The football zipped through the hands of the linebacker in a defensive drill, and he offered up an immediate excuse.
Something about reaction time, slippery gloves, yada. The old coach wouldn’t have it.
“Don’t be a philosopher out here, son,” Mike Alberghini barked. “Be a football player.”
One of the state’s storied programs led by one of the sport’s great coaches, Grant is often the most curious storyline of the region entering a season. But this year’s intrigue is different.
Has Grant lost some of its Pacer for Life luster?
“Life is changing; times are changing,” Alberghini conceded after exhaling. “Some kids would rather do other things than be out here. I’ve never had returning players, two or three of them this summer, decide not to play. It’s a sign of the times.
“When I was younger, I would’ve been meaner about it, more mad about it. But it’s their choice. I just know what football can do. It can be a great experience, to be a part of something.”
Alberghini remains undaunted. He is committed to these kids, this school and the Twin Rivers Unified School District, of which he has been a coaching fixture since 1968. The spirited 70-year-old “Coach Al” is in his 27th year as head coach after serving as Grant’s defensive coordinator throughout the 1980s.
“It’s what I like to do,” Alberghini said of mentoring, “and it’s what I was made to do. As long as it works, I’ll be here.”
By any measure, Grant looks about the same: fast, fierce, formidable and fun. The varsity team has 54 players and a good many look as if they piled off the bus from a nearby junior college.
Football largely remains a vital piece to the players who grew up yearning to be Pacers: constructive and rewarding, brothers united as one, life lessons.
And Grant is unique in that it has scores of athletes whose fathers, uncles, cousins and brothers played before them. This includes senior receiver/defensive back Paris Warren, whose father by the same name was The Bee’s Player of the Year in 1999, played at Utah and a bit in the NFL as a receiver.
“I’m really proud to be here, to be a Pacer,” Warren said. “I’m trying to do what my dad did, to make him proud, to help Grant win. A lot of us need football. It keeps us on track. Keeps us out of trouble, the bad stuff.”
Two-way lineman Niti Liu (6-foot-3, 315 pounds) follows in the cleat marks of cousins. He has committed to UCLA to play on scholarship, a Polynesian determined to make his family, coach and community proud.
“Great kids,” Alberghini said of Warren and Liu.
“For a lot of our guys, sports keeps them in school,” said Carl Reed, an assistant coach and athletic director. “And football here is community central in Del Paso Heights. It’s still a big part of our community.”
In an era when youth football numbers across the country are in decline, due in part to concussion concerns trickling down from the NFL, the Grant Union Jr Pacers youth program is going strong.
“We have a waiting list; it’s that popular,” said Jr Pacers President Mervin Brookins II. “Football is still big for the kids here.”
Grant was The Bee’s Team of the Decade and Alberghini Coach of the Decade for the 1990s and 2000s. That’s 20 seasons of sustained greatness under the volcanic force of Al.
This decade has not been as kind. Though Grant seeks its 27th consecutive playoff berth to extend its ongoing section record, area teams have closed the gap.
The region in general has never been stronger in this sport. The area produces an army of national recruits and NFL products, including 2015 first-round draft pick and Grant alum Shaq Thompson, a linebacker with the Carolina Panthers.
Grant had unbeaten seasons in 2010 and 2014 derailed in championship games by Folsom, which went on to win CIF State titles. The Pacers have won seven section titles, but just two since 2008, when Grant became the section’s first team to win a CIF State title. Alberghini’s record is 270-55-1, and he seeks his 18th league championship.
And more changing times: Realignment will move Grant out of the Delta League and into the Sierra Foothill League next fall. The SFL includes powerhouse programs Folsom, Oak Ridge, Del Oro, Granite Bay and Rocklin.
But Grant never flinches at the prospect of a challenge. The Pacers revel in all of it.