If you are in the Pleasanton Sports and Recreation Park on a Saturday in fall and pass the skate park, baseball fields, softball fields and soccer fields, you'll find the Pleasanton Junior Football League.
About 500 Pleasanton youths don pads, cleats and helmets, and head to the back of the Sports Park to play football each weekend. The athletes have been playing on the same fields since the City of Pleasanton built them, but PJFL has been around since there were sugar beets growing instead of chalk-lined, well-manicured grass.
The teams don't travel, don't play year round, and nobody rides the bench. Forty years after the birth of the Pleasanton Junior Football League, those are the things that haven't changed.
"The only thing that's really changed in our league is the size and now we have nicer uniforms," said Dan Faustina, PJFL board member, coach and former player. "We've grown with the times but we haven't changed the mission of our league."
According to the back of their shirts, that mission is simple: "Everyone Plays."
PJFL now consists of about 1,000 players in either contact or flag leagues. Each year, there are 20-24 teams in six divisions and a waitlist. Unlike Pop Warner football leagues, PJFL doesn't cut, doesn't have a weight limit, and everyone on the team plays. According to the people in charge, that philosophy has brought kids from all over the area.
The teams wear the names, colors and decals of NFL teams. A few players have gone on to wear real NFL uniforms, and many more played or play college ball. For now, the boys and girls (there are a few girls in the contact league and more in flag) are happy playing against friends and classmates on the same field every weekend.
Flag football did not start until well after the contact league, but it now represents an important part of the league and about half the players. PJFL also offers cheerleading. Quickly after football started, cheerleaders began representing each team to add crucial atmosphere on game days.
Between players, cheerleaders, coaches, family members and volunteers, the back fields are crawling with football fans each Saturday. But it all started 40 years ago with one man.
He had help, but the late Ron Clemens gets credit for founding the league. In 1969, a group of Pleasanton dads got together to give their sons a chance to play football. According to Joe Rose, who has coached all 40 years of PJFL, the only option kids really had was Little League, and they were looking for something different. "[Clemens wanted all the boys to learn how to play football," Rose said. "I think if he saw the way PJFL turned out he'd be a happy camper."
The group struggled that first year to get four teams together for its fundamentals league. Rose's father was among the first coaches and asked his son, a senior at Amador Valley High School, to help out. Forty seasons later, Rose sat on the tailgate of his pick-up truck on a cool fall day, looking out at the empty football fields and talked about why he's still coaching youth football.
"It was one of those things where you say to yourself, 'I'm only going to do it a few years,'" Rose said. "But it's like driving a truck. It's in your blood."
It's in your blood
While Rose has been coaching the longest, he certainly isn't the only one with football in his blood. Many of the coaches don't have kids in the league, but still volunteer for the love of the game. Former players come back to coach, and parents stick around long after their kids have moved on to high school. Faustina's dad was among the first coaches, and now Dan, himself, is among the ranks of former players turned coach.
"That's another unique thing, a good majority of coaches don't even have kids in the league," Faustina said. "The people involved in this league are really here for the right reasons."
President Dale Hazen's main responsibility is making sure all of those enthusiastic coaches comply with the rules.
"I make sure kids play," Hazen said. "I'm not going to be a favorite person because coaches want to win. That's why they're coaches. They want to teach and they want to win."
Even if they are competitive, most coaches understand the value of the philosophy.
"I think most of the coaches have put their hearts in the right places," Rose said. "That's what has made us so successful."
PJFL works to make the teams even for the sake of competition and character building.
"Our objective is to divide teams so teams are equal," Hazen said. "We want kids to experience wins and losses. You learn more on the short end of the stick, losing."
Hazen's other main responsibility is to face the league's toughest opponent -- money. Finances have led to the most problems over the years. According to Rose, in 1979 the league almost folded because "somebody dipped their hands in the money pot."
Thanks to donations, PJFL got back on track. Even so, Rose's Steelers in the 1980s were red and white instead of the franchise's usual black and gold. Without money for new uniforms, they used whatever color they had.
Seven years ago the doors almost closed again due to debt. Hazen was brought in to make sure that doesn't happen, especially with the current state of the economy. He said PJFL is doing fine, and he is going to ensure it stays that way.
"I make sure all kids play and make sure the league is financially stable to be here to make that happen," he said.
As a 100 percent volunteer league, PJFL is more than just the players and coaches. "I've had some great parents," Rose said. "I've been really lucky. Some people will bend over backwards to help you. That's what really makes a program."
One of those parents is Sophia Farfan, PJFL's team parent coordinator. When her son started playing four years ago, she volunteered to be the team mom. She said she had it all wrong that first year, but seems to have gotten the hang of it.
"I'm that crazy team mom," Farfan said. "I was out there, had purple shirts on the parents, gave them all pom-poms."
After getting to know the coaches, she was asked to take charge and accepted. Her predecessor has stuck around to help out, and many other volunteers keep the league running smoothly. Like the others, Farfan doesn't plan on leaving the league any time soon.
"Looks like I'm a lifer," she said.
Everyone involved has different reasons for participating in PJFL. Coaches like Mike Shevelson, now the contact league's vice president, enjoy passing their knowledge to the next generation. PJFL's philosophy emphasizes fundamentals and gives everyone a chance to learn.
"The reason I like PJFL more than some of the other leagues is we really work hard to get everyone out on the field," Shevelson said. "We give them the chance to play and learn to love the game I grew up loving."
Parents like Robin Maria Cui like what the league teaches outside of football.
"It's a good organization," she said. "PJFL stresses sportsmanship more than just athletic ability. I was worried about the safety issue, but it seems very safe."
Other parents mentioned the responsibility and teamwork PJFL encourages, as well as future prospects for college and even professional football.
As for the players, they all seemed to have the same answer when asked what they like about PJFL.
"Hitting people," Matt Maria Cui said.
"Hitting people," Frankie Banks said.
"Hitting people," Jacob Prado said.
"The physicality," Dustin Dukleth said, impressing his mom with his vocabulary but still saying basically the same thing.