Despite the school’s reputation as one of the toughest in the city, Kennedy loves coaching at Mission. “In the suburbs, they have spoiled brats,” he says. “Here, there are no spoiled brats. You don’t have to deal with Mommy and Daddy.” That’s an understatement at Mission, and Kennedy recognizes that, to a degree, the team fills the gap. “We have to be a complete and total family, from the very best senior on the team to the very worst freshman,” he says. “That’s not so much of a necessity at a lot of schools. It’s a necessity here.”
It’s a family governed by rules—“stupid rules,” Kennedy calls them, but rules that must be followed if you want to don the Bears’ brown and gold. First, cut your hair. Second, shave. It’s about presentation, about being a “gentleman,” about exhibiting professionalism even when you’re an amateur.
Freshmen and sophomores do the dirty work—carrying the water bottles, gathering the soccer balls, preparing the field before practice, and, afterward, making sure it’s left just the way they found it. Don’t miss practice. If you miss practice, you run. (Although, if you come to practice you also run, so either way, get in shape.) Look someone in the eye when they talk to you—coach, referee, teacher, teammate, whoever. And if you lose—God forbid you should ever lose—then don’t drop your head. Keep it high. Shake your opponent’s hand. Congratulate him. Next time, wipe the floor with his ass.
“It’s all a matter of teaching kids the discipline and responsibility that they don’t get at home,” he says. “It’s a matter of teaching them that here. That’s life. It’s not just a stupid game.”
In this family, Kennedy rules as the patriarch, equal parts loving father and unchallenged tyrant. He’s an unbridled screamer and an unashamed fountain of profanity, often calling players out for their inattentiveness or lack of discipline, sometimes embarrassing them in front of their peers.
“I want to push every last button that I can possibly push,” Kennedy says. “Because if you can deal with me, then when you get a teacher or a boss or whoever that’s really getting on you they’ll be a piece of cake. I also push to see who’s strong mentally. Because if you can deal with me every single day in practices, and you can still get through it, then I know I can invest in you and rely on you in crunch time.”
For some players, the coach’s abrasive style and stringent rules are too much. Kennedy doesn’t cut players, but he counts on several guys quitting in the early part of each season. Others thrive under Kennedy. “He’s made me into the person I am today,” says Guevara. “People don’t understand; when you’re under his wing, you’re going to go places. He might be tough, but he’s tough for a reason.”
The players can also find a role model in Wilson Jimenez, the college student in his third year as an assistant coach. Jimenez started for four years under Kennedy, winning Midfielder of the Year honors and leading the Bears to an undefeated season as a senior.
Like Kennedy, Wilson is short, tough (“Nails,” Kennedy calls him), and sports a skull-hugging buzz cut. He and his mentor operate on the same wavelength, strategizing silently during games, aware that they’re thinking the exact same thoughts. Only Wilson thinks in Spanish. And when a quick adjustment is needed, that’s the team’s language of choice.
Minutes before kickoff, Kennedy’s pre-game speech needs no translation. “Play our game,” he says. “Talk to each other. Communicate. If we do that, I believe we’ll be fine.” There is only so much that can be said before a game of this magnitude, and most of it, the players already know. They’ve been here before. They know the joy that waits if they win. So instead, Kennedy reminds them of what happens if they lose.
“At the end of the day,” he says, “somebody’s going to be crying.”
The players nod.
“Don’t let it be you.”
Some years, the championship game is a proxy for a class war. But not today. Both Mission and O’Connell are based in the Mission District (although O’Connell coach Bob Gamino contends that Mission’s campus is one block outside the neighborhood’s borders).
Both schools are largely Latino; Mission is 45 percent Hispanic, and O’Connell 74 percent. Fewer than 4 percent of eleventh graders in either school are at or above proficiency in math, compared to the city-wide average of 25 percent. Mission is larger, with 859 students to O’Connell’s 666.
Dropout rates at these institutions are among the highest in the city, and both schools struggle with gang activity, teen pregnancies, and the reality that scores of students have little interest in their own education.
Because of their closeness, both physically and culturally, the schools are longstanding rivals, competing with the ferocity of fist-fighting siblings. When it comes to soccer, O’Connell is the kid brother. Both team’s draw their talent from their futbol-mad neighborhood, but O’Connell has never matched Mission’s on-field exploits.
“There’s always been something special about playing Mission,” says Gamino, who played for O’Connell the first time the schools met in 1972 and has been coach there for 11 years. “Friends are divided; families are divided.”
For four seasons in a row, Mission has ended O’Connell’s season by beating the Boilermakers in the playoffs, and when the 2009 season began last September, O’Connell hadn’t beaten its biggest soccer rival in any game since 2004.
As the game kicks off, the stadium’s noise builds, ringing from end to end with a spanglish chorus of chants and cheers. Behind both teams’ benches, girls scream players’ names before chanting “Vamos!” or “We love you!” Teachers huddle together, bragging about which Bears or Boilermakers are currently enrolled in their class.
O’Connell dominates possession at the outset. Minutes in, an O’Connell striker shoots from seven yards away, and it sails out of bounds. Minutes later, the same striker passes to a fast-charging teammate, who heads the ball directly into Mission goalkeeper Jose Guevara’s arms.
Two shots. No goals. But for Mission, this is the way these games are lost. You allow your opponents to keep shooting, keep attacking, keep going after your defenders, and eventually, the pressure builds until you break. No defender can be perfect on every possession. And when a defender makes a big enough mistake, there is little a goalkeeper can do to save him.
After Mission loses possession, the Bears are called for a foul at midfield. O’Connell takes its free kick, lofting the ball high into the air until it drops toward a huddled mass of players from both teams.
The ball hits O’Connell’s Emmanuel Caldera in the chest, his back facing the goal. He lets it fall to the ground, stepping it to assert his control. Standing in goal, Guevara can’t see the ball, his vision blocked by players from both teams. Caldera turns. He shoots.
Guevara dives. But he has no chance.