by Fred Dickey Published October 8, 2012
Ray Bach plays an important role on Santee’s West Hills High School football team. He’s a determined, fearless 6-foot, 150-pound senior cornerback the coach calls a 30-30 man.
I need to define that for you. It means that 17-year-old Ray will get into a game when the Wolf Pack is either 30 points ahead or 30 points behind. That’s an exaggeration, of course, which the coach relates tongue-in-cheek and with affection. The reality, though, is that Ray is a bench warmer, a blocking-dummy holder, cannon fodder, shark bait, practice meat.
Those are names commonly given to guys who sit on the bench during games and hope they get summoned, but usually don’t. If any of this sounds mocking toward Ray Bach, au contraire. He is one of the most looked-up-to members of the team.
His head coach, Tay Sneddon, says, “The kids all admire him. You can’t find anything bad to say about Ray. Kids like him are special because they go through the pounding and the running like everybody else, but know they probably won’t play much. But Ray has never complained. He has a great attitude and also works hard on his grades.”
Ray is the youngest child — by far — of parents who normally would be his grandparents. His father, Ray Sr., is a retired elementary schoolteacher, and his mother, Cindy, is a stay-at-home mom. She says Ray Jr. was a “surprise” baby, which, really, was probably a shock.
Ray says he can talk to his parents about anything. “My dad has a great attitude. Every Sunday, he goes to church and takes me with him. He’s a really nice person. He always likes to talk to strangers. He’s outgoing. So when I’m at school, I try to talk to as many kids as I can. If I see someone who’s upset about something, I ask, ‘Is there anything I can do?’ I don’t snub anyone.”
He has a girlfriend of three weeks named Tiffany. “During the summer I started talking to her, and enjoyed it. The first time we hung out, I thought, ‘I like her a lot.’ So when we hung out again, she apparently liked me, too, so it just happened.” I ask impertinently if he has yet had the first kiss. (The answer was given but will remain sealed by request.)
As a writer, I hate to get snowed. I take pains to look under rocks for the “real story,” but this kid has me trapped. He’s real. His biggest challenge this year is not getting into football games, but elevating his GPA from about B-plus to straight A. He acknowledges, though, that chemistry could be meaner than a nasty linebacker. “It’ll be tough, but mixing chemicals might be fun.”
He thinks he’ll attend Grossmont College next year, and later transfer to a four-year school. His current goal is to become a firefighter, but who knows.
He’s a kid who wears his Christianity openly, has never tried dope and has sipped wine only experimentally. He doesn’t attend parties where that stuff goes down, either. He speaks his mind on his values, but has avoided the label of a scold or a goody-goody.
I haven’t been called “sir” so many times since … well, since never. I find myself thinking: Why wasn’t I like this as a kid?
Ray is a member of the school’s homecoming court and one of six candidates for king. He’s not uptight about the outcome. He does say, however, that followers of another candidate are allegedly paying students a quarter in return for a promise to vote for their man. He seems amused at this political corruption 101. (The kid who thought that one up might someday be governor.)
I walk into the football weight room with Ray. It’s crowded with football players grunting to hideous, blaring hip-hop music. The air is charged because the team is undefeated and two days hence will face El Capitan on homecoming. About a half-dozen athletes look up, some across the room, and wave or shout a greeting to Ray.
Senior Justin Lepisi is a standout defensive tackle for the Wolf Pack, 6-4 and pushing 300 pounds, with a definite date with college football. He says of Ray, “He’s always working, working, working, and pulling for the guys who are playing. I love having him on the team. At the pep rally, they [students] were chanting his name for [homecoming] king. He’s loved around the school.”
Ray says, “I don’t think of myself as popular. I like to think of myself as well-liked. ‘Popular’ often means, ‘I’m too cool to hang out with you.’ I’ll hang out with people even if they’re not ‘cool.’ I like to set a good example for younger kids because they look up to you as a senior.”
Getting back to football, I ask, what’s the point of playing football when the only playing you do is to get pounded in practice? Ray says that though he doesn’t get in many games, “I got a really good bond going with the guys; it’s like we’re family. And I have a passion for the game. I hyperextended my left knee, so, every day after practice I’m in a lot of pain, but it’s worth it.”
Is he disappointed when he doesn’t play, doesn’t get his uniform dirty? “Yeah, at the end of the game, I’m kind of upset that I didn’t get a chance to get out there and hit someone. But then I think about it, I’m still part of the team and I supported my teammates. If that’s all I get, then, that’s enough.”
He’s honest about what he brings to the team. “I lack natural athleticism. I’m not the fastest or strongest of the guys, but I definitely have the heart.”
Ray’s attitude toward the game is a throwback to every player who ever put on cleats. I ask what he likes about contact. “To knock someone down, anything moving. Getting some anger out.” Anger? “I don’t really mean anger, like mad. The game gets you fired up. It’s a really good feeling.”
Does it feel good to be hit? “It’s not the best thing in the world to get hit, but if someone on the team gets a good hit on me, I’ll say ‘good hit.’ I don’t want my teammates to go soft on me. The thing is, you have to go hard all the time.”
If you can relate to what he’s saying, then you understand why this is a story. And if you know football — really know it — and love football — really love it — then you know that Ray Bach is as important to the game as Peyton Manning.
Ray Bach is for real but not rare. There are good kids — boys and girls — at every high school in San Diego, indeed, in America. They may not play football, but whatever they do gets a good effort, and they are dutiful and kind in a way that merits emulation by many, including people who see gray stubble when they shave.
They say it’s the star athlete that gets the wide-eyed girl, and in the beginning, that’s commonly true. But older heads know that, very often, it’s the 30-30-type guy who ends up with the older-but-wiser girl when the star plunges to earth.
Update: Friday night, West Hills beat El Capitan and Ray was elected homecoming king. And, oh yes, Ray did not get in the game, but he’s OK with that because the team won.
Fred Dickey of Cardiff is a novelist and award-winning magazine writer who believes every life is an adventure. He welcomes column ideas and other suggestions; contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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