Editor's note: This story, published Nov. 27, 2013, won Best Feature in judging by the California Preps Sports Writing Association
SAN JOSE -- Last Thanksgiving, the usually downtrodden San Jose High football team brought an unexpected wave of momentum into the Big Bone Game against rival Lincoln High with an unbeaten record and savoring its first league title in 63 years.
But the feel-good vibe ended for the Bulldogs with the horrific sight of a team player lying motionless on the turf with a neck injury late in a 55-13 loss.
That day marked the beginning of a terrible year of real-life tragedy and on-field futility, and the beleaguered Bulldogs now limp into the 71st edition of the Big Bone 0-9. In February, a player was slain in broad daylight just off campus -- leaving the team badly shaken. Coach Darrell Williams has dealt with a family medical crisis. About 20 kids turned in their gear for academic or disciplinary reasons.
"It's been the hardest year of my life, and I know it's been hard on the kids," said Williams, who is in his third season at the school. "But with everything that's happened to us, it's been a reminder that football isn't just about wins and losses."
For the players who will take to the San Jose City College field Thursday morning, football has become a refuge and rallying point -- despite their lack of success.
"We've stayed together," said lineman Isaiah Espinoza, who recovered from a spinal contusion in last year's Big Bone to play his senior season. "We're trying to do the right things and look out for each other. We've tried to keep each other off the streets.
"We saw what can happen."
The school, which is 150 years old and the smallest high school in the San Jose Unified School District with an enrollment of 1,100 students, brimmed with enthusiasm entering the 2012 Big Bone Game. After posting a winning record just three times in the previous 20 seasons, the Bulldogs had claimed the Blossom Valley Athletic League's "C" division championship and were 9-0.
But for the 15th consecutive year, they were no match for Lincoln, the BVAL's "B" division champs. More frightening, the game was halted for 30 minutes as paramedics immobilized Espinoza after he injured his neck. He was released following a night from Valley Medical Center.
That, however, was about the last bit of good news the Bulldogs have enjoyed.
On Feb. 13, Anthony Santa Cruz, 17, a junior on last year's team, was stabbed to death just off campus in the middle of the afternoon. Suddenly, a player whom teammates teased for wearing green cleats that clashed with the San Jose's cardinal, gray and white colors was gone.
"When he passed away, it hurt so much," senior quarterback Gabriel Miranda said. "This team is like family. It was like a hit to the gut."
There have been no arrests, and police say there are no suspects.
"It was eye-opening for those kids," said Elsa Lopez, Santa Cruz's mother. "The players were so emotional. I know the thing that scares them is that they never caught these guys. That weighs on them."
The killing is being investigated as gang-related. But Lopez, Williams and teammates say the teen had moved beyond that world and was focused on football and school. Sometimes he would bring his now 3-year-old son to practice and talked of trying to be a good father.
"He quit that life and was all about taking care of his son," said Espinoza, fighting back tears. "I saw him walking home the day before he died and said, 'Coach said he wants you out at practice.' He said, 'Tell coach I'll be there tomorrow.' "
This season, the team had big hopes and numbers as 51 kids came out for football. The optimism evaporated quickly. Williams, who was distracted last season with the death of his parents, set a stricter tone -- holding players accountable by requiring attendance at all practices and good grades.
Players lacking that commitment either left or were asked to leave.
"I'd rather lose all 10 games than have kids that are disrespecting in the classroom, disrespectful with the coaches, not team players, grumbling about everything we do," Williams said. "I told 'em earlier that we weren't going to have the same lack of discipline that we had last year. In all reality, we shouldn't have won as many games because last year I should have done the same things that I am doing now."
With some of their best athletes gone and the team moving up to the league's "B" division, the losses piled up, and Williams faced another personal ordeal.
His son Christian, 17, a football player at The Harker School, underwent tests for back pain that led to fears he might have lymphoma. Eventually, he was diagnosed with osteomyelitis, an infection that damaged two disks and took him out of school this semester.
"The 'C' word was definitely in play, so it's been very traumatic," said Williams, 51. "He's recovering, so we can't complain after where we were a couple of months ago. But I still haven't breathed easy."
The players who will try to wrest away the Big Bone trophy from Lincoln wear "AS" helmet decals in honor of Santa Cruz -- as well as a symbol of their unity.
"Obviously winning and losing hasn't been the best this year," Espinoza said. "But I will remember these guys the rest of my life. These are my brothers. They're my own blood."
Lopez, who attended San Jose High and will attend Thursday's game, understands that bond. She recalls how much her son loved his team.
"I've told the players, 'Always remember, you have an angel on your side,'" she said.
Before the Bulldogs' most recent game, Williams looked at his winless team and asked: "Why not now?" But opponent Westmont High ran back the opening kickoff for a touchdown, and the score was 46-0 in the final seconds. Then, another dreary loss turned into something magical.
Williams had noticed a Westmont player who has special needs run the ball before leaving the field to a standing ovation. The San Jose coach called time out and asked the referee to tell the Westmont sideline: Put the kid back in, and we'll let him score. So on the final play, San Jose defenders cleared a path for the player, a manager who was suiting up for the first time, rambled for a touchdown.
The Bulldogs joined the Westmont team in the end-zone celebration. Those, Williams said, are my kids.
"Whether we win the Big Bone or not, it takes character to get through a season like this," he said. "We don't have the wins we want, but we have character. And that's more important."