You first see the lights from a mile away, beyond the shells of the abandoned car dealerships on Florin Road. Go past the barren side streets, right up to where the light-rail trains carry commuters home for the weekend, and it all appears.
The players, bursting into view beneath the Friday night lights. The buzzing crowd, sitting shoulder to shoulder in the gleaming bleachers as the drum line provides a beat.
And the field. Most of all, the field.
This isn't Granite Bay or Elk Grove or some other suburban campus. It isn't even one of Sacramento's wealthier schools. It's Luther Burbank High School "Blood Bank," they used to call it where the football team plays at Titan Stadium, a $9.3 million source of surging pride.
"Instead of driving past and seeing nothing, now there's something worth looking at," the Titans' quarterback, a tall and slender junior named Ernest Jenkins, said after practice one day last week.
That means a lot in this part of the city and to this school.
Roughly one-third of the residents near Burbank live below the poverty level, more than double the countywide average. The ZIP code where the south Sacramento campus sits has 48 liquor stores, more than any other area in the city. Violent crime rates in the neighborhood are among the highest in Sacramento.
Titan Stadium, which opened last year after months of delays, is a symbol of transformation for a school that's working hard to raise expectations. Funded by a 2002 school bond measure, the sports facility stands prominently on the Burbank campus, its all-weather turf field and large scoreboard clearly visible from the traffic on Florin Road.
Its opening has coincided with the emergence of Burbank's football team as a regional threat, and school administrators say the stadium has the student body walking taller.
Titan Stadium replaced a torn-up dirt field that was too treacherous to host anything but practices; the football team didn't play a home game in the three years before the new stadium opened.
"You play in a dirt field with gopher holes everywhere, and that impacts you," said Burbank principal Ted Appel. "You play in a shiny new place that people say, 'Wow, it's amazing,' that's going to impact you, too."
That impact is not lost on the players, many of whom live in neighborhoods where gangs and drugs are persistent. To the kids, the stadium has become a safe haven, if a fragile one.
During a home game against Sacramento Charter High School last Friday, a gunshot was fired near the light-rail station a few blocks away. Appel said school officials are not aware of any links between the shooting and the school or game. But they're taking no chances and have moved this weekend's game to Saturday afternoon while game security is assessed.
"Living in this neighborhood is kind of dog-eat-dog; people are not looking out for you," said Titans' running back Isaiah Williams.
He motioned to the field. "This," he said, "is giving the community a chance."
'Place gives us swagger'
Williams ran for 279 yards and four touchdowns in last Friday's game against Sac High, a lopsided victory under a nearly full moon. He was barely touched during several long runs. After the game, he bounced around the field, basking in the atmosphere.
Heading for the locker room, he ripped the athletic tape from his forearms, revealing a pair of tattoos.
"Power," it reads on his right arm. "Respect," on the left.
Going into their game Saturday against Florin, the Titans are 5-0 and there is talk among alumni and teachers that this might be the best team in school history. They've already beaten the region's two most successful programs of the past decade Grant and Del Oro and an undefeated regular season appears within reach.
"This place gives us swagger," Williams said of the stadium.
On most nights, Williams is the smallest kid on the field at 5 feet, 6 inches tall. But he's also among the region's most dynamic running backs and is second in the Sac-Joaquin Section in rushing yards.
Through five games, the Titans are averaging 36 points and more than 600 yards of offense a game. Against Sac High regarded by some as the second-best team in the Metropolitan Conference Burbank never trailed.
"We're all not born into luxury, especially our kids," said the Titans' coach, John Heffernan, who is in his 13th season. "We all have to work our tails off. And now we have an opportunity to build something special for our community."
Kaifa Ngalu Tapa embodies that potential.
Tapa is one of roughly 350 students at the school enrolled in at least one class in the International Baccalaureate program, a rigorous curriculum of advanced coursework introduced at Burbank six years ago. IB programs are found in only a handful of schools in the Sacramento region, most of them in the suburbs. Tapa is also a starting defensive tackle on the football team, and he is regarded by some coaches as the city's most unstoppable defensive player.
A soft-spoken junior, Tapa emerged from his advanced math class last week with a big smile. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall and 262 pounds, he was just about bursting from his No. 58 football jersey.
"I'm getting an A," he said, with a little shrug.
Later that night against Sac High, Tapa recorded 2.5 sacks in the 56-12 victory, giving him 11 on the season tied for the most in all of California. He was everywhere on the field, hunting the ball carrier from sideline to sideline.
Despite his bursting talent, Tapa, the son of Tongan immigrants, doesn't talk a lot about a career in football. He's focused on his grades, with the goal of getting into college and studying engineering. But he knows football can help get him there.
His father, Kaifa, is a construction worker who worked long hours in the heat this week, laying concrete at an Elk Grove cemetery. His mother, Kataii, is a minister in the Tongan United Methodist Church in Oak Park.
"I want to get my family out of here," Tapa said of his south Sacramento neighborhood. "It's something I put on myself, just to get my family out of here. Football can open that gate."
Achievement scores rise
When the International Baccalaureate program started at Burbank, only a few dozen students enrolled in the classes. Now, one in five kids on campus takes at least one class in the curriculum and nearly two dozen are seeking a full IB diploma, meaning they take all their classes through the program.
The school also has seen improvement in its overall achievement test scores. According to state measurements, Burbank's scores are better than 70 percent of schools with similar demographics in California. Six years ago, Burbank scored better than just 30 percent of comparable schools.
But there's a way to go.
Burbank students had the lowest average SAT score in the region last year: 1174 out of 2400. On the other hand, the percentage of Burbank seniors taking the exam has risen by more than one-third in that time meaning a broader swath of the student enrollment is aiming for college.
Appel, in his ninth year as principal, knows there's plenty of work left to be done. He's focused on getting his students to expect more from themselves.
As the bell rang last week to mark the end of second period, hundreds of students filed into the open-air hallways. The diversity of the campus was apparent. Nearly 40 percent of the 1,800 students are of Southeast Asian or Pacific Islander descent, most of them Hmong, Samoan and Tongan. Latino and African American students make up nearly another 50 percent combined.
Under Appel's watch, the transition between classes was orderly. One student strolled to class strumming a ukulele. Many students exchanged warm smiles with Appel, who was dwarfed by the athletes. He held trash collected from the ground in his left hand. He shook the hands of a few students with the other. When he spotted a girl with bare shoulders, he ordered her to cover up.
"We have to teach them they should no longer try not to fail," he said. "Now, it's about being hugely successful. Not just being OK, but being outstanding. That needs to pervade every part of this school's culture."
In a few hours, the Titans would take the field in a game that attracted so many hundreds of spectators that those who arrived just a few minutes late had to park across Florin Road. They came expecting a win which the team delivered.
Appel and several teachers diligently patrolled the stadium grounds with walkie-talkies, trying to make sure all was safe this Friday night, at least in this small slice of south Sacramento. Appel welcomes the pressure.
"You will not hear me complain about increased expectations," Appel said. "It doesn't mean you're winning all the time. But it feels great, in ways it didn't in the past, for these kids to say, 'I play at Luther Burbank.' "