Mike Alberghini is a mess. His voice is hoarse from a lingering cold. His bright blue eyes are red-rimmed from fatigue and emotion. He needs a shave, needs a pat on the back, needs a diversion, needs a hug.
But his needs can wait, and he knows it. More than at any time in his 44 years on campus, his Grant High School Pacers the entire student body, not just members of his struggling football team need his gruff, reassuring voice, his goofy sense of humor and his comforting, consistent presence.
Two of his community's young people are dead one shot by the other, according to police.
Ed Coleman, a Pacers football assistant and star running back in 1992 and 1993, and Luv C. Land died last weekend in what police believe was a murder-suicide at their North Natomas home. Alberghini, who knew Coleman as a "good person," is shocked by the news. He didn't really know Land, a safety coordinator at Campbell Soup Co. in Dixon, since the two spoke only a few times. But as a grandfather and father, he can't imagine the hell her parents are enduring.
"If you coach long enough, you've met your tragedies," Alberghini said. "I've lost kids, assistant coaches, but never anything like this. What took place last weekend? This is all so raw. As head of this staff, I feel a lot of pressure to handle this the right way. But the one thing well, it puts everything into perspective."
A week ago, 2012 was merely a trying season, not a traumatizing one. The Pacers, who host Del Oro tonight, have lost three consecutive games for the first time since Alberghini took over the program in 1991. Lofty preseason expectations have plummeted with the rankings. A playoff berth a near-certainty throughout Alberghini's reign is in jeopardy, partly because of academic issues and injuries.
Linebacker Moses Moala is the latest Pacers standout to be sidelined indefinitely. On Thursday, the strong, hulking junior, appearing ready to cry, handed his coach a copy of the X-rays that confirmed a foot fracture.
"We thought we were going to be a lot better," said Alberghini, 65, shaking his head. "These teams that think they're playing the Grant of the past, and have been on the short end of it, are certainly enjoying this. We have to find answers, start playing a lot better on both sides of the ball. You're never prepared for failure, especially around here. We're spoiled."
The entire region is spoiled. For the better part of two decades, Grant has been a compelling, provocative, entertaining story. On Friday nights, the stadium is filled with friends, relatives, future stars and former players, including several who went on to the NFL.
The school has experienced uplifting times, including the upset of Long Beach Poly for the 2008 CIF state championship, as well as the societal issues common to districts and programs in similar demographic areas.
According to the California Department of Education, for example, 87 percent of Grant's students received free or reduced-price meals in 2010-11. Only 75 percent cite English as the primary language. And as Alberghini so often notes, budget cuts have trimmed valuable, life-enhancing programs academic, athletic and vocational.
Alberghini's preachiness is one of his most endearing qualities. Known affectionately around campus as "Coach Al," Alberghini is an institution, an impassioned, unrelenting advocate for kids. Though retired from teaching for three years, he is on campus throughout the day, monitoring players' classwork, ducking his head into classes and stopping to chat with athletes and students.
"He's the godfather, right?" principal Craig Murray said. "There's just one of him. I don't think the school would still be standing if he wasn't still here. He keeps caring and believing in our school."
And now? After the horrific last weekend? Alberghini has to remind everyone that, for all his success, he has always been about more than football. He has been a teacher, a nurturer, an enduring father figure. He has been a standup member of the entire region, not just of Del Paso Heights.
That can't change. When the police complete their investigation into the deaths, the details and toxicology reports becoming available, he has to respond directly, forcefully, proactively.
"Some days are really challenging," Alberghini said, nodding, "but I started here in 1969. You grow close to people. I don't want to retire. As long as I'm meaningful, I want to stay."