The Good Ole’ Days—Dirt Park to Astroturf

From 2004 until 2007 Rancho’s football practice field was held at a city park—Hartke Park. Ron Kantowski’s article, which appeared in the Las Vegas Sun describes the obstacles that Rancho’s football teams had to face for several years before the new field was built. Those “Good Ole’ Days” should not be forgotten.

Ron Kantowski finds Rancho football players making do in a city park as they wait for a real field of their own

Friday, Aug. 25, 2006 | 7:21 a.m.

To experience high school football the way Rancho High is forced to play it, you must first enter the Rams’ world.

For me, that means getting off the U.S. 95 freeway at Eastern and heading north, past the tire shops and the quickie oil change places and the barely recognizable shapes of what used to be fast-food joints that are now slower food joints in need of a paint job and a window wash.

While waiting for a light to turn green, I notice a structure with its broad facade painted in a shade of black so flat that Sherwin Williams probably stopped making it during the Carter administration. There is a rudimentary drawing of a sheep above the door.

“El Borrego del Oro.” The Golden Sheep.

I notice a few shards of green and orange glass protruding from what used to be a towering beacon that you could see from the freeway. El Borrego del Oro must be where Church’s Fried Chicken franchises go to die.

On virtually every corner there is a giant billboard with a slogan written in Spanish. Drink this beer. Smoke that cigarette. Hire that immigration attorney.

Still, as I swing left onto Owens Avenue, I make a knee-jerk deduction that this isn’t a terrible neighborhood. Just a neglected one. There are shrubs in the medians, so these can’t be the mean streets of North Las Vegas.

A split second later, the tranquil early morning is shattered by the wail of a siren.

But, I think, you can probably still get to them from here.

At the corner of Owens and Bruce Street, the new $75 million Rancho High School is getting ready to open its doors for the first day of school. Judging from the pile of rubble that remains in what will become parking lots, there may be a few flat tires on opening day.

The big sign out front proclaims that Phase II of the high school project is nearly done. What isn’t done is the Rams’ new state-of-the-art football stadium, the one with the field turf and spacious dressing rooms and shiny grandstands on both sides of the field that Rancho coach Gary Maki envisions becoming home to the annual all-star football game.

But there is a new $75 million high school on the place where the old football field sat and giant piles of rubble where the new field will be. The football stadium must be Phase III of the high school project because to the Rams, it’s still only a Field of Dreams. That’s why they made the 10-minute walk from the new campus to old Hartke Park just after the crack of dawn. And why they are still trying to run their offense on a 50-yard swatch of turf without running into the jungle gym.

This is the third year the Rams have practiced football in a public park. But other than faint, uneven scrimmage lines painted onto one of the few grassy knolls that aren’t part of a soccer field, there isn’t much evidence that this is where the Rancho players will learn the nuances of Maki’s Wing T offense.

There isn’t a sign proclaiming Hartke Park as “The Practice Home of the Rancho Rams.” Heck, there isn’t even a sign proclaiming Hartke Park as Hartke Park. The only one I notice says: “No Unleashed Dogs. No Vending/Soliciting. No Camping. No Fireworks/Explosives/Open Fires. No Alcoholic Beverages. No Defacement of City Property. No Horses. (No Horses?) No Motorized Vehicles. No Bicycles. No Riotous Behavior. No Narcotics. No Practicing Golf.”

There are a couple of shade trees, under which the backpacks, flip-flops, minicoolers and other personal belongings of the Rancho players are scattered like fallen acorns. There are also a series of smaller evergreens on the perimeter of the park, under which sleep men who apparently don’t have jobs, or don’t want them. None is practicing golf. Or riding horses. Or acting riotous. At least not now. After three years of coexisting with them, the Rams barely notice the men sleeping under the trees.

“But sometimes they drink our water,” says Angel Acosta, the Rancho quarterback.

On this morning, the Rams have virtually the whole park to themselves. That won’t be the case when classes begin and they start practicing after school. Then they’ll have to share Hartke Park with the soccer players and the semipro baseball players and the moms watching their kids skin their knees on the slides.

Other than the men sleeping under the evergreens, the only ones not wearing metallic green helmets are the Rancho coaches and trainers, a woman walking a poodle and a dachshund in the vicinity of the 35-yard line, a city worker pumping sludge out a backed up sewer and a beefy, shirtless guy with a nasty scar stretching from the middle of his back to under his armpit who is sitting on one of the picnic tables.

And a guy writing it all down in a notebook.

I ask one of the trainers which one is coach Maki, and it isn’t long before he is headed my way. He walks right past the guy with the nasty scar, having seen his type before. It’s the guy with a notebook who looks out of place.

“Gary Maki,” he says, extending his hand. “Can I help you?”

After he puts a name with a picture he might have seen in the newspaper, we exchange pleasantries. Maki is a short, sturdy man who looks more like a baseball catcher or a fireman than a football coach. But I sense I am going to like him, even before our handshake turns into a half-hour interview during the middle of practice.

Maki grew up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and went to college at Bemidji State, a small school in the Iron Range region of Minnesota. These are places where you work hard and play hard, but don’t take a shower until you get home because if you go outside and your head is wet, your hair will freeze before they can send the Saint Bernards for you.

That partly explains what Maki is doing in Southern Nevada teaching and coaching. Maybe you hear the occasional gunshot during two-a-days. Maybe the sprinklers come on when they’re not supposed to, like when the quarterback is running a bootleg around left end. But at least he doesn’t worry about catching pneumonia.

Like somebody who works for the Detroit Lions, Maki doesn’t mention wins and losses much. The Rams were once a powerhouse, but that was in the 1960s, when they won three consecutive state championships. They repeated as champions in 1988, but shortly thereafter, Rancho’s speedy running backs – and their parents – began moving to the suburbs. The Rams haven’t been a force since. Then again, it’s hard to be a force when you haven’t played a home game in three years.

But numbers are up, and the team has improved during Maki’s three years as coach. In fact, if Ariece Perkins, last year’s quarterback, doesn’t get hurt midway through last season, maybe the Rams even make the playoffs. But Maki’s world doesn’t revolve around ones that got away. He talks about traditional values such as loyalty and working hard and playing together. Instead of complaining about what they don’t have, Maki wants the Rams to cherish what they do.

Although, he admits, a goalpost on which to practice field goals and extra points would be nice.

Initially, Maki had strung up PVC pipe between a couple of light standards. But the makeshift posts didn’t survive the off-season. Now, he just tells his kickers to aim for the standard.

“Last year, every time one of our guys hit the pole we’d give him a star for his helmet,” Maki says. “We had quite a few stars.”

This year, not so many. But it’s early.

After our chat, Maki insists I meet some of the players. Sure, I tell him, I’ll introduce myself after practice. Instead, he pulls them out of drills and has them introduce themselves to me.

I am particularly impressed by Omari Stephens, the Rams’ 250-pound fullback. Stephens has a big, round face and a big, easy smile and looks like one of the Cosby Kids from the Saturday morning cartoon. While I haven’t spent a lot of time interviewing high school kids during my 19 years on the job, I am certain that Stephens is the first one to call me “Sir.”

I ask him about how many yards he plans to gain this fall. But he mostly wants to talk about his 3.75 grade-point average. Maki says he has a contact at Northern Michigan and that if Stephens has a big year, maybe he can play there.

Stephens smiles when he hears that. I guess he doesn’t worry about his hair freezing.

“That’s the plan, sir,” he says about college, although practicing on a field where the sprinklers don’t come on in the middle of a power sweep may take some getting used to.

I shake Stephens’ hand and wish him well. Then I take one last walk around The Park, as Maki calls it, past the crumbling tennis courts, where only two of the three courts have nets, past the crumbling basketball courts, where only four of the six backboards have rims.

The men are still sleeping under the evergreens when I head for my truck. One of the trainers waves goodbye. I notice there’s something written on the back of her dark green T-shirt.

TOUGH TIMES DON’T LAST. TOUGH PEOPLE DO.

Ron Kantowski

Las Vegas Sun



Categories: Blog

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