The lunchbox story, unedited

So I was digging through some old files on my computer earlier today, when I found probably the greatest story I’ve ever written. I’ve tried to compile something as great as this, but I haven’t yet.

This is the story of the offensive line of El Cajon Valley High School, nestled away in East County, San Diego. Here’s what printed in the San Diego Union-Tribune on October 10, 2008 (11 days before my 22nd birthday) and after the jump, you can read the uncut version that I submitted to my editors. Enjoy.

Braves think inside The Box for success
By Justin Lafferty
SPECIAL TO THE UNION-TRIBUNE

October 10, 2008

There is a piece of Jim Catlett in a rickety black lunch box somewhere.
It is a small piece, but some would argue, the biggest piece.
The piece of Jim Catlett that taught him to throw a baseball and always made him laugh, that knew how to push his buttons but rarely did.
The saying goes, “Leave it all on the football field.”
The El Cajon Valley High junior center doesn’t have much left to leave.

***
Inside The Box, a picture of Jim Catlett III flails around. It is forever a reminder of that warm August morning, when his mother jarred him from his sleep. She shook him, shaking herself. At 44, Jim Catlett III had died overnight of a heart attack.
His son’s life was shattered. Practice was to begin in a week and a half; for the first time in his life, Jim was unsure if he’d be able to play again.
“I’ve never thought about life without my dad,” Jim said. “It was a big deal for me to get back out onto the field. I thought I wouldn’t be able to hold it together.”
That’s where The Box comes in.
It was introduced to the Braves this summer by line coach Spencer Harrison as a motivational tool for the linemen, the lunch-box gang. It became so much more.
“It’s taken on its own persona,” Harrison said. “There’s a lot of personal sharing, when there wasn’t any of that going on the year before. They’ve treated it really personal. I wanted it to have some physical evidence of them working hard all week long, but they’re the ones who have turned it into this.”
Every week, The Box is given to the lineman who shows the blue-collar work ethic it represents. They are the only ones who can look inside.
For Jim Catlett, The Box has helped the healing process begin.
For Matt Kidd, it has, too.

***
From the outside looking in, Kidd is the prototypical All-American boy — a real-life high school movie character. His smile shines of honesty, he’s a member of the Braves Council (a team leadership group) and he’s in the running to be valedictorian.
But this isn’t “Varsity Blues.”
From the inside looking out, Kidd is in conflict. His parents, while supportive of his achievements, get nervous when he’s on the field. They’re worried about him being there for the family. Kidd got into a fight late last year with his father, which led to probation and a short stint in juvenile hall.
Kidd is patching things up with his family, but it’s still a process.
“It was a lack of judgment and there were so many things going on in my head,” Kidd said. “I’m buddies with my dad. It wasn’t until we had the fight that we really started to get to know each other. I know (my mom) is trying and it’s really, really hard for her.”
That’s where The Box comes in.
Matt received The Box next, right after Jim, and placed his probation papers inside.
“The line doesn’t get the glory, we don’t get the first downs, we don’t get the picks, we don’t get the things that the spectators are going to cheer for,” Kidd said. “(The Box) is our little thing. This is our glory, our time, something that motivates us.”
It’s motivated Ben Branch and Victor Lopez, especially.

***
Kearney, Nebraska is a town of 30,129 people. El Cajon, where Branch now lives, is three times as large. A culture shock wasn’t out of the question.
The Braves senior left guard moved to El Cajon this summer after his father, Stephen Branch, took a job as the music department chair at San Diego Christian College. Branch didn’t have the benefit of maturing through the same system as his new teammates, so he did the one thing he knew best to fit in.
“I just showed what I could do,” Branch said. “I went as hard as I could during practice. The guys who were at my spot, I tried to go twice as hard against them and show the coaches what I could do.”
He still gets homesick every now and then.
That’s where The Box comes in.
After Harrison saw Branch’s determination, he gave him the box. Branch knew what he was going to put in it – a special token given to him by Brandon Cool, his head coach back at Kearney High.
Now home is with him, wherever he goes.
The Box was passed to nose tackle Victor Lopez, to whom dedication also takes on a tangible meaning. Lopez was working out with Harrison in the offseason, but he wasn’t sure about his role on the team. Harrison was able to light a fire under the senior by sharing with him a line from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night:  “Some men are born great, others have greatness thrust upon them.”
When Lopez, now a starter, got The Box, putting in the quote was a no-brainer.
Dane Ricondo, The Box’s next recipient, didn’t have to look far for his inspiration.

***
If it’s Sunday, Lonnie Ricondo and his son, senior right guard, Dane are watching football. They’re using TiVo to watch their favorite plays over and over. But they don’t care about seeing LT spring through a hole, they’re more interested in the guys who opened it.
The game has become a bonding experience for the father and son. Lonnie played right tackle for the Braves and graduated from El Cajon Valley in ’77. He’s always giving tips to Dane, a chip off the old blocker.
“It’s one of those things that a father cherishes,” Lonnie said. “(My) son is playing where (I) played and I’m getting to witness what my father saw when he watched me play. It’s one of those things in a lifetime that you’ll never forget.”
Dane wanted some way to memorialize his father’s contributions.
That’s where The Box comes in.
Dane, the fifth Brave to have The Box, deposited two things: A photo of Lonnie standing on the sideline, and his dad’s old chin strap.
The remnants of one of the subtlest positions fit perfectly in the subtle Box.
Right next to Andy Louder’s heart.

***
There’s a piece of Louder in The Box, too.
Like Catlett, it’s straight from his soul.
Louder received The Box on Monday, and he’s been taking care of it like a halfback cradling a football. He speaks with his hand resting on it, keeping it close to his body. You can tell the junior defensive tackle is as adept at tackling emotions as he is ballcarriers.
Now, he’s letting one of them through.
Louder’s grandfather, Lalo Ortega, died from a stroke last Wednesday after 77 full years of life. Like Catlett, he also got that wake-up call.
Ortega, who lived on a ranch in La Paz, Mexico, never saw Louder on the football field. The Louders would visit whenever they could afford it, but never as often as they wanted.
Louder is still looking for some sort of closure, some way to honor the man to whom he owes his calm demeanor.
“It’s been a while since I’ve seen my grandpa smile,” Louder said. “I just want to remember the good things about him.”
That’s where The Box comes in.
Louder took it home and put his most special picture inside of it, one of Ortega holding him as a baby.
When El Cajon Valley (4-1) faces Otay Ranch tonight at 6:30 on their home field, Louder will remember that smile.
He’ll smile too, because The Box will be there.
And Ortega will finally get to see his grandson play.

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2 thoughts on “The lunchbox story, unedited

  1. I knew Jim & am heartsick to hear about his death. Does anyone know how t get ahold of Teresa? Thank you, Michele

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