OCEANSIDE HIGH, a school an hour’s drive north of San Diego, Calif., was a strange scene: Swaying palms dotted the campus, and students walked a few blocks to the beach at lunch. This wasn’t Malibu, though. There was grinding poverty, with 75 percent of kids qualifying for the school-lunch program.
I kicked around Oceanside the week before the 2008 presidential election. And though African-Americans, Hispanics and visible minorities made up about 70 percent of the student population, those polled by a teacher in a choir class said they supported John McCain. The biggest employer in town was Camp Pendleton, a Marine Corps base.
The second-largest employer in Oceanside—in terms of revenue, if not volume of jobs—has been the NFL. O-side has the U.S.’s second-largest Samoan population, and about half the school’s football team, the Pirates, were Samoan teenagers following the trail blazed by the greatest player the city had produced, Junior Seau. Some ran on the beach and worked out with Seau, whose home was on the water less than a mile away from campus. A bunch claimed to be related to him. All of them followed the Samoan tradition of letting their hair grow out.
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Oceanside had won the state championship the previous season, and the defensive captain was Justin Vae’ena, a 17-year-old senior linebacker who was six-foot-two and 220 lb. He was an evangelical Christian who volunteered with religious support groups and talked about the trouble he had with alcohol as a freshman.
The team’s unofficial rallying cry was “Long hair, don’t care.” When I asked him about it, Vae’ena said it only applied to football. “Long hair, do care,” he said of his life off the field in a voice kept low so teammates wouldn’t hear. Only about 10 percent of Oceanside’s student body make it to college, but Vae’ena intended to go. His father was a truck driver who had a four-hour daily commute to L.A., and his mother was an office worker. Justin was counting on a scholarship.
He had a lot of offers—not Div. I powerhouses, but it looked like his ticket had been punched.
Valley Center was coming to Oceanside to play in the Pirates Cove on Friday night. The home team was undefeated, ranked No. 25 in the nation by USA Today. Valley Center never had a chance. Oceanside beat them by three touchdowns. When Vae’ena hit their running backs, it made a sound like a hard plastic thunderclap. In the fourth quarter, he laid off them a bit. He had a chance to end a quarterback’s season on a sack late in the game but pulled up, a show of mercy.
Back home a week later, I heard that Oceanside had won the San Diego city final, but that Vae’ena had been carried off the field with a torn ACL. Interest from the bigger NCAA programs chilled instantly, but Idaho State was prepared to give him a scholarship and wait out his rehab.
Two players from that Oceanside team are playing in the NFL: Brian Schwenke and Larry Warford.
Vae’ena never played another game, but Idaho State honoured its commitment, and he wound up graduating with a degree. He also wound up cutting his hair when he landed a job nearby with the Pocatello police department.
This story originally appeared in the June 2016 issue of Sportsnet magazine.