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Lost Yardage

Ravaged by the mortgage crisis, a team and a town try to lift each other's spirits

ON THE way home from football practice one November evening, Ryan Tukua parked his white pickup truck on a quiet block of Pompei Lane and counted the dead lawns. "One, two, three, four, five, six," he said. "That's how you know when a house has been foreclosed. Nobody waters the lawn anymore. The grass turns yellow."

Tukua is the defensive line coach at Chaparral High School in Temecula, Calif., a football power in an area known as Foreclosure Alley, where neighborhoods are nicknamed Foreclosure Hill and Foreclosure Lane. The Pumas are 8--1 this season, ranked in the top 25 in the state, and have clinched the Southwestern League Championship, an accomplishment even more impressive considering what they have endured at home—that is, if they are lucky enough to still have a home.

Three players who would be starting for Chaparral this season had to move away because their families lost houses to foreclosure. The head coach lost his house to foreclosure. So did one of his assistants. A current starter had to move to a rental property in the district when his house entered foreclosure. Other players fear they may have to do the same. "I live with my brother, and it's scary when you get that bill every month," said senior defensive end Omar Rubi. "You hope you can make the payment."

The subprime mortgage crisis has blindsided every corner of the country, but none more than Southern California's Inland Empire, a two-county sprawl east of Los Angeles and Orange County that saw home values skyrocket during the real estate boom. At the southern tip of the Inland Empire is Temecula, a middle-class bedroom community surrounded by mountains and palm trees, filled with tracts of new houses that were occupied briefly but now sit empty. Thanks to rising mortgage rates and cratering prices, in the third quarter of this year there were 8.5 foreclosures for every 1,000 houses in Southern California, according to the research firm MDA DataQuick. In Temecula there were 18 foreclosures for every 1,000 houses.

"It's devastating," said senior defensive end John Reynolds. "I saw my neighbors leave. There was no for-sale sign in the yard or anything. They just left their key in the door and walked away in the middle of the night."

Chaparral head coach Tommy Leach bought a $500,000 house in the winter of 2005. An overeager mortgage lender convinced Leach and his wife that they could put nothing down and still afford the payments. In the middle of last season Leach, who has two children, lost the house. "It sucked," says Leach, who now rents a home. "You feel like a loser. But we bought a $500,000 house on a teacher's salary and a teacher's aide's salary. Get real. That's stupid. It was so stupid."

It was also typical of the time and the place. Jason Parks is Chaparral's speed trainer, but he used to be a superintendent for McMillin Homes, a California developer. In 2005 Parks was busier than ever, as home prices spiked and demand soared. In 2006 he was laid off. "You knew it couldn't last," Parks said. Today, when he drives around Temecula, he sees foreclosed houses that he helped build.

Many homeowners are embarrassed to discuss defaulted loans, but Leach does not like to keep anything from his team. His experience with foreclosure has actually enabled him to relate to his players in a new way and teach them a lesson that few football coaches can. When players approach him, concerned about their own family's financial stability, Leach talks to them in detail about his own circumstance. Asked how many members of the team he has had that conversation with, he said, "At least 30."

Not all of them are worried about losing a house. Some are struggling to afford workout gear or bus fare—a common refrain in inner-city schools, but not usually at suburban ones like Chaparral. "We'll ask guys sometimes, 'What did you have for lunch?'" said offensive coordinator Jeremy McCullough. "And they'll say they didn't have money for lunch. They are too proud to tell us their dad got laid off."

The booster club has begun buying prepackaged peanut butter and jelly sandwiches to make sure players are fed. "This area is economically depressed," said senior guard Trevor Fox. "It's a reality of life here. Parents talk about it a lot, and that can cause stress and problems for kids as well.... I think it motivates us to do well and go to college and put ourselves in position to succeed."

Fox has committed to play football at Oregon. Reynolds dreams of playing for Miami, but he will more likely wind up at Humboldt State in Arcata, Calif. Rubi has applied early decision to USC—"Not to play football," he said with a smile. "I'm a genius." They have all taken economics classes at Chaparral, but because of what's happening in their own homes and with their friends, they know more about interest rates and adjustable loans than they probably should.

They also know that the game they play provides at least a temporary diversion for their anxious neighbors. Temecula is only an hour from San Diego and 1 1/2 hours from Los Angeles, but it's heartland America in the sense that Friday-night football is still a primary entertainment option. Chaparral, with an electrifying spread offense, sells out its 4,300-seat stadium for every game. The school's lone loss this season came in the opener against Corona Centennial, one of nation's best teams, and the Pumas were missing their starting QB, a transfer not yet eligible to play. "We go out for pizza after games," Leach said. "And people come up and tell you, 'What you guys are doing means so much to us—it's one happy thing we have, one thing that lets us escape our problems.'"

Last Friday night, the Pumas played their final home game of the regular season and trampled crosstown rival Temecula Valley, 53--0. After the first touchdown, Leach gave out leaping chest bumps. "People used to say we were soft," he said. "They don't say that anymore." The game lacked suspense, but it had other elements no longer taken for granted. The house was full. The lights were on. And the grass, watered and mowed, was a refreshing shade of green.

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Chaparral's coach says football helps Temecula ESCAPE ITS PROBLEMS.