Story by Mike Guardabascio & Tyler Hendrickson
With officially sanctioned high school football in California still in limbo at the dawn of 2021–and looking increasingly unlikely for this school year–two club operations have sprung up that have provided an alternative for players looking to get on the field. The Maximum Potential Elite 10 in Bullhead, AZ is made up of several SoCal teams (and others) who’ve traveled to Arizona the last two weekends to play. Winner Circle Athletics, a training facility in the Inland Empire, has started a league that’s playing on a field in Chino.
The two leagues have sparked a huge “should we/shouldn’t we?” debate among Southern California’s football families. The “we shouldn’t” argument is straightforward and obvious. Southern California is under a suggested stay-at-home order, hospitals are full, and record numbers of people are sick and dying from COVID-19. With vaccines being rolled out, there’s hope that in the coming months a semblance of normalcy will be restored. State health department guidelines also don’t allow for competitive youth sports contests of any kind until at least Jan. 25, and county guidelines forbid “non-essential travel.”
There was plenty of social media criticism over the weekend of athletes and coaches who’ve chosen to participate in the club scene, saying those involved aren’t taking the virus seriously, that their priorities are out of whack, or that club football is just a cash grab intended to swipe money from desperate families. Several Long Beach coaches, parents, and players are speaking out in response to those criticisms.
Romeo Pellum, head football coach at Millikan, is coaching Team Black Ops, one of the squads that’s been playing in Arizona. Pellum’s team includes Millikan and Wilson athletes as well as players from a handful of other area schools.
Pellum, who is the nephew of longtime Oregon and UCLA assistant coach Don Pellum, said that his team doesn’t use any school equipment, and is a separate program from the Millikan football team. He said his goal for running the club team is to get his kids game film for college recruitment, a critical part of the youth sports landscape, especially for families who don’t have other means of paying for education. Within a few days of Black Ops’ first games in Arizona, two Millikan athletes received their first scholarship offers, from the University of Nevada.
“We have heard from colleges, yes,” said Pellum. “There’s guys saying college coaches aren’t watching club football and that’s a lie. I had almost 40 schools watching the livestream and that’s from me personally talking to those coaches.”
Pellum also criticized those who dismiss kids and parents who are hungry for scholarships, pointing out that a few million dollars in scholarships is already going to Long Beach high school seniors this year to play football, mostly to inner-city students.
“I come from that environment, I grew up in North Long Beach and I’m that guy who made it out with a scholarship,” said Pellum. “My friends I grew up with, some are dead, some are in jail. I’m the only one who made it to college. We’ve had teenagers shot and killed in our city this year. I have kids who lived across from a complex where there were three shootings this year. We are taking COVID seriously, but people who don’t come from our environment have never taken our reality seriously because they never had to deal with it.”
Pellum said the struggles that Long Beach kids are facing during the school shutdown aren’t being acknowledged.
“I have so many parents and kids asking to play on this team,” he said. “It’s giving kids hope. That’s what I’m here for. The moment I can’t help inner city kids find their way with football, I’ll stop coaching.”
Another team competing in Arizona is Team TOA, coached by longtime youth coach Nick Iamaleava. His son, Nico, was a freshman quarterback at Long Beach Poly last year who transferred to Warren. Iamaleava is coaching Team TOA with a number of Warren athletes as well as kids from Long Beach and the South Bay. Nico has become a posterchild for club football over the last week.
After standout performances in his first games in Arizona, Nico received scholarship offers from Florida State, Michigan State, UCLA, Utah, and Arizona State in a three-day span. Nick said the games his son played in Arizona were directly responsible for those scholarship offers.
“Nico had never taken a varsity snap before,” said Nick. “We’ve been in talks with a lot of these schools, and (they) are asking for film–that’s what they’ve asked for. They’re doing their homework and seeing that he’s playing against other top-caliber kids in Arizona, USC and Notre Dame commits.”
Iamaleava said he’s far from a COVID denier, and that the precautions being taken in Arizona were one of the things that drew him to the Elite 10.
“It’s disinfected between games, there’s only 500 people max in a 2,300 seat stadium, there’s temperature checks, screenings, masks, the whole nine,” said Iamaleava. “We’ve lost family members to COVID–we take it very seriously. At the same time as a parent, I’m not going to let that dictate my son’s future. And we have ten seniors on our team who are trying to make it out, and the colleges are saying they want to see film of these guys.”
Like Pellum, Iamaleava said he feels that the kids are between a rock and a hard place. They and their families are worried about COVID-19, but they’re also trying to make it out of a dangerous environment, and college coaches have been able to evaluate recruits from 34 other states who’ve played high school football this year.
“We lost a kid this year who got locked up,” said Iamaleava. “I’ve coached him his whole life. He’s supposed to be in school and football from 8 a.m. until night, and he’s not this year. The kid’s on house arrest, and it could have all been prevented with school and football–we all know that. We’re losing kids right now. It’s horrible. Whatever I can do to help these kids, I’m going to do it.”
Team Grind was one of the 33 teams who participated in the WCA league in Chino last weekend. Coached by Poly assistant Renee Medina, the team is made up of Long Beach athletes including players from Poly. Medina painted a similar picture to the one described by Pellum and Iamaleava–athletes who would rather be playing football on their high school team, but who are taking any avenue set before them to get playing time and exposure when that sanctioned high school route continues to be shut off by state health officials.
“The kids really wanted it, it was great for them to have an opportunity,” said Medina. “We’ve had contact with multiple college coaches saying they want film. We’ve heard from a ton of kids saying they were going the club route, and I’d rather have them with coaches where I know they care about the kids and they’re being as safe as they can.”
Medina also pushed back on the idea that the players and parents in his program weren’t taking the virus seriously, but said the risk assessment for those kids is different than those outside the inner city might understand.
“I know the coronavirus is real, I’ve changed every part of my life because of it,” he said. “My girlfriend had it, we went a month without seeing each other. We do health screenings every day, we distance as much as we can. We all have families we go home to so the safer we can be the better. At the same time, we all know the more time kids spend outside of their normal routine, the more the likelihood they end up in trouble–and their entire routine has been taken away from them.”
Jalen Johnson, a junior linebacker, had a breakout day for Team Grind, with a strip sack for a touchdown and two tackles for a loss.
“This was a great day, a really great day,” he said. “I’m just glad we were able to play. If we don’t have a season, I still got some film–it’s my junior year so film is very important. Football is my way to go to college, this is my way to get out. It’s all in or nothing for me.”
Aside from the scholarship opportunities, Johnson said he and his teammates were just appreciative of the chance to compete and have fun together in front of their families.
“We don’t get to go to school, we don’t get to see our friends besides sports for almost a year now,” he said. “So this was really important.”
While the coaches and parents interviewed were mostly angry at the idea that they weren’t taking the virus seriously, they all got a laugh at the idea that club football was a money grab. Medina said that he and his coaches pooled their money to cover the Winner Circle entry fee as well as to rent outside equipment for the team.
“We didn’t charge the kids anything,” he said. “As coaches we don’t get paid anyway so I don’t know what we’re thinking but it’s all out of our pocket.”
Iamaleava chuckled at the notion as well.
“We charge $200,” he said. “Half went to equipment and half went to registration. Me and our parents are pooling money for vans to take these kids to Arizona. Anything we had leftover covered the kids that couldn’t afford the fee.”
Iamaleava acknowledged that there are teams that are charging higher fees and likely making some money off the effort, but said the teams with local players weren’t.
The truth is much more complex than families ignoring the virus or coaches looking for a cash grab. The truth is that the pandemic has disproportionately affected poorer families, and they’re desperate to hang on to the few paths they see out of that world for their kids. Even if sports are restored later this year, the 2021 senior class could miss out on irreplaceable opportunities to have college paid for, with major ramifications for the junior class as well.
Pellum and Medina both pointed out that kids aren’t responsible for the recent surge in COVID cases, and that it’s not fair that while adults continue to have air travel, retail shopping, and other options available to them, kids have had their entire lives upended with no end in sight. There’s a hopelessness to the situation that’s also provided Iamaleava with clarity.
“It takes a lot of effort and sacrifice, and I know not everyone is happy about it,” he said. “But it’s varsity film, and it’s worth it. Without this, my son would still be sitting in limbo.”