Whenever football season rolls around, I think about the first time I met Green Bay Packers coach Mike Holmgren. He extended his hand to me, and I tried to break his arm. That was in 1964, on Lincoln High's football field in San Francisco. Holmgren was an all-city quarterback for Lincoln, and I was an anonymous defensive tackle for rival Balboa High.
Holmgren was rushing out of the pocket, and I had been allowed to slip past his center—one of the few mistakes made by Lincoln's line that early October afternoon. Big Mike straight-armed me in the face, and I yanked the arm and quickly brought him to the ground. Then we exchanged shoves and nasty words.
It was the third game of the 1964 season. Balboa and Lincoln each had won its first two games; Balboa had beaten the '63 city champion, Washington High, 13-6 the week before. Lincoln, meanwhile, was a 10-point favorite with bookmakers on Mission Street, mostly because of Big Mike's leadership, a strong offensive line and two fast running backs.
The opposing quarterbacks typified the two schools' cultural differences. Holmgren was big, tall and blond; Balboa's Juan Valero, the son of Mexican immigrants, was shorter, darker, wiry and muscular. Valero, who was also Balboa's co-captain, was tough on the field but a supportive comrade in training and a warm friend. "Call me anytime, and I'll be there," he said when I first met him. "And call me Jon—that's my name in English!"
While only a few miles separated Balboa and Lincoln, the schools were worlds apart. Lincoln had a fairly modern campus spread over several blocks in the outer Sunset District, named for its proximity to Ocean Beach. Balboa was built in the traditional Spanish style of architecture that dominated the Mission District in the decades after the 1906 earthquake and fire.
Balboa drew students from the working-class south-central and southeastern sections of San Francisco. At that time Balboa was one of the biggest high schools west of Chicago. There were so many baby-boomer students that senior classes graduated in both June and January.
In 1964 the Balboa football team got off to its best start since its championship season of 1957. In the opener we shut out Galileo 28-0. We ran up 416 yards, while Galileo gained 139—most of them on rushes by a promising running back named O.J. Simpson. His thunderous charges left me with neck pains that still require weekly attention from a chiropractor. Valero had given me advance warning. "I grew up with Simpson on Potrero Hill," he said. "He'll run right over you if you don't move fast and hang on."
After handling Galileo we beat Washington, but when we played Lincoln, it quickly became apparent that our team could not defend against Holmgren's powerful arm and eagle eye. At the half Lincoln led 13-0. In the locker room Valero tried to pump up our spirits while coach Archie Chagonjian and his assistant, George White, outlined second-half strategy. But when I scanned the faces of my teammates, all I could read was defeat. The bubble had burst. Holmgren and Lincoln were better, faster, stronger, smarter. When we returned to the field we'd have to fight for survival.
Lincoln continued to score, and when Balboa got the ball, the scenario usually was run-run-pass-punt. Toward the middle of the third quarter, Valero handed off to halfback Milton Frank, and a blitz left them both on the ground. The overly exuberant Lincoln defenders made late hits and piled on. When one of the linebackers rose from the pile by stepping on Frank's hand, two other Balboa backs, Victor Yanez and Leroy Caracter, protested. Several Lincoln linemen jumped them, and a free-for-all erupted.
Both benches emptied. Players were swinging their fists, pushing and kicking. Holmgren shoved me, and I tagged him in the ribs. Some Balboa players grabbed a bench and charged into Lincoln players, stunning them.