The scene was a teaching moment, a moving, surprising, human moment. Players and coaches from almost a dozen area high schools and community colleges encircled the field before Grant High’s playoff game against Beyer, drawn to the Del Paso Heights campus Monday because they couldn’t stay away, because they felt compelled to share the burden of grief.
Another teenager was a victim of gun violence. Another family was devastated. Another football team – one already too familiar with tragedy – was rocked by the death of one of its own, a 17-year-old shot in the neck while driving four teammates back to school Friday.
Malik Johnson was shot in the arm and survived. Jaulon Clavo was not as fortunate. After being rushed back to the school, bleeding profusely in the back seat, the senior cornerback was comforted by Grant coaches and officials during the excruciating wait for the ambulance.
“I kept saying, ‘Hang on JJ, hang on,’ ” longtime Pacers coach Mike Alberghini said Monday, speaking softly, tears filling his eyes. “You could tell it was bad right away. It was almost like he was dying in your arms.”
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In his 25 years as coach, Alberghini has lost other players to accidents and illness and an assistant coach to gun violence. Three years ago, assistant Ed Coleman killed himself and his companion, Luv Land, in a murder-suicide. A few weeks later, former Pacers star John Bloomfield was removed from life support after a deteriorating lung left him in a coma while on the Sacramento State football team.
The two episodes left Alberghini badly shaken, even prompted him to consider retirement. He stayed because the kids needed him. And after this? He will continue to coach because the kids need him, because the school needs him, and because he is a stubborn, 69-year-old former teacher who believes his football program unites a community and pushes youngsters into classrooms and away from the dangers of the streets.
“Kids get motivated by wanting to play,” he said, “and then all of a sudden, a light goes off. ‘Hey, I can pass these classes.’ Education is so important. Without a diploma, no one gives you credit for being intelligent. That’s why it’s a year-round thing here. We have to finish what we start.”
Alberghini’s peers and the Pacers’ rivals best tell his story. Upon learning of the shooting, area coaches and players communicated via text and email, wondering what to do, wanting to help. Several brought boxes of food and flowers to the locker room hours before Grant beat Beyer on Monday. But what moved Alberghini again to tears – this time in gratitude – was old friends and dozens of Pacers rivals, many wearing their football jerseys, several accompanied by their parents, ringing the stadium before kickoff.
“I don’t know Al very well,” said Jesuit coach Marlon Blanton, who was accompanied by about a dozen of his players, “but he’s a rock for that community. He’s a great human being who does a lot for those kids. That’s easy to see. I think back, and I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my youth coach. He kept telling me, ‘You are going to do this, you are going to do that.’ ”
I kept saying, ‘Hang on JJ, hang on.’ You could tell it was bad right away. It was almost like he was dying in your arms.
Grant football coach Mike Alberghini on the death of Jaulon Clavo
While Blanton watched the news reports last weekend, he couldn’t get Clavo off his mind. The circumstances surrounding the teen’s death were eerily familiar. The summer after Blanton graduated from De La Salle, the Pittsburg native said, he was targeted in a drive-by shooting in a troubled neighborhood.
“JJ was me,” said the coach. “My car got shot up while I was driving. I was in the wrong place at the wrong time. I can still hear the guy in the other car yelling, ‘I got him. I got him.’ I don’t know how I survived, but I did, and there was not a mark on me.”
Unnerved by the incident, Blanton became more conscious of his surroundings and determined to earn a teaching credential and become a high school coach. And while he knows Alberghini only in a professional sense, he is well aware of Alberghini’s accomplishments and reputation.
Under Alberghini, the Pacers have won 15 league titles, produced the area’s first large-school state championship (2008) and sent several players to the NFL, including Donté Stallworth, Onterrio Smith, C.J. Wallace, Shaq Thompson and James Sample.
Then there is Alberghini the teacher, psychologist, father figure, friend, mediator, even hall monitor on occasion. Though he retired from teaching several years ago, he’s on campus daily and is a fixture in the cafeteria, where he converses with players and students during lunch.
The depth of his commitment – of his caring and compassion – again was apparent from the number of teary youngsters who wandered over to the football stadium hours before Monday’s game, searching for the man known as “Al,” needing a hug or a few words of encouragement.
I don’t know Al very well, but he’s a rock for that community. He’s a great human being who does a lot for those kids. That’s easy to see.
Jesuit coach Marlon Blanton, who attended Monday’s playoff game with about a dozen of his players
In better times, the one-time educator dispenses quickly with football talk and engages in a full-throated roar about the lack of funding in education and, most recently, pleading for district officials to restore academic and vocational programs eliminated during the recession. An Alberghini rant is one for the ages, and is part of what makes him such an endearing, enduring figure.
And the players? They just love the man.
Though the tragedy overshadowed Alberghini passing Max Miller for the most coaching victories (262) in regional history, several Pacers surprised him with a Gatorade shower as the team gathered afterward at midfield. He scooted out of harm’s way, then walked back and told his players he was proud of them, he hurt for them, he loved them.
As they crowded closer, embracing him in a group hug, Alberghini finally grinned and closed with this: “There is plenty of food in the locker room! I want everybody to eat something before you go home! We won’t be worth a darn tomorrow, but we’ll be well fed.”