Season in seclusion, part 1: East High football coach Brandon Matich tries to bind diverse team together

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 4 2014 9:15 a.m. MST

“We have 65 percent of our kids that are on free-reduced lunch that are in poverty,” Sagers said, pointing out those percentages are increasing westbound with landlocked territory unable to expand in affluent areas. “A lot of those kids come from single-parent families. … They could be homeless; they could be refugees; they could be a kid that’s moved in from another state; they could have been evicted and moved into the East boundaries. Our population is completely different because of all the risk factors that these kids have going on in their lives.”

“I think everybody thinks of East High as the eastside,” assistant coach and Glendale resident Mo Langi said. “It’s nothing like that. Down in Glendale it’s more of a territorial thing. You’ve got guys running around in packs and they claim places here and there. You don’t see that stuff up on the eastside. You come up (east) to sunshine.”

According to the Salt Lake City Police Department, 401 gang-related crimes were reported in District 2 neighborhoods — Glendale, Fairpark and Poplar Grove — from January 2011 to October 2013. One hundred were categorized as Part 1 offenses of forcible rape, robbery, aggravated assault, burglary, larceny, motor vehicle theft and arson.

Like a nicked scab refusing to heal, west-side kids are pestered by the relentless lure of criminal lifestyles. “It hasn’t touched me personally, but I can definitely see it around other teammates,” East quarterback Isaac Valles relates. “(Gangs) try and pull people away.”

Sione "Baby" Tuikolovatu is unfiltered and unflappable. He’s seen trouble — caused it, too — but he’s managed to avoid the same gravitational pull that grabbed his cousin.

“I feel kind of sorry for him 'cause he’s not doing anything with his life,” he said. “I’m pretty sure that he wishes he never went down that road either.”

Gang loyalties belong to many East students with a long-standing distaste for a rival gang. Last spring, a street war spewed onto school grounds. During a weekend dance, rival members tagged the school's block "E” and weight room windows. “I didn’t see it until Monday upon my arrival for first period,” Matich said.

The school locked down to avoid potential backlash. “The police and administrators looked at everything,” Matich went on. “That’s the first time that we know they brought that type of thing to our turf. We brought all the guys in and had an intervention to try and figure out what was going on.”

Added security prevented further incidents on campus, but the act was not forgiven. “I know there was a huge fight at Jordan Park right after that with some of the older boys during school hours,” Matich said. “It was the older brothers ‘taking care of business.’”

Still, East retained its predominantly affluent population with the merger of South High, and two cultures fused into one building. Feast met famine.

“I think a lot of our players don’t look at the haves and have-nots,” junior linebacker Christian Folau said. “If we truly call ourselves a family then we all have to equalize ourselves to be one.”

For Preston Curtis, David Huntsman Jr., Preston Burnett and other East players from opulent households, assimilating with different lifestyles is humbling. “I’ve bonded with a lot of them. In the past we’ve helped kids that couldn’t afford Christmas.” Burnett said. “It was a great experience. I’ve got to be grateful for what I have and help out the people in need.”

Rush experienced opposite spectrums after relocating from Missouri. He’s lived scarcely; he’s lived lavishly. At East he’s accepted as both. “I think it was kind of different. Most of the minorities at East are in a tough situation at home with not that much money coming in,” said Rush, who is black. “I think some kids were shocked by the way I speak, but I don’t think I’ve ever been judged.”

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