No one knew what to expect, how the kids would react, how they would perform. This was another CIF playoff game under the Friday night lights at Grant High School, where the football program is steeped in tradition but these past several months has become too familiar with tragedy.
Jaulon Clavo. One year ago Sunday. While leaving campus for a quick meal before that evening’s scheduled postseason opener, Clavo and four of his teammates were at a stoplight less than a mile away when a gunman shot into the car. JJ was hit in the neck. Malik Johnson took a bullet to the shoulder.
With Clavo’s friends opting to rush back to school rather than call for an ambulance, the car came screeching into the parking lot near the football field, weaving between students, teachers, parents, coaches.
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As the mortally wounded JJ was lifted onto the ground, Isabel Acosta, the school’s activities director and a trained emergency medical technician, wrapped her arms around the senior cornerback and went through her mental checklist. Protect the airways, stem the blood flow, try to keep him conscious.
“The last thing I said to him was, ‘Everything is going to be OK, baby,’ ” Acosta recalled Friday during Grant’s 42-17 victory over Granite Bay. “He opened his eyes briefly and then became unconscious.”
Nothing was OK, of course. As Clavo was dying in the ambulance en route to the hospital, the shocked students, teachers, parents lingered near the stadium, screaming, embracing, sobbing. One year ago Sunday. He was just a 17-year-old kid with fast feet, big dreams and a loving extended family.
The teen accused in Clavo’s death, Keymontae Lindsey, pleaded not guilty in July to murder charges.
To mark the anniversary, a 2 p.m. memorial will be held Sunday in the main gym. The service is open to the public, an overflow crowd expected. This is the Grant way. This is a diverse community that wins together, loses together, grieves together, that is stitched together by a storied football program, a campus that serves as an oasis in the desert, and whose mantra – “A Pacer 4 Life” – persists through generations.
While Friday’s playoff opener was emotionally trying for another reason – this was the team that eliminated the Pacers from the postseason only eight days after Clavo’s death – it also allowed for a collective sigh of relief. The Grant side of the stands was packed with familiar faces: grandparents, parents, sons, daughters, cousins, nieces, nephews, many of whom attended the school and have relatives enrolled. Some of them teach or coach here and simply refuse to leave.
Vice principal Kim Davie, at Grant since 1996, repeatedly rebuffs offers to become a principal elsewhere. Principal Darris Hinson is the uncle of Johnson, who recovered from his gunshot wound and attends community college, and he has a son who is a junior at the school. The elder Hinson played football and graduated from Grant in 1988, back when – he adds with a smile – legendary coach Mike Alberghini softened around the edges. Alberghini, who retired from teaching in 2008, has worked on the Del Paso Heights campus for 48 years, teaching classes, coaching baseball, and running the football program for 26 years.
His football accomplishments include one state championship, three teams in the nation’s Top 10 list, 10 undefeated seasons and 15 players who reached the pros, among them Donte Stallworth, Onterrio Smith, Shaq Thompson, Devontae Booker and Aaron Garcia. Then there are all the other things that endear him to the administration and students, not all of whom are players.
Coach Al, as he is known, is omnipresent. He still arrives in the early morning and patrols the premises like an aging Italian teddy bear, helping with fundraisers, teasing youngsters in the cafeteria, discussing issues in the principal’s office – occasionally reminiscing about Hinson’s playing days – and ducking his head into classrooms to inquire about his players’ progress and attendance.
Yet according to a few of the Pacers, as Friday’s playoff opener and the memorial service approached, Alberghini has seemed unusually somber, choking up when speaking about Clavo and encouraging the youngsters to share their feelings.
“We all think about JJ a lot,” said senior wideout Lawrence Hardy, who was in the back seat when the shooting occurred and wears Clavo’s No. 5. “It was really devastating. We all went to counseling, and I think most of us still are getting help. But I try to think about the good times, the positive thoughts. And we really wanted this one (against Granite Bay).”
Diminutive running back Tyree Marcelle, who darted through and around the Grizzlies’ defense for four rushing touchdowns, said he experienced a rare case of “butterflies” before Friday’s game and was preoccupied throughout the week.
“Last year was horrible,” said Marcelle, “and we wanted to beat the Grizzlies and feel good about ourselves. It was definitely a revenge game for us. I feel like JJ was looking down at us and smiling. I think he would have been proud of us.”
As she so often does, Nicole Clavo, JJ’s mother, sat in the middle of the Pacers’ rooting section Friday night, dressed in her late son’s blue and yellow football jersey. She walked through the stands during halftime, greeting people who once were friends but have become family.
Her emotions are still raw, she acknowledges, and at times indescribable.
“I don’t know how I feel tonight,” she said. “I am trying to keep it together. But the memorial Sunday? I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s something you never get over.”
Clavo finds her continued presence at the school both comforting and painful. The shooting is a constant companion, a topic that never seems to leave the room. But her ongoing involvement has spurred ongoing discussions within the community, administration and district about devising ways to keep youngsters safe and in school.
To prevent players from leaving campus and frequenting the nearby fast-food restaurants before games, for instance, a variety of local businesses and several parents donate meals every Friday. A group of leaders within the area – pastors, educators, entrepreneurs – formed the North Area Community Collaboration and is attempting to change the perception and improve conditions throughout the hardscrabble Del Paso Heights neighborhood. For the first time in decades, Grant was able to fund a marching band to complement its highly regarded Drumline.
“Out of that tragedy, we were able to set aside whatever differences we have and get together to solve some of our problems,” said Hinson. “These days, if there isn’t something to grab a young person’s attention, there aren’t a lot of reasons they’ll keep coming to school. We have four academies, and when kids’ grades are tied to sports, that’s a factor, too. About 74 percent of our students are involved in something.”
After a pause, Hinson offered one final thought. “The fact that the other kids drove JJ back here that afternoon,” he said softly, “is further proof that the students feel this is the safest place to be.”