There are two archetypes of players who end up on junior college football teams: stars who screwed up or were slapped down by life, and players who refused to believe the Division I college football recruiters who said they weren't big enough, fast enough — good enough.
What most of them have in common is NFL dreams. Junior college is their last best chance to get a degree and maybe later a contract.
It's a grind. You won't get an athletic scholarship to play. If you're like most of your teammates, you'll be working part time and maybe living at home to make ends meet. In all likelihood, nobody shows up to your games. Nobody knows who you are. If you make it out, being a #JucoProduct will stay with you as a chip on your shoulder. No matter how much you win, you'll always be the underdog.
All of this makes for great reality television. The stakes are high and the drama is thick. That explains the popularity of Netflix's Last Chance U, a series that documents the triumphs and defeats of junior college football season by season.
Last month, the series' producers announced that Laney College in Oakland will be the subject of the show's fifth season, which debuts next summer. Throughout the fall, cameramen will follow the 50 or so young men who make up the Laney squad and their coaches wherever they go. Win or lose, it's a huge opportunity for the players and the program.
When Netflix announced it had chosen Laney, assistant defensive coach Adam Kadourhe was as excited as anyone.
"But I'll never forget how special last year's squad was," he tweeted. "Only a few REALLY know how much adversity we had to go through. Legends forever. #LaneyBuilt."
If it weren't for what happened last fall, Kadhourhe knew, the cameras would have never arrived.
In four decades of coaching football, Laney head coach John Beam had seen a lot. He'd watched his players get married, have kids, win NCAA titles and Super Bowls. Once, while head coach at Oakland's Skyline High School, he remembers breaking up a fist fight and extinguishing a flaming porta potty that someone had set on fire, all before the team had even boarded the bus. He'd celebrated and grieved with players. He'd also seen them buried.
But monitoring the amount of particulate matter choking the air — that was new. It was Friday, Nov. 9, 2018, and the most destructive wildfire in state history had started the day before. By the next morning, enough smoke from the Camp Fire had billowed up and drifted 160 miles southward that the air over Laney College's Eagle Stadium was becoming unfit to breathe. It was threatening to cancel the team's scheduled game against Chabot College.
Throughout the afternoon he checked the EPA's air quality index, a crude all-encompassing measure of toxicity. The number hung in the 150s, which fell under the category of "unhealthy."
"No one understands any of these numbers," he thought to himself.
Then he received an email. The school's vice president had consulted with a risk management officer and decided to cancel the game.
"Hold on," Beam wrote back. "You can't cancel it; I'm the one in charge!"
The vice president backed down.
Beam is fit and energetic at 60. His head and upper lip are both covered with hair. He's worn the same wispy mustache forever, though in recent years it's grown more grey than black. He's impressively tan. He looks like he'd just as comfortable tangling with a swordfish off the coast of Mexico as pacing the sidelines of a junior college football field.
It was at Skyline that Beam became deeply embedded in the fabric of Oakland. "I've taught thousands of people, from the mayor's office" — Libby Schaff was once Skyline's head cheerleader — "all the way down to Oakland's biggest drug dealers."
In Beam's two-plus decades of coaching there, the team won 15 Oakland Athletic League titles, 11 section championships, and a state championship. He came to Laney in 2004 as an assistant coach, and was named head coach eight years later.
It ultimately fell on Beam to decide whether the Eagles would play that Friday, despite the smoke. Laney was the favorite to win, but the stakes were high. A win would bring the team to 8-2 and secure a playoff berth, maybe even a home game. A loss would likely end its season. But all of that was moot if the team didn't play. In the morning, Beam consulted with the team's trainer, who seemed to think they could play. The team doctor disagreed.
As game time drew closer, nearby sensors detected lower levels of particulate matter in the air, so the Eagles went through their routine as if they were going to play. Music blared in headphones on the field and in the locker room.
The players told the coaches and the referees they wanted to play. If finishing the regular season meant hacking up wads of discolored gunk at some future date, that was a price they were willing to pay. The air quality held steady just long enough to begin the game, although it soon regressed to unhealthier levels. Sophomore defensive lineman Vei Tomasi remembers it smelling like the team's laundry had been piled around a bonfire. "It reminded me of camping," he recalled, "the smell of it."
That night, Tomasi and the Eagles overwhelmed the visiting Gladiators by a score of 14-0.