The Wildcats of Marin Catholic have long been kings of football in the county. Until this year, their crowns have been figurative.
The 2018 Wildcats are rocking state-of-the-art helmets made by a Seattle startup called Vicis. Unlike traditional hard-shell helmets, these chapeaux de-form on impact, “like the bumper on a Prius,” effuses head coach Mazi Moayed. That “give” reduces the acceleration of impact forces that cause brain injury. Alas, with a price tag of $950, they offer little protection against sticker shock.
Not to worry, Wildcats. A deep-pockets donor — an “anonymous benefactor with a real desire to protect our kids,” according to MC president Tim Navone — picked up the tab for the new headgear.
It’s good to be king.
Firm though its grasp may be over the rest of the republic — 17 of the 20 most-watched TV programs in American history have been Super Bowls — football is not king in Marin, which has put more people into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland than the NFL Hall of Fame in Canton. In this county, football is often overshadowed (among prep sports), by hoops, baseball, water polo, mountain biking and, well, futbol.
For those attempting to augur the future of the gridiron game in these parts, the signals are mixed. Novato High nearly shut down its varsity program in 2017, citing insufficient player interest, a year after Branson debuted its eight-person football team, which is going gangbusters. Marin County Athletic League (MCAL) teams range from remarkable (Marin Catholic has won 60 of its last 61 MCAL games) to the resurgent (Terra Linda went 7–4 in ’17, its first winning record in five years, and dealt perennial powerhouse San Marin its sole MCAL loss of the season) to those resolved to do better: Drake, Redwood and Tamalpais had two victories apiece last year; Novato and San Rafael, none.
Jared Goff, a 2013 Marin Catholic grad who played in the Pro Bowl last January, may end up being the best of an impressive cohort of Marin athletes and coaches to crack the NFL. Pete Carroll, Redwood class of ’69, coached USC to a pair of national championships in the aughts, then led the Seahawks to victory in Super Bowl XLVII. (He’d have a second ring if Russell Wilson had simply handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch on the goal line in the waning moments of Super XLIX, but let’s not go there.)
The late Reggie (Stretch) Carolan, a late-’50s Drake product, made it to a pair of Super Bowls for the Chiefs. His son Brett, who has a Super Bowl ring to show for his two seasons with the Niners, is one of four San Marin Mustangs to crack NFL rosters, the best-known of whom is Brad Muster (31 touchdowns in seven pro seasons). Novato quarterback Mike Moroski lasted eight NFL seasons, one fewer than wide receiver and Terra Linda alum Stacey Bailey. Natu Tuatagaloa excelled in football, basketball, track and field and boxing at San Rafael before racking up 94 tackles and 15 sacks for a trio of NFL teams.
As another season looms, it feels right to celebrate the county’s gridiron gladiators. It’s a sign of the times that before buckling their chin straps, most of these players will have submitted to comprehensive “baseline” neurological assessments measuring, among other things, their reaction time, capacity for memory and cognitive function. Similar tests are administered after a player has incurred a possible concussion. Those before-and-after results help doctors, trainers and coaches ensure that athletes don’t return to their sport until they’re safe, healthy and ready.
IT’S NO LONGER a matter of debate that football can take a steep toll on the brains of those who play it. A Journal of American Medicine study published last year revealed that chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) had been diagnosed post-mortem in 110 of 111 NFL players. Not long after that study was released, the California Interscholastic Federation revealed that despite an overall increase in high school sports participation over the previous year, participation in football was down by 3.1 percent — this following a decline of 3 percent the previous year.
That attrition is reflected in some, but not all, of the county’s high school programs. Whereas MC has 90 young men filling the ranks of its freshman, JV and varsity programs, Drake High second-year head coach Roy Giorgi would be delighted to take the field with a third of that number. The ex–Marine and Drug Enforcement Administration agent is a 1980 Drake grad who spent seven years as an assistant football coach at Oak Ridge High, a football factory on the edge of Folsom Lake.
“We’d get three, four, five thousand people at every game,” he recalls. “So it was an eye-opener, coming back to my old school, seeing a failing program.”
Highly competent, relentlessly upbeat, Giorgi took important steps last season to change the culture of the program for Drake’s team the Pirates. It was still an uphill climb. The Pirates went 2–7 and finished the season with 17 players.
“I had 10 two-way starters. It was tough.” The day before he spoke to Marin Magazine, Giorgi had spent an hour with the parents of a student interested in joining the team. Their conversation, recalled the coach, “was all about the concussion issue.” They asked him, “Do you think the risk is worth it?”
How parents and students answer that question will determine the future of football in this county — and, for that matter, this country.
THE ALPHA DOG of Marin County football comes off as low-key, easygoing, almost beta. Asked early in the summer how the Wildcats spring football went, Marin Catholic head coach Mazi Moayed replied that it went quite well, before allowing as how he doesn’t attach quite as much importance to those April and May sessions as some other coaches do.
“We’ve got guys running track, playing baseball, lacrosse, rugby. I think being a multisport athlete is a good thing,” he says. (NFL personnel people agree with him: 29 of the 32 first-round picks in last May’s draft were multi-sport athletes in high school.)
His football acumen is spot-on more often than not. Upon his succeeding Ken Peralta as MC’s head coach in 2010, one of Moayed’s first decisions was to replace his predecessor’s ground-bound “double-wing” offense with a wide-open, pass-happy “run and shoot” attack better suited to the talents of his sophomore quarterback, a 6-foot, 3-inch, 160-pound string bean named Jared Goff. The future Cal Bear and Los Angeles Ram proceeded to throw for 7,687 yards and 93 touchdowns in his three years as a starter at MC. In 2013, Goff became the first true freshman in the history of Cal-Berkeley football to earn the starting quarterback job.
Three years later, having turned around the floundering Golden Bears program, Goff declared for the 2016 NFL Draft. Pro scouts began making their way to Marin Catholic, performing their due diligence. Moayed remembers, in particular, a member of the Rams staff posing this hypothetical: if you were a member of an NFL team that drafted Jared Goff, what would be your greatest concern?
“Well,” Moayed replied, “who the heck’s his offensive coordinator gonna be?”
A trenchant question, it turned out. The Rams plucked Goff with the first overall pick, but the rookie floundered in the uninspired, antiquated offense favored by the team’s offensive coordinator, Rob Boras, who did not subscribe to one of Moayed’s maxims: fit your scheme to your personnel, not the other way around. It took until Goff’s second pro season, under wunderkind head coach Sean McVay, for the young quarterback to start shredding defenses. After going 0-7 as a rookie, Goff led his team to the NFC Championship game. His upside is as steep as the “lift hill” on the Giant Dipper, the Santa Cruz roller coaster his father took him on when Jared was 5.
Back in Greenbrae, Goff’s former high school program has plotted a steadier course featuring far more peaks than valleys. Last year MC outscored its five Marin County Athletic League opponents 278–6. (Props to Redwood for mustering that lone touchdown.) Behind the dynamic duo of quarterback Spencer Petras and wideout Peter Brown, the Wildcats made it to the California Interscholastic Federation state championship game before losing to juggernaut Shasta. Despite eight new starters on offense and seven on defense, the Wildcats would be prohibitive favorites to win the league again this year, as they have every season for a decade (in 2014 MC shared the title with Novato and Napa’s Justin- Siena). This year, however, that streak will end.
To pick on more opponents their own size, or at least closer to their own size, the Wildcats have beefed up their slate of non-league games. As a result, Marin Catholic will play only five MCAL teams in ’18, relinquishing the title to someone else. That said, the Wildcats will still retain the MCAL’s automatic bid to the North Coast Section playoffs and can be counted on to embark on their customary, deep postseason run.
Co-captain, middle linebacker and West Point commit Cole Truex will call the defensive signals. Keeping blockers off him, while taking on double- and triple-teams himself, will be the run-stuffing, bridge-abutment-like Kamar Sekona, a 6-foot, 4-inch, 295-pound junior whose uncle is the Philadelphia Eagles nose tackle Haloti Ngata. Sekona, who already has an offer from USC, has lived in Southern California and Utah. But his circuitous path brought him — as so often happens with the most talented athletes in the county — to Marin Catholic.
That brings us to the point frequently raised by coaches of the teams the Wildcats regularly rout: unconstrained as they are by the boundaries of a school district, the Wildcats have a huge advantage over their public school opponents.
MC President Tim Navone swats down the notion that the Wildcats “recruit.” The critics, he contends, are using the wrong verb. “The program absolutely attracts certain kinds of kids. If you have a strong passion for football and are blessed enough to have a family that can afford to send you to Marin Catholic, you’ll find a way to be here.”
That self-selecting dynamic is not limited to the Wildcats, he adds, pointing to the stellar water polo program 3.7 miles up Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. Last November, the Drake High boys’ team — featuring seven seniors who will play the sport in college, three of them at Stanford — won the NorCal Division I championship. The Pirates’ dominant boys’ and girls’ polo programs are stocked with athletes developed in the Sleepy Hollow Aquatics (SHAQ), co-founded in 2007 by Mark Anderson and Matt Swanson.
“Nobody says, ‘Oh, Drake recruits,’ ” notes Navone (after proudly pointing out that Anderson is a product of Marin Catholic). “Well, the reality is, SHAQ is an amazing program, and people move to San Anselmo to get into it.”
“That’s a great compliment to our program,” says Anderson, who deflects credit to “an excellent group of high-level coaches that kids want to learn from.”
Giorgi, the Pirates second-year football coach, wouldn’t mind seeing some of that buzz rub off on his football program. Upon taking over in ’17, he was Drake’s third coach in three years. All that turnover, explains Drake athletic director Nate Severin, had the effect of sapping morale and depressing interest in the program. “There was no off-season, no continuity.” Under Giorgi, there is.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” the coach exudes, “spring football this year, compared to last year, was night and day.”
Sounding similarly optimistic is first-year Novato Hornets head coach Isreal Jones, who has coached in the area for 20 years, most recently as an assistant at MC. The near-death experience of the Hornets’ program last year came as a shock to Jones, who played high school football at San Marin and is deeply familiar with the strong football tradition at Novato, which won the state’s North Coast Section title in ’06.
While the varsity struggled last season, “We had a very strong frosh-soph program,” he points out, “and that momentum has carried over. These guys have had a taste of winning, and they want to get Novato back to where it belongs.” He’s especially bullish on returning quarterback Jake Dillon, a scrambling, strong-armed Doug Flutie–type with good accuracy and more heart than height.
Just a few miles up Novato Boulevard, the San Marin Mustangs had none of the attrition plaguing their crosstown rivals. Despite being the county’s smallest public high school, San Marin has one of its most robust football programs. “We’ll have 45 or 50 in our freshman level alone,” says co–head coach Dom DiMare, “which is huge.”
What has changed, at this traditional powerhouse, is the amount of contact during practice. “The last four or five years,” says DiMare, who speaks for thousands of coaches across the country, is that “we’ve really, really backed off the hitting.”
Like countless other programs, including those in Marin, the Mustangs have implemented the shoulder-tackling techniques promoted by the Seattle Seahawks, who borrowed them from the sport of rugby. The idea is to “take the head out of the game.”
GOOD LUCK WITH THAT. Football remains a chaotic, violent sport which, as currently contested, will always entail a fair amount of risk. “Heads up” and “headless” tackling techniques have been put forth, down through the decades — especially in the wake of public concern over serious injuries and deaths.
“The problem then, and the problem now,” author and football historian Matt Chaney told me two years ago, “is that there’s no way you’re going to remove head contact from a forward-colliding sport. We don’t need a bunch of frigging scientists and researchers to tell us that.”
Despite its inherent risks, counters Moayed, football is “the safest it’s ever been,” thanks to education, raised awareness, baseline testing and concussion protocols.
The Wildcats were early to that party. In 2009, Marin Catholic partnered with neuropsychologist Dr. Eric Freitag, an expert on concussion assessment and care. Freitag’s use of highly sensitive neurocognitive tests to assess concussion recovery are widely used in the NFL and NHL. At Marin Catholic, that baseline testing isn’t just for athletes.
“We highly recommend that every student get tested,” says MC trainer Jamie Waterman, who points out that head injuries aren’t limited to football — “one year, between swimming and water polo, we had three in the pool” — or even to school-sanctioned sports. Nor are those baseline tests used solely to determine when athletes can return to the field.
The first priority, she explains, is using the test to determine “when they’re ready to get back in the classroom.” Post-concussion, “a lot of kids have a hard time integrating back into school.”
Welcome, then, to this brave new world of $950 helmets and neurocognitive testing. As one Drake football dad wisecracks, “We’ve come a long way from ‘Turn your head and cough.’”
“I’ve been here 18 years and seen so much change,” Waterman agrees. “I wonder where we’re gonna be in another 15 or 20?”
This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s September 2018 print edition under the headline: “Marin Sports: The State of the Game.”