips and Rafer would do his homework in between running and jumping,” said Dave Dodson, the son of Murl, who later became the longtime track and field coach at Sanger High. “At first he did the 100 and 220 and high jump, but only two athletes from the area qualified for the state meet and there were some top sprinters around like Leamon King from Delano and Alonzo Hall from Edison.”

url Dodson steered Johnson into the high and low hurdles and the long jump. A quick study, Johnson attended a Junior Olympics meet in San Francisco and blew away the competition. A star was born.

By Johnson’s late teens, he was heavily sought by colleges, and UCLA won out. At UCLA, Johnson soaked up the knowledge of iconic coach John Wooden. Now 6-foot-3 and well-chiseled, he was a force inside for the 1959-60 Bruin basketball team.

“He was a good jumper and was more effective offensively around the basket than from the outside,” said Pete Newell Jr., son of the legendary University of California, Berkeley and U.S. Olympic coach of the same name.

Wooden wistfully concluded that he held Johnson back too much, later saying “Imagine Rafer Johnson on the break.”

No matter. The Kingsburg High grad was already headed for big things in track and field, tutored by the great UCLA coach Elvin C. “Ducky” Drake. He also received mentoring in the pole vault by California State University, Fresno coach Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, a Hanford High grad who held the world pole-vault record for many years.

When Johnson was still in high school, Murl Dodson brought him to meet the legendary coach.

“The pole vault was the most technically difficult event and the most difficult for me,” Johnson said. “When I got there I was doing 9-6, but we spent a half a day with Dutch and when we left I had improved two feet, to 11-6.”

Going for gold

By 1956, Johnson had been a world-record holder in the decathlon and the favorite to win at the Melbourne Olympics, but it was not to be.

He injured his knee in training and had to have it drained regularly. He then tore a stomach muscle while competing in the long jump, which he had also qualified for, and had to pull out of that event. He finished second to Milt Campbell of the United States, further stoking Johnson’s insatiable quest for gold.

Johnson trained furiously for the 1960 Rome Olympics, working out under the watchful eye of Drake and toiling under the hot Southern California sun with C.K. Yang of Taiwan, also a UCLA track star. Yang would be Johnson’s main competition in Rome.

“C.K. was one of the greatest athletes of the time,” Johnson said. “He was an all-around talented individual — quick, strong and knowledgeable. When you competed against C.K., you had to bring your best.”

Johnson did in Rome, as the world watched.

Entering the second day of the Olympic decathlon, the competition between Johnson and Yang was close and remained that way to the end. Heading into the final event, the 1500, Johnson led by 67 points, but middle-distance running was Yang’s specialty.

Undaunted, Johnson stayed in Yang’s shadow to the end, crossing the finish line in 4:49.7 to Yang’s 4:48.5, losing the race but winning the decathlon and the gold medal.

Kingsburg’s own was deluged by the press after, and said, “Tonight, I’m going to shower and then just walk for about four hours and look at the moon. I don’t know where — just walk, walk, walk. I’ve got to unwind. I’m through, man. I’m through.”

Except, he wasn’t. Gold medal dangling from his neck, Johnson still had much to accomplish.

Lighting the way

In the 1960s, Olympic gold did not translate into riches. Johnson got into sports announcing for a time, helping to call the 1964 Olympics from Tokyo and working for a Los Angeles television station, but he quit the latter to work on the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy in 1968. Johnson met Kennedy through People to People, a group President Dwight D. Eisenhower had begun in 1956 to focus on cultural-exchange programs.

“I told [Kennedy] I would be willing to help if he ran for office, and so I did, traveling mostly throughout California with him, giving speeches and supporting him,” Johnson said. “It was fantastic.”

Unfortunately, the friendship and dream came to end on June 5, 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Kennedy was walking through the kitchen following a speech when a lone assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, brushed through the crowd, pulled out a revolver and fatally shot him. Johnson and pro football player Rosey Grier were among those who wrestled the gun away.

“I don’t want to get into it, but I was close enough, along with a few others, to get a hand on the gun and remove the weapon,” he said.

Shaken, Johnson forgot he put the weapon in his pocket and later handed it over to authorities.

More difficult for Johnson than getting rid of the gun was exorcising the depression that took hold of him. The Olympic champ went into a deep funk until Eunice Kennedy Shriver, the sister of John and Bobby Kennedy, asked him to help with the Special Olympics, a fledgling athletic program created in 1968 for those with intellectual disabilities.

“In those days, there was little or nothing being done for people with disabilities,” Johnson said. “It was Eunice Shriver’s idea to start the Special Olympics, and I took the idea back to California, but she gets the credit. I just delivered the message. It’s made an unbelievable difference in people’s lives.”

So has Johnson. Following the Rome Olympics, he has done much. He became an actor, performing in movies with Angie Dickinson and Elvis Presley, taking part in Frank Sinatra’s directing debut “None but the Brave,” and saving Lassie from peril in a television show.

 

He’s had three institutions named after him: Rafer Johnson Junior High in Kingsburg, Rafer Johnson Community Day School in Bakersfield and Rafer Johnson Children’s Center, also in Bakersfield.

Ironically, for post-baby boomers, what Johnson is best known for was taking the torch at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games and ascending 99 steps at the Los Angeles Coliseum — the last 25 steps at an incredibly steep angle — and lighting the flame as the music swept to a crescendo.

“The great American hero, Rafer Johnson,” sportscaster Jim McKay said on that day.

Though Johnson has climbed to dizzying heights throughout his life, he is described by most as the same down-to-Earth guy who grew up in Kingsburg and still subscribes to his old hometown newspaper.

“He’s just a special person,” Dave Dodson said. “He liked to joke around and have a good time. He was very modest, very friendly and just a super person that I enjoyed being around.”

When asked to state his age for this story, Johnson said simply “I’m an old Viking, but not the oldest Viking. I’m just Rafer.”

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com.

First at Manson murders, first in scoring

hsgtbloomington08tlpa.jpg

By John Murphy 

BLOOMINGTON – Don Markham, then 54, elicited more muffled laughter than awe when he first met the 1994 Bloomington High football team.

“He was a straight-up guy and he wasn’t trying to be funny, but I thought he was funny,” said two-way lineman Alex Lora, of Rialto, who now remodels businesses. “He was pointing out guys and saying ‘OK, you need to run more and you need to lift more.’ I thought ‘Oh my God, who is this old man?’ But that was just his persona.”

Soon Markham, with a personality and an offense as subtle as a punch in the gut, would take the prep football world by storm.

Bloomington — 1-9 in 1993 before Markham — flattened host Big Bear 86-8 in the opener and then felled nine more regular-season foes as easily as Paul Bunyan whacking Christmas trees. By the time the playoffs were done, the Bruins (14-0) had won their first section title, earned a mythical Division 3 state title and scored a then-national record 880 points.

The point total is still a state record and one of the Inland area’s 10 most unbreakable records. Albemarle (N.C.) High broke Bloomington’s national record in 2001 with 903 points, but it took the Bulldogs two more games.

When former Bloomington standout running back Cheyane Caldwell was asked recently if any Inland team could break the Bruins’ state record, he didn’t hesitate.

“They can try,” chuckled Caldwell, now a captain in the Los Angeles City Fire Department.

Added Caldwell: “This man named Don Markham came in and he believed in us. Our demeanor changed and we could see there was a light at the end of the tunnel.”

That light for opponents was like a freight train bearing down.

Against Big Bear, the ’94 De Anza League champion, the Bruins scored 62 first-half points en route to an 86-8 victory and the highest point total for a Southern Section team since 1921. The Bruins scored 20 points on two-point conversions alone.

“It was outrageous how many points we scored,” said offensive lineman Hilario “Project” Lopez, now a carpenter in Las Vegas. “We had the same talent as the season before or maybe even less, but we had a coach who believed in us. He put the right talent in the right spots. We were just rolling over people. It was surreal.”

After every touchdown the cheerleaders raced to the end zone, which was good for the fitness level of the Bloomington girls. Said quarterback Jason Buell in 2004: “Some of (the cheerleaders) were kind of fat at the start of the season, but by the end of the season they were looking pretty good.”

Bloomington averaged 408.3 yards per game on the ground. In the section title game against host La Mirada, the Bruins rushed for 581 yards in a 48-32 Bruins victory.

Caldwell, Greg Oliver, Adam Rodriguez and David Smith gained the yards, with Oliver and Caldwell combining for more than 3,000 yards for the season.

The offensive line of Lora, Lopez, Henry Viramontes, Mike Abril and Ricky Salazar bored holes in opposing defenses, with the help of tight ends Frank Martinez and Antonio Muro. Even quarterback Buell aided the blocking effort, sticking his head into the fray on Bloom-ington’s vaunted off-tackle pitch.

Markham created the play while coaching the Pop Warner Northridge Knights beginning in 1966. He used it while running the stack-I formation at LA Baptist, Colton and La Puente Bishop Amat and then adapted it to the double-wing at Riverside Ramona.

“Eddie Robinson (Grambling University) used two tight ends and two wings, but he didn’t run the off-tackle pitch,” Markham said. “We were the first double-wing team to pitch it off tackle.”

Markham has been described as an enigmatic football genius, with a savant’s focus on the X’s and O’s. That expertise has helped produce a total of five section titles, achieved at three high schools; and an overall record of 309-110-1 at eight schools.

In 1969 only a mass murder could break his routine, it seemed.

Then a member of the Los Angeles Police Department, Markham and his partner were the first on the scene of the Manson “family” murders at the Los Angeles home of movie director Roman Polanski and the late actress Sharon Tate.

“We had to help the detectives search the property for weapons,” said Markham, who typically zipped from his police shift to football. “I was upset because it screwed up my coaching.”

The obsession never lifted. During much of the 1994 season, Markham wore sweats from his previous stop, Bandon (Ore.) High, turned inside out because he was too busy to buy coaching gear. That was just the tip of his eccentric iceberg.

The ’94 Bruins had only 20 players and used 12. Markham was the entire coaching staff, save for Jeff Stuckey. The Bruins dressed in foreboding Navy blue and sauntered everywhere they went. Their playbook was as thin as an intern’s resume. And they ignored the kicking game, running for two-pointers and punting just twice during the regular season.

Markham loved the rebel tag and Bloomington embraced the Bruins.

“An End Run Around Obscurity” was the title of a 1994 Los Angeles Times article describing the Bruins’ impact on an unincorporated town searching for an identity.

“Thanks to a ragtag collection of football players at this high school who this season conquered the end zone like an unstoppable army, Bloomington is finally getting respect,” the article said.

The records and opponents tumbled like bowling pins. The Bruins walloped Baldwin Park Sierra Vista 70-0 in their playoff opener, besting the state scoring record of 665 points set by Concord De La Salle a year earlier.

Two games later Bloomington defeated Laguna Hills 34-21 in the semis. Smith’s 18-yard sweep in the third quarter shattered the 19-year-old national scoring record of Big Sandy (Texas) High, whose team scored 827 points and included current Chicago Bears coach Lovie Smith.

Finally, Bloomington secured the title against La Mirada. Oliver ran for 255 yards and four touchdowns.

“It’s amazing that we had the same 14 or 15 players as the year before and we were just annihilating teams,” said Oliver, who now lives in Las Vegas and is the outbound operation manager for the Office Max distribution center. “It’s hard to believe.”

Markham described a time and place where everything magically fell into place.

“The kids got their positions in the spring and were happy,” he said. “There was no jealousy. Nobody missed practice. It was a bizarre, fun year. I don’t even know how we did it.”

Decoding bleacher blather

 

By John Murphy 

Growing up in San Bruno in the 1960s, we played baseball with wood bats and metal spikes and sometimes wore sleeveless uniforms reminiscent of the old Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds (think Bill Mazeroski and Vada Pinson).

It wasn’t mandatory for parents to attend our games like it seems to be now, but when they did they yelled things like “keep your eye on the ball” and “it only takes one.’ It was just noise to us.

In 2017, parents and other fans are much more involved and utter a variety of things from the stands. As a public service, I’m going to translate them. Here goes:

“Roll it up”: You hear this every time a runner reaches first base with fewer than two outs. In the old days, people screamed, “Turn two.” They both mean “get a double play,” but it rarely happens.

“Win the battle”: I heard this so many times at the Selma vs. Immanuel baseball game last month that I thought I was at Gettysburg. It means to make contact for a change and stop embarrassing the heck out of your folks who doled out all that money for travel teams and private hitting coaches.

Nobody hurt”: We just made another error and are in a terrible fix, but we’re in denial.

“You got this”: Oops, that’s softball. Next …

“Nobody better”: Despite the fact you, dear Junior, are batting ninth and hitting .125 and haven’t driven in a run since fall league, there is nobody on our team we’d rather have at the plate now. That includes cleanup hitter Moose, who is batting .650 and swings a bat named “Wonder Boy” crafted from the wood of tree hit by lightning.

“Trade places with him”: Yes, Junior is hitting .125 and gets his only doubles at the Rite Aid ice cream counter, but we’d like him to magically hit a two-bagger and trade places with Moose at second base.

“Find a way”: I don’t know, should Junior wiggle his nose and slug one out of the park, cast a spell on the pitcher and have him throw four wide ones or take a fastball off the coconut? The options are his.

“It’s all you”: No idea what this means. Maybe it’s just me.

You’re due”: A particularly mindless exhortation that relates to a batter’s recent failures, I’ve been waiting for years for a youngster to retort, “You’re due to say something intelligent!”

Well, I can dream, can’t I?

 

Derek Salinas II

Kingsburg stuns CVC with late rally

Hunter SasselliBy John Murphy 

KINGSBURG — The outcome of the Kingsburg High baseball game came down to one dramatic play.

Kingsburg stunned first-place Central Valley Christian 4-3 on Friday in a Central Sequoia League game that was very much in doubt when Seth Costi stepped to the plate in the seventh inning.

The Vikings trailed 3-2 and had runners on second and third base with two outs. Costi sent a Noah Flores delivery into the gap between right and center field for a single, scoring one run to tie the game and sending teammate Ben Coito flying around third base, heading for the plate and the possible winning run.

Coito angled himself toward the inside of the plate as he slid in while Connor Paden blocked his path. The umpire singled safe as Coito raised a cloud of dust and Paden wound up on the ground shaken from Coito sliding into him (Paden was fine after being examined by Kingsburg trainer Victoria Lam).

The excitement wasn’t finished. Viking players celebrated, Cavalier coach Graham Harrison questioned the plate umpire about the call and at least one assistant coach from each team tangled verbally with each other before the teams separated.

“He was out,” Harrison said. “He never got to the plate, but it didn’t come down to one call. Even if he’s out, they still have a chance to win. That wasn’t the reason we lost.”

Kingsburg coach Michael Garza saw the pivotal play differently.

“It was a bang-bang play,” Garza said. “He slid. I thought (Paden) was a little far out and I thought (Coito) had to go around him. He did a good job – Ben avoided the contact as best as he could and got in there.”

The player that set the play in motion was Costi, who dropped the ball nicely into the outfield.

“I was for sure looking at it,” Costi said. “I was kind of in shock. It was my first (walkoff hit) ever. It felt amazing.”

Costi said his only concern was whether Coito was safe at home – something the plate umpire confirmed, much to the displeasure of Cavalier fans, at least one of whom boisterously let the ump know about it.

The result was an important victory for Kingburg (13-8 overall and 4-4 in league, as of the game’s conclusion). Heading into this week, Kingsburg was 2 ½ games behind CVC (18-4, 7-2), with Selma (16-5, 6-3) in second place.

“We played bad defense and we didn’t capitalize offensively,” Harrison said. “We left guys on the bases that should have gotten in and that’s baseball; it happens. We’re still in first place and if we take care of business, we’ll be CSL champions.”

It was a huge victory for Garza, a first-year coach.

“I am very happy with the boys,” he said. “The bats didn’t come alive until the end, but when we get going, we get going.”

Tied 2-2 after five innings, CVC nudged ahead on a run-scoring single by Jack Reitsma in the sixth. Relief pitcher Riley Walls had issued a one-out walk to Trenton Vanderveen, then balked him to second.

Costi had two hits and the two big RBIs for Kingsburg. Coito, batting ninth, went 3-for-3.

Walls got the win on the mound, in relief of Riley Cooper who pitched five innings and allowed five hits, while striking out five and walking nobody.

 

 

 

 

Napa scandal puts hazing in spotlight

JOHN MURPHY  

School and team hazing are like the red, itchy rash that just will not go away. You try balms and lotions, but the attack is relentless.

If it does vanish for a spell, it seems to reappear when you least expect it and wreak its havoc again. Such was the case at Napa High School in the otherwise genteel wine country, where a hazing complaint was reported to Napa police on Nov. 19 regarding an alleged assault involving junior football varsity players holding teammates down, grabbing them and hitting them.

The aftermath has been ugly, with two players expelled and veteran and well-regarded football coach Troy Mott resigning after the district refused to give him control over the rehiring of his assistant coaches for next season.

Neither Kingsburg Joint Union High School District Athletic Director Thomas Sembritzki, Selma Unified School District AD Randy Esraelian nor Kingsburg football coach David Wilson, when contacted, had heard of the mess in wine country, but Esraelian had heard of a local example.

“There was an incident made public at Lemoore [two years ago[ and a coach was let go because of it,” he said. “You hear about it here and there. Hazing is a pretty big buzzword. There’s no longer any tolerance for older kids putting younger kids through a baptism of fire.”

Hazing is defined by legaldictionary.net as “The act of forcing humiliating or abusive tasks upon someone in order to ridicule him, or to initiate him into a group.” The term comes from the late 17th century French word “haser,” which means to irritate or annoy.

According to insidehazing.com, 91 percent of high school students belong to at least one group, and 48 percent of them report being hazed. Forty-three percent were subjected to humiliating activities and 30 percent performed potentially illegal acts as part of their initiation. Every type of high school group was involved in hazing, including 24 percent in church groups.

Like that red rash, nobody wishes it on anyone, and you especially won’t want it yourself.

“Our coaches meet with the players and go over their expectations,” Sembritzki said. “There is no manuscript for when things go crazy and bad things happen, like when we had multiple suicides at our school one year.”

Neither has Wilson experienced any hazing problems in the Kingsburg football program, though the possibility is always there.

“Culturally, it’s not something that’s happened here,” he said. “I remember in college in the 1990s we had a talent show and if the seniors didn’t approve of your routine, you got your head shaved, but I didn’t even think of that as hazing, per se.”

Definitely examples of hazing in other areas or what Sembritzki described as “when things go crazy” are these:

  • In 2014, two Woodside High School basketball coaches were fired after an incident at a motel in Newman where the team was playing in a holiday tournament. Two players were allegedly jumped and beaten and then taped to chairs. One player had lipstick applied to his face and the other was forced to watch Spanish-language television for hours.
  • Mountain View High of Mesa, Ariz. football coach Bernie Busken, who led the team to three state championships in the 1990s, was fired in the spring of 2002 for allowing hazing rituals, including “pink bellies” (slapping someone on the stomach until their skin turns pink or red), to continue after being warned by the district, according to the Arizona Republic.
  • In the barren, windswept town of Yucca Valley in 2000, five Yucca Valley High football players settled for a sexual battery charge after admitting involvement in a sexual assault at an off-campus football camp.

The latter is ill, criminal behavior, and a long way from a shaved head after a bad talent show skit. The problem is, there is no wiggle room now when it comes to teasing or horseplay. These are teenagers, and some do not grasp the difference between horseplay and outright brutality or sodomy, the latter a growing trend according to a recent “Outside the Lines” report. As a result, student-athletes are being victimized, some are getting expelled or arrested and coaching careers are going in the dumper.

Sembritzki seemed to send a warning shot for all coaches and athletes when he said “Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. We’re not bulletproof, but I haven’t heard of anything like this at our school. But with social media the way it is and every kid having a cell phone, you can bet that everything that happens, good or bad, will get posted.”

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com.

Long, strange trip to the Central Valley

By John Murphy

Back in 1969, when I was a young teen and rocking flared jeans, there was a movie starring Suzanne Pleshette called “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium.” Well, if this is Wednesday, I must be in the Central Valley.

My path here has been a circuitous route to be sure. My most recent post before this was the Half Moon Bay Review, where I was filling in for a gent, Mark Foyer, who was stricken with Guillain-Barre syndrome, a serious affliction where the body’s immune system attacks part of the peripheral nervous system. He’s been laid up for 1 ½ years.

So I did that and also worked 30 hours a week at a school as a teacher’s aide, mentoring a 7-year-old, red-haired hellion with a penchant for cursing and flipping over desks.

I’d like to say it was the tule fog, promise of Harris Ranch beef and wide-open spaces that drew me to the Valley, but it was really the desire for a full-time job and not having to get up at 6 a.m. to report to El Granada School. I loved those kids, but I’m just not a morning person.

Working, gulp, 37 years in newspapers throughout California, I’ve seen a lot of things. There was the time at St. Ignatius College Prep of San Francisco where I covered a basketball game and a player ran into an electrical box on the end wall and activated the basket, which began rising to the ceiling. The look on the point guard coming down the court moments later on a fast break to discover there was no basket was priceless.

Memorable also was a rivalry game decades ago between South San Francisco and El Camino high schools. Some bloke thought it funny to explode the scoreboard before the national anthem and I still recall the hunks of metal flying nearly to midfield.

At Archbishop Mitty in San Jose one year, fog rolled in and completely obscured the action. I’m not sure how accurate my statistics were for that game.

Somebody asked if I had any ties at all in the Central Valley. I had to ponder that a bit. After wracking my brain, I remembered that I coached Trent Dilfer in Aptos youth basketball. He’s the former California State University, Fresno quarterback who led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl title and is now on ESPN. I like to think my bad hoops coaching drove him to football.

I also covered former Aptos High boys basketball coach Bill Warmerdam. He won more than 300 games and a Northern California title with the Mariners. He is the nephew of Cornelius “Dutch” Warmerdam, the Hanford High graduate who held the world pole vault record for more than a decade.

Bill Warmerdam coached Dilfer in basketball, in fact, no doubt correcting some of the faulty fundamentals I instilled in the lad.

During my first week here, I’ve already been treated to some poignant and eye-opening moments, such as the joy of senior night at the Selma boys soccer game on Feb. 8, including senior Mario Garcia scoring the tying goal against Dinuba. Stirring also was Selma junior basketball player William Pallesi making six consecutive 3-pointers in a 96-60 win against Dinuba, prompting classmates in the stands to jump and dance like loons.

I’m also still shaking my head in disbelief at a reverse dunk by Selma’s 6-foot-6 junior Tiveon Stroud off an ad-lib alley-oop pass from Junior Ramirez. That was athletic, to say the least.

There will no doubt be more memorable moments to come, and I’ll chronicle as many of them as I can.

John Murphy can be reached at 583-2413 or jmurphy@hanfordsentinel.com and followed on twitter @prepcat.

Pinch-hitting for an icon in HMB

 

Thanks to Bruce Jenkins for this well-crafted story on Mark Foyer and me. 

By Bruce Jenkins  

They called him Scoop, and he was a one-man sports staff. Mark Foyer seemed to be everywhere at once, filling pages of the Half Moon Bay Review with stories, features and commentary on the local high school to the great delight of athletes and their parents.

He was a local legend, and remains so, but Foyer views life from an Oakland hospital bed these days, felled by a disease known as Guillain-Barre Syndrome. He has barely been able to move, let alone take a stroll, since April 2015. To visit him is to be shocked, depressed and then invigorated by his boundless spirit. The nature of the disease leaves no guarantee when or even if a patient will fully recover, but Foyer believes he will. He knows it.

And in the interim, a very generous and hard-working fellow has stepped in. Thanks to John Murphy, the Review sports section is back in business.

“Having John fall into our lap,” said Review editor Clay Lambert, “was like manna from heaven.”

Imagine working two jobs, neither of which pays very well, for the satisfaction of giving. Murphy is only a part-time employee of the Review, hired after the paper sent out a desperate plea via Craigslist, but he reaches out to the wide expanse of Half Moon Bay High School sports — freshman teams, junior varsity, varsity, soccer, wrestling, volleyball, water polo, whatever is in season — in his weekly dispatches.

Half Moon Bay Review sportswriter John Murphy, working in place of popular, longtime reporter Mark Foyer, covers the local high school’s basketball team’s game against Menlo School last week. Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special To The Chronicle

Photo: Paul Kuroda, Special To The Chronicle

Half Moon Bay Review sportswriter John Murphy, working in place of popular, longtime reporter Mark Foyer, covers the local high school’s basketball team’s game against Menlo School last week.
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A friend since grade school, Menlo School boys basketball coach Keith Larsen, describes the 60-year-old Murphy as “a man with zero ego” and “about as laid-back a person as you’ll ever find.”

When asked about his other job, at El Granada Elementary School, Murphy simply said, “teachers’ aide.” In fact, he works with special-education children who would be lost without the proper guidance.

He’s a bit of a vagabond, having covered high school sports with a passion since his graduation from San Francisco State. Working mostly for daily newspapers, Murphy passed through San Mateo, Watsonville, Victorville, San Bernardino and Riverside over the years, later hooking up with Prep2Prep, featuring high school coverage in California and several other states.

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HOLIDAY HEROES

The Sporting Green is highlighting a series of “Holiday Heroes,” all of whom are making the world a better place through sports.

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Not once, he says, did he ever aspire to cover major sports or be a big-time columnist. He once covered the High Desert Mavericks, a minor-league baseball team managed by Chris Speier (the former Giant), for the Victor Valley Daily Press, and the experience left him rather cold.

“A lot of the guys were really cool,” he recalled, “but others, not so much. I wasn’t crazy about dealing with that.

“A high school kid, whenever you talk to him or her, they’re excited. It’s maybe the first, maybe the only time they’ll ever be interviewed. It’s kind of neat from that standpoint.”

It was 1997 when Murphy decided the baseball beat wasn’t for him, and that was the year Mark Foyer was hired at the Review. “Our sports budget is pretty small,” said publisher Bill Murray, “but there was no way Mark wouldn’t cover an event he felt passionate about — and that was just about every event. Maybe the most earnest guy I’ve ever known. I’d be surprised if we paid him for a quarter of the time he put in.”

In a Review piece published in August, Lambert wrote, “Other sportswriters would have longed for bigger stages and more important contests — and he did find ways to cover national and even international events, often on his own dime (a track and field aficionado, Foyer attended the World Championships in Edmonton, Paris, Helsinki, Osaka and Berlin in the 2000s). But in Half Moon Bay, Foyer discovered a small community that he could bear-hug. Suffice to say, the town returned the embrace.”The walls of Foyer’s hospital room are decorated with cards, photos, letters and Facebook posts from well-wishers. “I had no idea so many people cared about me,” he said last week.

Much less clear is how Foyer, 54, found himself there.

It started with a simple visit to the doctor in March 2015, Foyer wondering if he had a bad case of allergies. Within days he was in the emergency room at Mills-Peninsula Hospital, his body essentially shutting down, and he has yet to return home. Friends and family feared for his life when he fell into a coma-like state — for eight weeks. “He went ‘code blue’ at one point,” said Foyer’s half-brother, Willy Mautner. “I was afraid he wasn’t going to make it.”

Guillain-Barre Syndrome is a rare autoimmune disorder that attacks the peripheral nervous system and leaves the body in a paralysis-like state. Researchers have yet to determine the cause or set a specific timeline for recovery. “Some people get well within a year,” said his sister-in-law, Susan Mautner. “Mark’s case is like the worst of the worst. It’s just a complete unknown.”

Lying in a state of paralysis is a powerful test of one’s patience and resolve. “There were times that I thought I would die,” he said. “One night, I was so sure I was going to pass away that I made peace with myself. Now I see that I have a long life ahead of me. I thank God for everyone who has reached out. They’ve given me so much support and love that at times it can be very emotional.”

For the first 10 months of his hospitalization, now based in the neurological wing of the Bay Area Healthcare Center in Oakland, Foyer was unable to speak. Uttering those first few words, in February, was an immense breakthrough. Friends and family can’t avoid bouts of depression, “and Mark still gets a little grumpy sometimes,” Susan Mautner said, “but he’s very forward-looking, very confident. That makes everyone feel better.”

Such small steps. Learning to swallow, feeling slight movement in his legs and fingers, standing up (with assistance) for two or three minutes in physical-therapy sessions, or sensing a bit of pain in the hip — “the muscles are waking up,” he says. The immediate goal is for Foyer to travel in a wheelchair under his own power. No one dares to predict when that day will come.

At the sight of a visitor, Foyer becomes chatty, eyes ablaze. He’s up to date on the Giants, Jim Harbaugh, how the Half Moon Bay Cougars are doing. How slow is his progress? “As slow as the 5 o’clock Friday commute on the Nimitz,” he jokes. His first words after more than a year of silence? “I hear there was a hockey game and a Trump rally broke out.”

Among the posted newspapers clippings is a Review column from Murphy, headlined “Call me interim bard until Foyer gets back.” That one carries special meaning.

“John is very, very good at what he does,” Foyer said. “He moved to Half Moon Bay to be close to the community, and he really knows it. He’s doing a great job.”

And the sports section hums along, just as thorough and enlightening as ever. “John’s like a machine, but maybe more reliable,” Murray said.

“It’s really remarkable,” said Traci Yerby, whose son, Ryan, was recently featured for his accomplishments in two sports and the classroom. “Mark is an institution here. The kids always loved seeing all his articles, and John has taken it over so well. This is a small community, and it’s so important for kids to be recognized and be the focus.”

On the fields, in the gym, during interviews, Murphy presses on as if it’s no big deal. “Nobody knows the coastside like Mark,” he said. “The guy is Mr. Half Moon Bay. Everywhere I go, it’s, ‘Where’s Mark?’ or ‘How’s Mark?’ He’s iconic.

“I try to hammer out my singles each week until Mark comes back, puts on his No. 24 jersey and starts hitting the home runs again.”

Bruce Jenkins is a San Francisco Chronicle columnist. Email: bjenkins@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Bruce_Jenkins1

About the series

The Sporting Green is highlighting a series of “Holiday Heroes,” all of whom are making the world a better place through sports. Read all of our installments at sfchronicle.com/sports.