Stressing both academic success in the classroom and athletic success on the field, Roosevelt High School head football coach Ricardo Zepeda is launching a new era for the Rough Riders.
The Roosevelt alumnus and former player took over for Javier Cid, who headed the historic program for the last 10 years.
“The first thing I did was to call a couple of buddies of mine who have the same vision as me; who are on the same page on the field and off the field,” said Zepeda.
He then began building his team by reaching out to students who might be interested in playing football. He reached 127 students who responded to his call, a fact that pleasantly surprised him.
“I wanted to see the turnout; the interest in being part of this. I was really happy with the response,” said Zepeda.
“One of the first things I did, after we started meeting, was to put all the kids on a daily check where every day, they had to get a paper signed by every one of their teachers,” said Zepeda.
Having a daily check is not something new however. “All coaches do this to stay on top of our student-athletes grades,” said Athletic Director, Daniel Helguera.
What stands-out with Zepeda is his insistence that all his athletes receive perfect scores.
Zepeda is trying to change the attitude of his student-athletes. He wants them to take control of their academic career at Roosevelt, not just their football career, he said.
Junior wide receiver and safety Adam Martinez played for two seasons under Cid and is now playing his senior year under Zepeda.
“We basically had to coach ourselves during my sophomore and junior years. We are a team now. We have a clear path under coach Zepeda,” said Martinez.
Zepeda is a Boyle Heights native with a long history with Roosevelt as a graduate and as an assistant coach starting in 2001.
“I barely graduated. I was one of those kids. I grew up in Pico Gardens at the entrance of the 101 freeway,” said Zepeda.
He said the area was a hotspot for illegal activities such as drug use and sales and gang activities where it was common to hear gunshots going off at night, a situation not conducive to learning.
“People would come from Downtown L.A. to buy their stuff and jump right on the freeway,” said Zepeda.
When the job first became open, Zepeda was not interested in it because he wanted to teach here, not just coach.
He was working as a defensive line coach at Whittier College, an NCAA Division III school. “I really wasn’t ready to go back to high school at the time,” said Zepeda.
He also did not want to be a walk-on coach that teaches at another school then comes on campus to coach. He called the school and was told there were no teaching positions open at the time.
In mid-February, the school called to inform him that a position was open and Zepeda took it.
One of the challenges Zepeda faces as coach is acquiring the equipment needed to field a team this season. The team has shortages in equipment that include helmets, pads, uniforms and other athletic gear.
“I don’t know how it happened. There was equipment that wasn’t turned in. I wasn’t here and I’m not going to throw anything out there as to how it happened,” said Zepeda.
The team had 37 usable helmets that were sent-out to be refurbished. Of those 37 helmets, 17 were rejected leaving the team with 20 usable helmets which is far short of what is needed to field two teams.
“There was a huge need to fundraise,” he said.
He staged events like a “Risas Y Tacos Comedy Night” at the school auditorium or a “Day at the Races” event at the Santa Anita Racetrack. He also got help from principal Ben Gertner who committed to purchasing helmets and shoulder pads, while Zepeda committed to other needs.
“Regardless of the level of success; if you want a functioning program, there are certain things you need,” said Zepeda.
So far it’s been a rough beginning for Zepeda and the Rough Riders varsity team, which has lost its first three games of the season, including a 63-3 loss to San Clemente High School last Friday. The team travels to Eagle Rock High School Friday (Sept. 16) and will have its next home game on Sept. 30, when it hosts North Hollywood.
Though on the field success is important to Zepeda, it is not the end all of what a successful season should be.
“The kids are the biggest measure of success. Someone outside of the program will say if we don’t beat Garfield, that coach sucks,” said Zepeda, aware that Roosevelt has been defeated by their crosstown rivals in the last six editions of the East LA classic.
He said that if losing to Garfield in the upcoming classic is the worst thing that happens to a player in life, then he’s lucky.
“I’m not going to downplay the game. Is it a big game? Yes. Do I want to win? Hell yeah I want to win,” said Zepeda.
In the end though, Zepeda’s measure of success is getting his athletes to go to college and to graduate. That is what he calls success.
This year’s East LA Classic is scheduled for November 4 at East Los Angeles College’s Weingart Stadium.
All photos by Erik Sarni.