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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Jefferson -- small in numbers, big in size and unity -- one victory from winning it all

, December 10, 2009 10:26 p.m.

Anthony Stoudamire isn't merely a football coach at North Portland's Jefferson High School.

He's a guy who solves problems.

When the team faced a quarterfinal playoff game on the artificial turf at Hare Field in Hillsboro a couple of weeks back, Stoudamire went to work acquiring the right type of shoes for players who didn't have them and couldn't afford them.

He drove to the Nike Factory Store on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, where turf shoes were on sale, and negotiated the price downward. He bought 10 pairs.

Then he went to the outlet mall in Woodburn, did the same thing, and picked up 15 more pairs.

Early this season, after the Democrats wilted late in narrow loss at West Albany, Stoudamire surveyed his tired players.

"We were only 60 miles from home, but the kids were hungry and we needed to feed them," Stoudamire said.

So he took them all to McDonald's.

Stoudamire's skills for arranging and organizing and locating extra money when it's needed help explain how Jefferson has advanced to an Oregon School Activities Association football championship game for the first time in 50 years. The 10th-ranked Democrats (9-4) play No. 1 Hillsboro (12-1) at Reser Stadium in Corvallis at 2:30 p.m. Saturday for the Class 5A title.

To get to that point, Stoudamire made other savvy decisions.

He built a coaching staff out of former college players who were eager to lend their expertise. And, perhaps most important, Stoudamire embraced the city's Tongan community.

"There are a lot of challenges at Jeff," said Stoudamire, who works in adult mental health. "I'm here for these kids. I let them know up front that this is not about me, it's about them. And they've bought into that. They believe me when I say, 'Whatever you need to be successful as a football player, I'm going to do my best to get it for you.' That's what I do. And if you can build that trust, these guys will run through a brick wall for you.

"Right now, this coaching staff has the trust of this football team."

Roots run deep

Stoudamire, with his graying hair, warm smile and soothing demeanor, has been a father figure within the community for decades. A graduate of defunct Washington High School, he started coaching as an assistant at Jefferson in the late 1970s. He has remained involved with the high school, and youth football, ever since.

He is also part of a well-known Portland family. His brothers' sons, Damon and Salim, were high school and college basketball stars who played in the NBA.

Anthony Stoudamire said his nephews are part of a group he calls "Friends of Jeff football," a large network of supporters who chip in financially to a program that lacks facilities and other resources that are common at other schools. He said the group includes 20 to 30 friends of his from Washington High School.

The connections from Stoudamire's old high school picked up the tab in September at an Olive Garden restaurant when Jefferson traveled to Central Point, near Medford, to play Crater. The school had offered to send the team off with boxes of cold sack lunches.

At Jefferson, the contrasts between what the team has accomplished and what is missing are glaring.

Marching band? No.

Cheerleaders? Sometimes.

Quality weight room?

Stoudamire begins to crack up, laughing.

"It's garbage," he said.

Energy from heat, mass

The team huddles close, and assistant coach Ken Lyday leads the players in a unifying chant.

"When I say 'family,' you say what?"

One team!

"When I say 'team,' you say what?"

One family!

"When I say 'Jefferson,' you say what?"

Demos!

"When I say 'Demos,' you say what?"

Just us!

Saia Kofe, a 6-foot-3, 280-pound lineman and fullback, was one of the first players of Tongan ancestry to join the Jefferson football team. That was in 2006, when Stoudamire became head coach.

Since then, more students with roots in the South Pacific nation have followed.

"We brought the heat, the mass," Kofe said. "We're big, and we love hitting people."

Stoudamire not only welcomed the Tongan players, but he also took the time to learn about their culture. He accepted invitations to their family events and engaged in long conversations with their parents.

About one-third of Jefferson's roster is Tongan. Many of those players also play rugby in the spring for a club called Eastside Tsunami.

Among them is 6-6, 220-pound sophomore quarterback Elisinoa Aluesi, a fluid athlete with a strong arm who Jefferson coaches predict has a Division I future.

Stoudamire has tapped into the tight-knit community, merging a team made primarily of African American students with the newcomers.

"They brought the sense of family to this football team," Stoudamire said. "We've accepted them with open arms, and they've accepted us with open arms."

Kofe and Josh Tonga (6-3, 295) are part of a mammoth offensive line that also includes junior Alex Mitchell (6-3, 320), another Division I prospect.

That line has powered Jefferson's football successes -- to a second-round playoff appearance in Stoudamire's first year, to the quarterfinals in 2007 and the semifinals last year.

Mitchell's father, Matt Mitchell, who played at Montana State, is part of the coaching staff this year.

"It's a remarkable line," Matt Mitchell said. "The technique is good, but it can get better. But these guys have the quickness and power to control the game."

Aluesi, whether he's handing off to prolific running back Ian Perkins or throwing it downfield to Tamir Polk or A.J. Johnson, has become a dominant offensive player with a few tricks up his sleeve. Before the snap, he barks instructions in Tongan -- a language only his teammates understand.

The pipeline for Tongan players to Jefferson is established.

Kofe said Stoudamire began reciting inspirational quotes to the team, and one of them struck a chord with him.

"One of the quotes he told us was, 'Be the change you wish to see in the world,'" Kofe recalled. "We want to change this school and show people that this team is the best."

Playing for their school

The weighty anniversaries are not lost on the players.

Construction on the school started 100 years ago on a wide-open landscape that barely resembles what Jefferson looks like today.

The school's greatest football teams -- a late 1950s juggernaut that won 34 games in a row and featured a future Heisman Trophy winner (Terry Baker) and a future Pro Football Hall of Fame member (Mel Renfro) -- are 50 years in the rearview mirror. After winning state titles in 1957 and 1958, the Democrats lost the 1959 title game to Medford 7-6 in front of a record crowd of 21,512 at Multnomah Stadium (now PGE Park).

Stoudamire is working to deflect any added pressure this week.

"That was Terry and Mel's time," he said. "I tell these kids, 'This is your destiny. This is your time.'"

The players are aware that Portland Public Schools is holding meetings this fall to discuss the possibility of closing as many as three high schools. Jefferson, with an enrollment submarining below 500, is in that discussion.

"We all talked about it," Kofe said. "We know if we win, they won't close this school down. More kids will come to a winning team."

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