La Habra gives back with special gameday tradition
OCT 18, 2013 8:34a ET
The paths of Aunt Jackie and the Highlanders football squad crossed in the most unlikely of places. It was a give and give relationship.
La Habra players provided some of their time and flowers. In return, Auntie Jackie provided motivation and support.
In what has become a gameday tradition started by assistant coach Cody Verdugo 10 years ago, the La Habra football team visits a nearby convalescent home, in their jerseys, and passes out flowers to the patients.
In the process, they met Aunt Jackie, who over a seven-year stretch never left the facility.
"(She had) feeding tubes," Verdugo said. "The whole thing."
The bond between Aunt Jackie and La Habra grew immensely. Each gameday, they visited and she was there to welcome them. And then one Saturday in December of 2008, she turned the tables.
It was one of the most anticipated CIF finals. La Habra tailbacks Ronnie Hillman and Josh Quezada, along with Tustin tailback Anthony Wilkerson, headlined the CIF Southern Section Southwest final held at Angel Stadium.
The game was tied 14-14 at halftime. When the teams came out for the second half, the La Habra players were told to look up into the Angel Stadium crowd and there was Aunt Jackie out of the convalescent home for the first time in about seven years.
"The family made arrangements for her to be in a suite in Angel Stadium and all I had to do was point up to the suite and our kids just lit up," Verdugo said.
The joy spread throughout the entire La Habra sideline. Some hi-fived, others hugged. Some players held back tears. Others couldn't.
"That was, kind of, a secret weapon that we had in that second half," Verdugo said.
La Habra shutout Tustin in the second half to win 26-14 and captured their second of four consecutive CIF championships.
The players all pitched in to get Aunt Jackie a championship medallion.
Aunt Jackie passed away in 2010.
The bonds with the players and patients have continued to this day. Today, it's a "rambunctious" patient named Kay. She wasn't in the facility last season but this year, a dozen or so players gravitate to her room on a weekly basis for conversation and good laughs.
When one thinks of pregame rituals, this one won't reach the top of the list, however, for the Highlanders, gameday wouldn't be the same without a visit to the convalescent home.
Each week, they see firsthand how the delivery of a simple flower or sharing just 20 minutes of their day affects others.
"On our part it's not much effort out of us and just that flower just signifies a lot for them," offensive lineman Toa Lobendahn said. "It highlights their day and it highlights my day just to see them smile."
When Verdugo started this, his goal was to get the players to think outside of the white lines on the gridiron.
"We are trying to get the athletes, all the athletes, to understand how blessed they are, how important it is to play for others, and the opportunity they have right now is important," Verdugo said.
Added senior offensive lineman Casy Martin: "Someday this is going to be us and with that we need to respect that and at the same time show respect to our elders by coming here."
It's a community event. The bouquets are assembled in a class on campus each Friday morning. Since it's grown under Verdugo's watch, the doors have been opened to more than just football players. Other sports have gotten involved, including cheer and water polo.
It's a project that's near and dear to the heart of Verdugo. It's his wish that other programs would start to do something similar in their own communities.
"I challenge all you other high school programs out there to see what you can do and make a difference," Verdugo said.
It's gameday at La Habra High School. Where's your bouquet?
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