Fifty years ago, Folsom High School finished its football season 9-0 and ranked No. 1 in Northern California.
Four years later, in 1966, a small Catholic school was built amid the walnut orchards of Contra Costa County in Concord. The founding principal of De La Salle was Norman Cook, a man with deep Sacramento roots.
It took Cook six years to start a football program at De La Salle, best known in its formative years for academics, the drama club and the occasional nationally ranked distance runner.
Tonight at Sacramento State, Folsom plays De La Salle to decide the Northern California Open champion in a game no one would have envisioned in the otherwise free-thinking 1960s. Now Folsom has a shot to regain its status as No. 1 in Northern California against a program that has become perhaps the greatest football dynasty in national high school history.
Cook told me years before he died in 2003 that establishing football at De La Salle "was my greatest challenge." His push for football met resistance because the sport was deemed a distraction to academics. Cook argued that athletics enriched his life when he played sports at Christian Brothers in the mid-1940s, and he encouraged athletics when he was the vice principal at CBS in the late 1950s.
As De La Salle's principal, Cook toured middle schools to gauge interest, and students told him they wanted to play high school football. Cook wrote letters to the regional school district and to his bosses seeking permission to start a program. He later said he "begged and BS'd my way" and got his wish when football was approved in 1971.
Ed Hall, a San Francisco police officer, sought out Cook at a school function and volunteered to lead the Spartans' early teams. Cook lacked one valuable resource money.
"Since there was no budget for football, Brother Norman searched for sources of funding but found few," said Pat O'Brien, a longtime Cook friend who coached and taught at CBS. "Finally, he called a hotel-restaurant owner, a golfer friend of Joe DiMaggio, and this gentleman, Syl Enea, picked up the tab for football. Hard to believe, but that's history."
Hall was known to track down players on the golf course who skipped summer three-a-day workouts and bring them back to the blocking sleds. But he quit in frustration after seven years without one winning season.
Hall's replacement was Bob Ladouceur, a 24-year-old with no head-coaching experience. That was 1979; it also was the last time a Sacramento-area school, Cordova, finished No. 1 in Northern California.
Now De La Salle is the most recognized and decorated football program in the state.
Cook, who left De La Salle in 1973, experienced the pride in the program when he returned to the school in the early 1990s to work as an administrative adviser.
In a conversation in 1997, Cook said, "Who would've guessed that a small school like De La Salle could become so big in football? If we hadn't written letters to beg for the creation of football, who knows what would've happened."