Joe Davidson

Grant High football players hope beards can inspire them to championship victories

The Pacers like to kid around but mean business on the field. “Holy cow, Grant looks like a college team,” said Vacaville coach Mike Papadopoulos.
The Pacers like to kid around but mean business on the field. “Holy cow, Grant looks like a college team,” said Vacaville coach Mike Papadopoulos. Special to The Sacramento Bee

Six teammates gathered Sunday afternoon to represent their school at a banquet, a collection of linemen, linebackers and skill players ready to feast on a variety of topics. They were members of the Grant High School football team, and besides boasting who had the most voracious appetite, they bragged about who sported the best-looking beard.

“We’re celebrating ‘No-Shave November,’ ” explained linebacker Chris Atteberry, whose jaw-line growth is thick enough to double as a bird’s nest.

The Pacers hope to gather for another postseason banquet in a matter of weeks to celebrate “No-Lose December.”

Grant (13-0) plays St. Mary’s of Stockton (12-1) on Friday night at Sacramento State for the Sac-Joaquin Section Division II championship. No one dares shave now at the risk of disrupting karma, particularly with a possible CIF Northern California Division I showdown with Folsom looming.

If the Pacers beat St. Mary’s and Folsom tops Tracy in the D-I final, both teams could meet for a trip to a State Bowl game.

The beards are an example of the brotherhood that binds the Pacers, a free-spirited lot heavy on skill, pounds and pride.

Darrin Paulo, the Pacers’ towering 6-foot-6, 325-pound left tackle, argues that he has the best beard. He claims he could grow a fresh one in a matter of days, if not hours. Charles Bell, a guard, nods in disapproval. He insists he has the top look, whiskers tidy and trim. David Moala, a tight end, tries to end the debate by tugging at his considerable chin growth, crowing: “Look, can any of you guys braid yours? Didn’t think so.’ ”

Grant coach Mike Alberghini declared Atteberry the winner.

“He’s our junior Abe Lincoln,” the coach said. “Look at that face.”

Atteberry could only smile, something he found hard to do in his first days at Grant. He grew up in Roseville but was enrolled at the Del Paso Heights school for his freshman year.

“I’m a white kid on a campus with a little bit of everything, every race,” Atteberry said. “My dad wanted me to experience diversity because that’s the real world. I was nervous at first but fell in love with Grant. We don’t see race here, not on campus or on the team. We see each other, good people.”

Paulo and Moala are Polynesian, their parents from the Tongan Islands. Bell is African American. Alberghini, the coach synonymous with the Pacers for nearly half a century, is white. He’s the undisputed leader, and he doesn’t see race, either. What Alberghini does see are the athletic opportunities on campus that offer students much more than what the nearby tough streets ever could.

Alberghini has coached at Grant for 46 years, the past 24 as head football coach. He keeps holding off retirement because his adoring players won’t hear of it.

“I bleed blue and gold colors, like these kids,” Alberghini said. “I’m a Pacer for life, and it means everything to me. I’ve had this great opportunity in life to do this, and because of kids like this, I have something special to look forward to every day.”

The banquet at Sac State recognizing the remaining teams playing for section championships was an example. The Grant delegation included quarterback Donovan Brown and linebacker-fullback Deondre Whittington-Grays. Neither has a hint of facial hair, explaining their faces are as smooth as their game.

“Look at them,” Alberghini beamed. “At school, they’re these normal, silly 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids, working their way through life. Then you put football gear on them and they look like men. Athletes tend to have fun, and then there’s that other side we have.”

That other side, Alberghini said, is “a bully side” during games, the blocking and tackling. Grant generally has the advantage on size, speed and ferocity. That was the case for six of Alberghini’s teams that won section championships. And it plays out now. Grant’s offensive line has paved the way for a running game that features junior tailback DeShawn Collins (2,255 yards, 27 rushing touchdowns) and Brown (17 touchdown passes). The defense is headed by Atteberry and Whittington-Grays and fellow linebackers Carl Granderson and Elijah Orr.

Said Vacaville coach Mike Papadopoulos, whose Bulldogs lost to Grant 49-26 in a D-II semifinal: “Holy cow, Grant looks like a college team. Earth movers with skill.”

Paulo is the anchor to the offensive line that includes Orlando Umana (6-4, 310, sophomore), Soape Tupou (6-4, 330, junior) and Julio Marqurez (6-2, 305, junior). The 6-2, 205-pound Moala is the runt of the litter at tight end. Paulo and Moala are examples of how Pacers come in waves. Both are younger brothers of graduated Grant stars who earned college scholarships. Grant started to get an influx of Polynesian players in the late 1980s, and it continues.

“The parents and relatives of these kids are good, salt-of-the-earth people,” Alberghini said. “The kids used to grow up big. Now they arrive big.”

Paulo, a college recruit, said he’ll stay on the West Coast, to stay near family when he plays at the next level. Most every Pacific-12 Conference team has offered a scholarship, as have others from the Big 10 and the Southeastern conferences.

“That’s the way Polys are, we stick together and we’re loyal,” Paulo said. “We have so much great family that supports us, so we give our best to them and our team. I don’t just play football. I go to school and compete to represent my family, my people.”

What also binds Grant is a lack of ego. Brown is perfectly happy handing the ball off to a host of runners, though his two pinpoint touchdown passes helped blow it open against Vacaville.

Brown and Alberghini have a mutual fondness, though they also bicker like father and son, too.

“I love that kid, but I know I wouldn’t want me as a position coach because I’d be all over myself,” Alberghini said. “Donovan takes more of a wrath from me than anyone, but he’s done great. He’s the perfect quarterback for our team.”

Brown said he’s living out his childhood dream – playing quarterback for the Pacers.

“I’m loving this,” Brown said. “I take this role personally. I know how important Grant football is to our community. And I love Coach Al. He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. He tells us like it is. He’s on us as players because he cares, and he’s on us about schoolwork because he cares. He gets on me because it comes with the responsibility of the job. We’re all in this together.”

Follow Joe Davidson on Twitter @SacBee_JoeD.

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