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Friday, December 05, 2008

Outside The Lines: Miles Apart Justin Vaeena

THE STORY: WHAT AMERICANS DON'T LIKE TO TALK ABOUT

The president-elect has told us there isn't a liberal America and a conservative America, just the United States of America; nor is there a black America and a white America and a Latino America and an Asian America, just the United States of America. No red states, no blue states, just ... you know. Nice sentiments, above reproach and refreshing, given Americans' reluctance to talk about class. Still, you don't have to be cynical to believe there are hard divisions between us. No one can agree on what those divisions are. Are we divided into rich America and poor America? Or the haves and have-nots? Or maybe the ownership class and the working poor? It's any and all of those, and more.

Class lines might be clearer in sport than anywhere else in society, and they might be clearest in high school, when student-athletes still either benefit from or endure the circumstances they were born into. Maybe you think there's one brand of football in Texas and another in the Midwest or Northeast. Or maybe you think there's a city game of basketball that's superior to the brand played in small towns by farm boys. That's just so much cheering for the home team. Really, the differences between athletes' lives aren't geographic; they're demographic.

The challenge: To look at class in sports, circa 2008. A story so big it can be captured only in a photograph from a satellite. The alternative: Put it under a microscope. Find two prep teams in the same area code, one where students are constantly reminded of hardship, the other where fortunate sons and daughters might not always be aware of their privileged births. Urban and suburban. And from those teams, find a couple of players, good players, all-conference but not pro prospects -- just a couple of young athletes who are starting to figure out their places in the world, who fairly represent their student bodies. Then, across a typical week in the season, measure the distance between their lives.

CONNOR AND JUSTIN: A SHORT HISTORY

Connor and Justin lined up against each other last year in the first round of the regional playoffs, a game the North County Times ranked as the second-best game in the history of local high-school football. Their schools won't meet this season, though. They were separated by a realignment of leagues. LCC moved back up to Division 1, and O-side, defending state champion, stayed in Division 2. Supposedly, the change was made because LCC's enrollment is a little larger and will likely grow with new developments sprouting up in suburban Carlsbad -- a sign over by the equestrian school advertises condos starting from the low $1,000,000s. The realignment also keeps LCC in a league with its nearest rivals. And when it comes to other sports, LCC rolls out better teams than O-side can muster -- for instance, the Lady Mavericks are ranked No. 1 in the nation in volleyball. But with football, it's one of those cases of school administrators fixing something that wasn't broken.

Friday night at 1 Maverick Way. It's LCC's Parents Night, and Marty and Diane Garrett walk on the field beside Connor before the game. By midgame, Marty is trading golf stories with two other fathers, one a racehorse owner, the other an investment broker. Marty coached Connor all through Pop Warner and steals away from work whenever he can to catch Mavericks practices, like many of the other fathers here. But unlike many parents of student-athletes at LCC, he hasn't set his son up with a personal trainer. Diane, a former homecoming queen and a native of SoCal whose family goes back generations here, is leading Connor's grandparents and a contingent of extended family in cheering No. 20. They wave signs complete with sparkling letters, signs Diane spent the better part of the afternoon making up. She's a stay-at-home mother and is a few months from an empty nest.

Friday night at 1 Pirates Cove. Nuu Vae'ena is too beat up after another long week of driving the company rig, too tense to talk to other parents, so he sits silently in the back row on the visitors side. He knows this is likely one of the last chances he'll have to see Justin play. Although his older son, Jordan, plays at Graceland University, a Division III Christian college in Iowa, Nuu is resigned to the likelihood that he'll never be able to get there. On the home side of the stands, Justin's 5-year-old niece, Lily, is asleep in the lap of his mother, Michelle, who already has put in her volunteer shift at the stadium snack bar. She has had plenty of practice lugging around a sleeping kid, going back to the days when she took Justin to work with her every day, not just as a newborn but right up to kindergarten.

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