Thomas Smith says things are pretty straightforward at Valley High School, that the needs of students begin with food and shelter and clothing.
That there are football players competing on Friday nights whose lives often lack for one or more of those necessities.
His message, then, becomes simple: Develop courage by challenging adversity.
“We preach to our kids that life is about overcoming obstacles, and they face many every day,” said Smith, assistant principal in charge of athletics. “We have kids from very diverse backgrounds, from refugees to those with parents who are incarcerated to some families who are homeless.
“So when something else goes against them, it’s like, ‘OK guys, here’s the deal — our heads are going to be up, our chins are going to be high and we’re going to make this as best as we can. We’re going to turn this into a positive.’ ”
Smith was speaking generally, but he could have been referring to an obstacle that Valley’s football team confronted last season: lack of a home field. Players and coaches at Valley, Clark and Rancho High schools shared that challenge after the Clark County School District deemed their artificial turf fields unsafe and unplayable, forcing them to find alternative places to practice and play games.
The schools received their artificial turf fields, a surface that usually has a shelf life of about a decade, in the early 2000s.
The worn-out fields are just one small part of a massive maintenance backlog plaguing CCSD, which said in June that more than $4 billion in such work needed to be done.
The Review-Journal is focusing on the issue of deferred maintenance in “State of Disrepair,” an occasional series that will examine how CCSD and other government agencies deal with projects that need doing but are unfunded.
As part of the series, we followed the Clark, Rancho and Valley football programs through the adversity they experienced in 2019, chronicling the ups and downs of the scheduling impediments during what was anything but a typical season.
Old and dangerous
You might notice tiny black granules on artificial turf fields. These are made from pulverized car tires and poured in between fake grass blades to give the field more bounce while cushioning the impact for athletes.
But when fields become old and worn, those granules begin poking up from the surface and can cause serious injury.
At Clark, Rancho, Valley and other schools with unplayable fields, Gmax testing — which measures the shock attenuation performance of a sports surface — occurred far later than it should have.
It took calls from concerned parents to CCSD to order the tests.
On a visit to Rancho in late September, a Review-Journal reporter swiped his shoe across a section of one end zone and an entire portion of the surface flew into the air.
“Not the most ideal situation, but this is the hand we were dealt,” Rancho head football coach Leon Evans said of holding junior varsity and varsity practices on the school’s baseball field. “At the end of the day, I would have never put kids out there on our turf football field. I completely understand why they deemed it unsafe. I had no issue with that part of it.”
Such, then, was a typical practice day at Rancho: As a soccer game unfolded on an adjacent field, a blue tackling sled was pushed to one side as football players lined up in field-goal formation. There were no goalposts — just a teammate standing 20 or so yards away ready to catch each attempt.
There was a punter warming up in center field, linemen stretching around in right and a quarterback throwing passes to his receivers in left.
The only things missing were a pitcher and catcher.
Valley also held its practices on a baseball field while things were even more complicated at Clark, the only one of the three programs to field freshmen, JV and varsity teams.
It meant finding daily space for nearly 100 players, a hurdle coaches met by staggering times between watching film and lifting weights and actual drills — all on the school’s softball field.
“It has been horrific,” Clark coach Ricky Pickens said. “We are doing as much as we can on the grass we have. We can put down hash marks, but it’s not close to proper regulations. But this is what we have, so we move forward.”
Pickens left his position following the season to pursue other career opportunities.
The three teams played home games at different fields throughout Southern Nevada, from Eldorado to Bonanza to Las Vegas to Chaparral to, yes, even Sam Boyd Stadium.
I was actually OK with them not playing on the home field. I think it was in the best interest of the kids to make sure they have an opportunity to play safely. I can only speak for kids at Rancho, but so many are there for the Magnet program and we don’t need injuries that might impair their ability to do other things. My son is in the Aviation program. I don’t need him getting torn up and unable to fly.
Rachelle Conner, whose son plays on the Rancho football team
It was Sept. 28 when UNLV helped feature a tripleheader of games involving the Clark, Rancho and Valley teams at its home field.
“We didn’t have a home field advantage, but were able to succeed wherever we went,” said Janelle Halverson, athletic director at Clark. “Everyone in this community came together for these (three schools) and were so helpful. It really made me realize the CCSD is a true family and we will all help each other out, no matter the situation.”
A parent’s perspective
Rachelle Conner arrived in style for the Rancho game against Valley at Eldorado, decked in green and wearing her foam finger.
Her son, wide receiver/safety Raymond Conner, had just scored a touchdown.
She prefers to remember that day over the one last summer, when he returned home from a workout at school and the skin on his arms was ripped so badly she put him the car and headed to the doctor.
“I was actually OK with them not playing on the home field,” Conner said. “I think it was in the best interest of the kids to make sure they have an opportunity to play safely. I can only speak for kids at Rancho, but so many are there for the magnet program and we don’t need injuries that might impair their ability to do other things. My son is in the aviation program. I don’t need him getting torn up and unable to fly.
“I also believe in turning lemons into lemonade. This is an excellent opportunity to teach the boys not only about the unexpected, but how do you adapt in different surroundings? How do you come through and deliver when it might not be necessarily comfortable?”
Memorable (muddy) moments
What most don’t realize when sitting under Friday night lights: A high school field is used for far more than football.
Daily physical education classes. Band and cheerleading and dance team practices. Flag football for girls. Various other sports. Some assemblies.
That created potential logistical nightmares at all three schools, not only having to secure fields on which to play when designated the home team, but also requiring more transportation and staffing than a normal season.
Sometimes, traditional high school moments were anything but.
It was halftime of the Clark-Sierra Vista game at Sam Boyd and a group of students made their way to the 50-yard line. The stadium announcer alerted everyone that it was the homecoming court of Clark High.
There were no floats, no cars carrying the king and queen around the field for traditional waves, not much of anything recognizing the special moment.
The ceremony was over in a blink.
“It’s pretty cool to be on UNLV’s field, but we’re used to having lots of cars with the homecoming royalty,” said Zeyad Lateef, a Clark senior and just-crowned king. “Everyone is still having fun. Of course, you want to be at your home and school and representing. There aren’t as many people here as a regular homecoming game, but you make do with what you have.”
Valley celebrated its homecoming against Democracy Prep.
Rancho had its senior night at Sunrise Mountain.
“I think the team actually enjoyed the season and traveling to other schools and having that sense of motivation and adversity,” said Clark junior linebacker Reyes Reynaga. “We just wanted to push and push and prove people wrong. It was about getting better for the next season, when we were back home with a new field.
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“Our football field was unsafe. But, yeah, practicing on the softball field was tough. Especially on those days someone would turn the sprinklers on. Lots of mud.”
It didn’t seem to bother Clark, which advanced to the playoffs before losing a regional quarterfinal to eventual state champion Liberty.
Valley finished 4-6, Rancho 1-9.
“The season became pretty tedious with all the travel and moving from one place to the next,” said Evans, the Rancho head coach. “But no excuses. Our kids learned a lot from a very challenging season. We preached to them all season, ‘We’ll play in a parking lot if we have to.’ Thankfully, it didn’t come to that.”
Eyes were drawn to the glistening green turf under a shining sun, the dark shadows of a difficult journey now replaced with balloons and dignitaries and ribbons to cut.
And, most importantly, the bright smiles of Clark High students.
Everyone knew that traveling a little more or not having home games was a good alternative to a young man suffering a concussion or perhaps even worse. Nobody wanted that.
Linda Cavazos, a CCSD trustee and member of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Board of Control
Talk about an appropriate ray of hope.
In a ceremony at its football field last month, Clark unveiled its new turf surface, one of five to be replaced across the district this year, to be followed by another five in 2021.
Rancho and Valley also expect to be playing back home next season.
“We all understand how important sports are to these schools and how difficult logistically this (was), but everyone was in agreement that the safety of the student-athletes was paramount,” said Linda Cavazos, a CCSD trustee and member of the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association Board of Control. “Everyone knew that traveling a little more or not having home games was a good alternative to a young man suffering a concussion or perhaps even worse. Nobody wanted that.”
Each of the new fields will reportedly cost in the neighborhood of $1 million and be paid for by bonds.
Others have helped offset some of the costs, like a $250,000 donation from the Raiders and NFL.
Another check for $25,000 was written by “Jeopardy!” champion James Holzhauer and wife Melissa.
Over at Valley, where facing life’s hardships is part of the daily curriculum, perspective was offered:
“We don’t have the newest or fanciest of anything, but we are a school of character,” Smith said. “I think our players appreciate our school more now for having gone through it. I know they appreciate having a home field more now.
“I think having to overcome another type of adversity in their lives will only make them stronger.”
While schools have been shut down and students sent home and spring sports canceled for now due to the coronavirus pandemic, it still appears as though the installation of new fields at schools such as Valley and Rancho and Arbor View has continued.
No school contacted said the process has been delayed.
Theirs is another worry …
“It’s a terrible situation and my heart goes out to all seniors who won’t have had a normal final year,” Smith said. “I’m hoping everything is opened up again by the summer.
“If we’re not up and running before school, fall sports are going to be difficult for us to even field teams. If there are even fall sports. I believe the fields will be completed, but I’m not sure how much that will matter if there are no sports.”
Contact columnist Ed Graney at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-4618. He can be heard on “The Press Box,” ESPN Radio 100.9 FM and 1100 AM, from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Monday through Friday. Follow @edgraney on Twitter.