They speak in soft, reflective tones that seem to contradict their aggressive manner on a football field.
The Elk Grove High School foursome of seniors Tommy Arnold, B’won Canada, Noah Letuligasenoa and Wadus Parker collectively greet a visitor with a grin and a hearty handshake. And football isn’t necessarily the No. 1 topic.
Family is. Their own and this team playing a season no one wants to end. The three-year starters represent the heartbeat of the program, Thundering Herd coach Chris Nixon said. And their transformation from being polite by day to punishing under the lights leaves their coach to wonder what sort of switch gets turned on.
“Amazing group, special,” Nixon said. “Nicest kids who then just compete.”
Or, as Canada said, “We’re friendly. but we can also smack heads.”
The foursome isn’t the biggest lot of players in the region, and none is generating a flood of college recruiting interest, but it is accomplished. Contributing to 35 Thundering Herd victories in three seasons, these four players are the winningest collection in the 100-plus-year history of the school.
Arnold is the team’s wing-T quarterback, who at 5-foot-9 and 205 pounds is sturdy enough to double at a linebacker or on the defensive line. He makes plays, and then relishes the chance to stuff them as a stopper. His primary running back is Parker, a load at 5-9 and 200 pounds with good balance, vision and deceptive speed. He has 1,636 yards and 24 touchdowns, including a 19-yard dash Friday to beat Burbank 18-12 in a Sac-Joaquin Section Division II second-round game.
Elk Grove (11-1) visits Rio Linda (11-1) in a semifinal Friday night.
Letuligasenoa and Canada are receivers on offense, but their specialties are on defense. The 6-foot, 205-pound Letuligasenoa has 161/2 sacks, a school single-season record. Canada is seemingly dwarfed in the trenches as a 6-1, 190-pound defensive end, but he’s quick off the edge with an unmatched motor, his teammates say. He has 61/2 sacks and three fumble recoveries. Arnold said he’s never played with anyone as passionate about football as Canada. Stories of Canada literally frothing at the mouth and grunting date to his youth football days.
“I remember thinking when we played as 8-year-olds, ‘Does this kid have a medical note of clearance to play because he looks like he was bit by a rabid dog’” Arnold said. “He’s like the rest of us. When we’re dog-tired, we keep going. We can’t stop now. This feels like our year.”
Two years ago, Elk Grove lost to Folsom in a D-II semifinal, finishing 12-1. Last year, Elk Grove’s 12-1 season ended to the Bulldogs in the finals. With Folsom in the D-I field now, the D-II race is anyone’s to win.
“We only have so much time left,” Letuligasenoa said. “We’ve formed a real brotherhood, and it’s gone by so fast. Our sophomore year, I thought we’d have forever.”
When they merged as freshmen, the foursome dreamed of a championship season. Actually, Arnold dreamed of it as a child.
“When I was 7, I’d have a ball at home and think of a game, clock winding down, a chance to win it, and it came true, against Grant,” Arnold said, referring to his touchdown run that beat the Pacers 7-3 this season. “Now we want that in a championship game.”
Each of the foursome said he is inspired by family. Arnold’s father, Tom, a mountain of a man and a fixture on the sideline, has been both caring and demanding.
Letuligasenoa said growing up with older brothers meant he was “left to fend for the scraps” at the dinner table. Not today. He plans to outrace them to turkey and fixings. With older brothers Lefi and Josh, both scholarship players at Cal Poly, Letuligasenoa said he is motivated to carry on the family name.
“My brothers are great role models,” he said. “They’re good students, good people, good with teachers. They set the bar.”
Canada’s first name means king or leader in Africa. He embraces his name and the memory of a grandmother he misses every day. Judith Hunter died of lung cancer nearly 10 years ago. Canada has designed an image of wings and a cross with her name that he plans to have tattooed to his chest Dec. 11, the day after he turns 18.
“She’s still with me,” Canada said. “She’s the one I was the closest to. Broke my heart to lose her. I play for this team and for her. And Thanksgiving amplifies it, the idea of family.”
Of the lot, Parker’s game may speak the loudest, but he is the most reserved. He smiled at the notion of a Thanksgiving spread at home that won’t alarm his coaches. Parker may have a man’s body, but he’s every bit a teenager, once scarfing down six bags of potato chips an hour before a game to ease his nerves, only to later regret it.
“These guys,” Parker said, eyeing his teammates, “are the best. They’re family to me. We’ve been through a lot.”
Nixon, the Herd coach, said Parker’s effort mirrors that of the team.
“He runs hard and with purpose,” Nixon said. “He’s a terrific team player and will step up whenever his team needs him. He’s a great citizen. If you’re a football coach and a genie grants you one wish, you ask for a Wadus.”
Better yet, how about a B’won, a Tommy and a Noah, too?
Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD and on Preps Plus Insiders for a video preview of the section semifinals on sacbee.com/preps.