“Here, what we believe in is: You either get better or you get worse. You never stay the same.”
Sean McVay, the 31-year-old coach of the Los Angeles Rams, the youngest head coach in modern NFL history, is standing outside the offices of the team’s training complex in Thousand Oaks, California. He speaks with the conviction of a man who cannot, will not, stomach complacency. And he isn’t just talking about his players; he’s talking about himself.
Every second is monumental for the first-year head coach. Five minutes later, he dashes off to a meeting, where he will labor over formations and movements and should-have-beens and better-bes. “He’s like a mad scientist,” says Chris Ashkouti, a close friend since seventh grade.
McVay has transformed the Rams from a punchline to a contender, from a 4-12 nightmare to a 6-2 first-place standing in the NFC West. He’s revitalized one of the NFL’s worst attacks into the second-highest-scoring offense. And he’s doctored Jared Goff—last year’s No. 1 overall pick, who went 0-7 as a rookie starter—into a quarterback on the rise.
But the mad scientist doesn’t want to hear any of that. Not with eight games left in the regular season.
McVay may be young: born in 1986, three years before the Rams’ last winning season in L.A.; younger than current Rams left tackle Andrew Whitworth, 35, and center John Sullivan, 32; so young that Wade Phillips, his 70-year-old defensive coordinator, tweeted that the Rams have “the only staff with DC on Medicare and HC in Daycare.”
The real Zo is still the 10-year-old boy who understood passing was like double-dutch: all rhythm and all timing. He calculated the precise second to throw the ball from one end of the court so that it soared over the hands of defenders and onto the fingertips of teammates at the other end without touching the ground.
The real Zo is a 13-year-old boy whose AAU team trailed by one with 20 seconds left. He drove to the basket, fooling the crowd by passing to his center, wide open underneath the basket, instead of shooting it himself. Clank. Ball’s team retrieved the ball with seven seconds left. “I’m going to give you the ball again,” an unfazed Ball told his visibly dejected center. “Be ready.” Ball whipped the ball to the center again—to the chagrin of over-zealous parents—but this time, the big man delivered the buzzer-beater layup.
The real Zo is a 14-year-old freshman challenging a senior for a starting varsity spot at Chino Hills High. “Are you nervous?” whispered John Edgar Jr., another childhood best friend, at tryouts. “Nah,” Ball said. “I’m not nervous at all. What do you mean?” Ball earned the nod.
Becca Longo places a football on the turf near the 20-yard line. She takes a few steps back and then to the side, positioning her right foot — a lime cleat with a splash of orange — farthest away from the ball. With both arms by her side, she gently wiggles her right arm, shedding lingering nerves and doubts.
Longo is alone on the field at Adams State, a Division II school in Alamosa, Colorado, a sleepy city of 10,000 about four hours south of Denver. The 5-foot-11, 140-pound freshman kicker is the lone woman on the Grizzlies’ 94-player roster. She’s also the first woman to earn a football scholarship at a Division I or II school.
But on this Thursday in early August at Rex Field, the only thing that matters is how high and how far she can make that football soar. She takes a deep breath and looks up at the sky, scanning for a cloud. There are plenty: giant, doughy streaks breaking free of the never-ending blue, hovering so low it looks like they could take a bite out of the San Luis Valley flatland.
Morning rain and thunder almost threatened to keep Longo from kicking today, but the weather didn’t stand a chance. Not much does. Last week, she hopped the field’s 7-foot gate to retrieve a ball, which left her with an inch-long gash on the palm of her right hand. She sprinted back to the field and continued to kick as the ruby-red stain pulsed.
Even as one would-be tackler grabs him at the knees, Jones grinds his way out of the pile and into the end zone for his second touchdown and what turns out to be the winning score.
“You can’t just hit him or knock him down, because he’ll just bounce up and go through you,” said Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, whose team fell victim to a 25-yard Jones burst the previous week. On the play, Jones escaped not one, not two, but three defenders and even carried one on his back for five yards before shedding him for another 15, as if to scream, “WEIGHT ROOM!”
So who is Rojo, the tackle-breaking back from McKinney, Texas, who is suddenly rising on NFL draft boards, and whose 16 touchdowns rank seventh nationally and tie for first in the Pac-12? A player who has so much North-South explosion, bringing him to top speed after his first cut, that his teammates call him the Texas Tesla?
“A nightmare for defensive coordinators to prepare for,” Texas coach Tom Herman said. “A special player who is right up there with the best running backs in the nation.”
“He’s got horse legs,” said Stephen Carr, another Trojans back. “It’s going to take a couple of body shots to take him down.”
California has more than 800,000 high-schoolers playing sports, yet the state does not require schools to have athletic trainers at practices or games—and very few do. Just 25 percent of public high schools employ a full-time athletic trainer, according to CIF data from 2016-17 (athletic directors from 1,406 schools self-reported—an 88.6 percent rate).
Even more troubling? California is the only state that does not regulate the profession of athletic training. That means that anyone can call themselves an athletic trainer, regardless of whether they are certified; regardless of whether they possess the educational qualifications, clinical experience or medical knowledge to practice.
This puts student-athletes at enormous risk. Among those working as athletic trainers in California high schools, 16.2 percent are not certified, according to CIF data.
“It’s a level of fraud,” said Brian Gallagher, director of sports medicine/certified athletic trainer at Harvard Westlake.
We’ve reached a tipping point. Or something worse.
“It’s a crisis,” said Trenton Cornelius, coordinator for L.A. Unified School District’s Interscholastic Athletics Department.
The Ogwumikes are the type to play next-after-next-after-next-after-next-after-next in pickup, looking bewildered when everyone else in the gym starts taking off their kicks to call it quits. All four Ogwumike women, whose last name means “warrior” in Igbo, one of the national languages of Nigeria, are relentless. “No matter how we feel when we walk on the basketball court, we all have this sense of pride, so we always work hard,” Erica says.
Last season, Chiney took a nasty elbow to the mouth. She felt her tooth shake—it fell out the next day—but she kept playing. Only now has she set up an appointment for an implant. Nneka has a three-inch scar on the right side of her body from diving into the scorer’s table while playing for the Polish team CCC Polkowice in the Final Eight of Euroleague in Russia. She hopped right back in the game. Olivia has been whacked in the head as an undersized forward more times than she’d like to remember. Erica is the only Ogwumike to wear a mouth guard, as she boxes out players a head or two taller than she in the paint.
“We’ve all had our battle scars,” says Chiney, who is sitting out this season to rehab a left Achilles injury.
Going one-on-one, McRae slips, her legs nearly scissoring into splits, but recovers to score. She dances in front of the net while El-Amin Gateward snaps each pose with an imaginary camera. “Give ’em face, Sis!” El-Amin Gateward screams in delight. “Give ’em face!”
That two black girls are celebrating their lacrosse skills — honed enough to take them to college — is something of a rarity. Lacrosse is played in predominantly white, affluent areas. At the NCAA level, 86.4 percent of Division I women’s lacrosse players in 2015-16 were white, while just 2.8 percent were black. US Lacrosse doesn’t even track participation rates for girls of color at the youth and high school levels.
“Every time you walk on that field, I want you to understand that people are always going to show you what you can’t do. You have to prove them wrong. Don’t let people get in your way,” coach Jazmine A. Smith reminds them. “Only you can stop you.”