Justin Reber just turned 39.
His dark hair and beard are succumbing to gray. On Tuesday afternoon, Reber nursed a cup of coffee like a source of life blood, and then allowed a laugh in explaining the most trying of his football seasons.
“I’m old, man, stressed and gray,” Reber said with a hearty laugh.
That Reber could crack a joke is proof that mounting losses have not buckled him, though he feels every bit of every setback. He is more gray now than, say, last spring when he accepted the mother of all high school coaching gigs: Bella Vista.
A school with a national academic reputation since it opened in Fair Oaks in 1960, Bella Vista has had athletic success across the board, but the Broncos have hit hard times in the one sport that often identifies a school, fair or otherwise.
The Broncos are mired in a historic drought, losers of a Sac-Joaquin Section record 39 consecutive games. Not a single senior on campus has enjoyed a varsity victory, the last one coming in 2015.
Since then, three successive 0-10 seasons have left the program desperate for any measure of success, and it led the school to Reber, a vagabond football lifer eager to call a place home. Reber has a pedigree that includes championship success at Capital Christian (his alma mater), Sacramento, Rio Linda, El Dorado and in Southern California, in addition to play-calling duties at two community college programs.
‘Maybe the hardest job in Sacramento’
But interesting thing about these Broncos. They compete. They fight and they care. This is no sad-sack, dead program held together by duct tape and fantasy, content with misery. The Broncos are climbing out of that ditch of defeat, inch by inch, yard by yard.
Practices are lively, and so are some of the games. After getting scorched by an average score of 56-8 the previous four seasons, the Broncos have made Friday nights a bit more interesting despite an 0-5 showing thus far. Losses include 43-28 to El Camino, 22-6 to Oakmont, 55-20 to powerhouse Inderkum (it was 14-6 after the first quarter), and 24-8 to Woodcreek.
The players have learned about themselves during the skid, mainly that if football losses are the worst thing to ever happen in their lives, then they will have lived good lives. And that effort counts.
“These kids play super hard, and I love that,” Reber said. “They play the entire game. We’re going to get there. These kids want to succeed. When I got here, on March 1, we had 20 kids in the entire program show up for a meeting, and I thought, ‘Wow.’ Now we have 81 in the entire program, freshmen, JV and varsity. It’s a start.”
And the coach who tosses and turns more than savors a good night’s sleep?
“I’m learning to be humble in defeat, learning to be patient,” Reber said. “I wanted a big challenge. This may be the hardest job in Sacramento. We have a lot of work to do. We don’t have any varsity players who can bench press 225 pounds, so we’ve got to get into the weight room year-round. We have only four freshmen who played football before high school.
“Our first goal was to be competitive, to make opponents earn touchdowns with long drives and not easy 75-yard runs. We don’t want to get boat-raced any more. It’d be easy to pout, for these kids to quit, but what would we learn from that? We’re competitive, we’re fun to watch.”
Bella Vista’s modest football goals
Bella Vista gauges success by any measure: First downs, touchdowns and avoiding running clocks when the opposition is ahead by 35 or more in the fourth quarter. The team has had just one home game on its spectacular new home field, and an overflow showing against rival Casa Roble generated some $14,000 in gate receipts, so there is interest. The next home game is Friday against Antelope.
The school team raised some $75,000 through rigorous offseason fundraising, which allowed the program to outfit their teams with new helmets, jerseys, travel bags and game-day polo shirts.
“Our kids are decked out,” Reber said with a smile. “We at least look the part of a team, and we were able to change how we look visually.”
The school has aged well. The potential is there to rise again with good enrollment numbers (2,200) and more housing growth just beyond the football field. And Bella Vista has a principal who is on board in Darrin Kitchen.
Kitchen said he has been moved by the effort of players and coaches, saying, “the kids haven’t experienced success in terms or wins or loses, but they’re finding success in being part of something, that productive struggle, that it’s a good fight, a good struggle and recognizing the benefits. There’s a spirit on campus with the band, and people have jumped on board.
“I heard this statement a half dozen times last year my first year here, ‘yeah, but Bella Vista has always been a very academic school.’ Well, why can’t we be both?”
Bella Vista was a strong program under coach Don Driscoll, who led the Broncos from 1965-86. Bella Vista enjoyed its last winning season in 2009 under coach Matt Polston, and Doug Grush guided 10 competitive teams during his tenure as head coach, ending in 2006.
Grush remains an on-campus teacher, and he is a fan of Reber and the Broncos.
“There’s no doubt that Reber’s doing good things,” Grush said. “He’s done everything right. I think the world of him. I hope he’s at Bella Vista for the next 20 years.”
Grush is a weight-room guy. Any successful program needs strength and conditioning, he said.
“When I was the Bella Vista coach, we had 200 kids in all sports in our weight-training classes, but we don’t have those classes any more,” Grush said. “When these seniors now were sophomores, I would point to the weight room and tell them that’s the room where you don’t give up. And The hardest thing to do when a team is losing is to keep that fish on the hook, to keep kids interested, but Reber has their attention.”
Steve Stephen was Bella Vista’s head coach when the Broncos last had a win. He went 3-8 and 4-6 at the school before enduring three successive 0-10 seasons.
He had enough and stepped down. The losses pained him, and still do.
Stephen is now an assistant to Reber, and he opens his history classroom on campus for players to watch game film, to talk, to be together. Stephen doesn’t have to do this, but he is loyal to the school, and his senior son is the team’s focal point.
Jackson Stephen is a 6-foot-4, 195-pound senior who has a good arm and great grades. The quarterback didn’t have to play this season, either, having sat out last season with a knee injury.
“I came back because I like football, my teammates and my school,” Jackson Stephen said. “I wasn’t going to quit all of this.”
Said his father, “Proud of him.”
Anything can happen on a football Friday
Reber has a unique place in regional history. He was the Sacramento High coach in 2016 when the Dragons stunned Folsom, snapping the Bulldogs’ 48-game regular-season winning streak and area-record 52-game winning streak against section competition.
“I tell kids that anything can happen on a football Friday night,” Reber said.
But Reber has bounced, always curious about the next challenge after brief stints at four high schools. After one season at El Dorado, he became offensive coordinator last season at Hartnell College in Salinas, and his team led the state in passing.
Reber earned no money from that gig, soaking in the coaching experience in his quest to find the ultimate challenge. He often sacked out in his car during football season, in a hotel parking lot after practices or games, zipping home to Elk Grove on Sundays to do laundry and crash on a real bed.
“I learned I didn’t want to do that any more, and that I don’t want to be an assistant coach,” Reber said. “Football teaches life lessons, humility. These kids here have gone through a lot. They hear people say, ‘Oh, you play football at BV?’
“I love these kids. If we keep doing it the right way, the wins will come, and they will. This can be a special place to play football.”