Pop Warner teams serve as ‘feeder program,’ coach says

Rough Riders from Roosevelt High school practicing after school

The rivalry starts early for the East L.A. Classic football game, the longtime football match-up between Theodore Roosevelt High School and Garfield High School.

For more than 20 years, two Pop Warner teams, the Wolfpack and the Bobcats, have trained youth from Boyle Heights and East Los  Angeles to be leading players for their competing high school football teams. The two teams serve as a feeder program, with their 6- to 13-year-old players dreaming of playing in the 87-year-old Classic.

Bulldogs running back and MVP Lance Fernández
Bulldogs running back and MVP Lance Fernández

“I always dreamed of playing in the Classic and beating Roosevelt,” said Lance Fernández, 17, a running back for the Garfield High School Bulldogs who has been the team’s most valuable player in the last two Classic games.

This year’s game will be played tonight at East Los Angeles Community College, as it has been since 1951.  The Classic began in 1925, but games were not played every year, making this the 78th  Classic.

Earlier this month, Garfield players practiced for the big game in almost 100-degree heat as their head football coach, Lorenzo Hernández, shouted, “Reset, hustle back, let’s go!” in his raspy voice.

The Classic rivalry actually begins with the Pop Warner teams. With team loyalty starting at such a young age, it’s no wonder the level of competition in the Classic is so intense.

Fernández, interviewed before he joined his teammates for practice on a recent day, was 7 years old when he first played football for the Bobcats.  Ten years later, he is still   in contact with his Bobcat coaches, who, he said, have helped him become both a better football player and student.

“It was really fun playing for the Bobcats because at first I didn’t really know how to play football, and then I developed relationships with the coaches there,” Fernández said. “I’ve had these relationships all my life now, and it really helped me to be a better football player.”

Fernández never imagined he would be the MVP for the last two games.

“Winning the MVP my first year was shocking because I didn’t expect that,” he said.

Javier Cid, head coach of the Roosevelt Rough Riders, said the majority of his players are veterans of the Wolfpack. It serves as “our feeder program,” he said, “like the professional teams have their minor league. They do a great job working with the kids and teaching them the fundamentals.”

The older Bobcat players during practice at Salazar Park

The kids who play for the Pop Warner teams take the sport just as seriously as the teenagers at the high schools do. They practice on a small grassy area at Salazar Park in East L.A. During a recent practice, the little “Cats” had no trouble following instructions from their coach, their dedication clearly visible as they hustled just like the older players. Dirt clung to their sweaty jerseys as they took directions from their coaches.

“I like it because I like to throw the ball,” said Diego Villaruel, 8, who plays for the Bobcats.

“Back in the day, we didn’t have much money to join a team,” said Alex Villaruel,   Diego’s father. “So now, what we didn’t get to do in our childhood, I want my kid to do and not miss out on anything.”

Parents say they support their children’s participation in the Bobcats and the Wolfpack because it keeps them active and off the streets. It also provides an opportunity for their children to experience   being a part of something bigger than themselves.

However, when Pop Warner players reach high school, they find that expectations for student athletes are high, and spots on the teams are limited. Football players need to maintain good grades to remain eligible to play, which requires balancing schoolwork with football practices.

“At Garfield, it’s really competitive to be on the team,” Fernández said. “If you don’t work hard, you’re not going to play, and anybody can take your spot. Everyone works hard all the time, on and off the field.”

An incoming player who shows determination and effort during tryouts could take the spot of a player who plays well but lacks commitment.

Roosevelt weight room
Roosevelt High players in the weight room during their after-school practice

“It’s not competitive to get on the team, but it is competitive to stay on the team, meaning that if you want to play, we don’t look at your talent first ””  we look at your effort,” Cid said.

Since 1925, Garfield and Roosevelt football teams have confronted each other at the annual East L.A. Classic Game  to earn the title of the best team in East Los Angeles. The game attracts about 20,000 fans.

Elsie Fierro, the mother of Jeremy Zamora, an 8-year-old Bobcat, said that as the Classic unfolds today, she will be thinking of her son’s future football career.

“I’m excited for him as he grows up and he goes to high school,” she said. The Classic, she added, is “a big event. It gets broadcast on our local channels, and a lot of people go, even though they don’t go to Garfield or Roosevelt.   They go to see the hype and what it’s

The 78th East L.A. Classic is tonight at 7:30 p.m. at East Los Angeles College’s Weingart Stadium. It will be aired live on Channel 481 on Time Warner Cable systems.

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