Call it the Milken Community High School of Hard Knocks.
Thanks to an organizing effort started by two very committed mothers, along with support from school administration and student enthusiasm, Milken is set to become the first local Jewish day school to field a tackle football team — and only the fourth Jewish day school in the country to do so.
More than 50 students have expressed interest in playing on Milken’s eight-man team in the fall, and Charlie Heller is definitely among the most enthusiastic. “I’m super pumped, super excited,” Heller, 16, said. “This is like a dream of my life.”
A junior, Heller started every game as quarterback for Milken’s flag football team in the fall season. The Wildcats went undefeated and won the Nov. 9 championship game against Crossroads High School, 19-0. Heller found the experience satisfying but frustrating. “We dominated every team,” he said. “It became not even fun, because we knew we were going to kick the other team’s butts.”
Starting next fall, Milken, which has just fewer than 600 students, will field 39 different varsity and junior-varsity teams in various sports. With an estimated startup cost of about $100,000, tackle football will easily be the most expensive. (The school would not confirm the exact source of those funds.) Still, Head of School Jason Ablin is enthusiastic about bringing what many might call the quintessential part of the American high school experience to Milken. The students, Ablin said, “yearn for events at the school when we can really get together and celebrate. And football will be one of those.”
With the addition of tackle football, Ablin also expects that Milken will be able to attract students who might otherwise have gone to other schools.
The move is not without some risk: In recent years, reports have made clear that tackle football can present significant risk of injury — particularly brain injury — to players, even at the high school level. Ablin said he has read those articles and will make protecting the health and safety of Milken student athletes his primary concern. If head coach Jerry Martin and associate coach Greg Weiss run a safe program, Ablin said, “I would be OK with losing every game.”
Sandra Heller, Charlie’s mom, went with another Milken mother to visit the San Diego Jewish Academy (SDJA), the only private Jewish school on the West Coast with a tackle football team. The SDJA Lions were the subject of a JTA article in October 2010.
Among other inquiries, Heller asked about insurance and about injuries; she found that the SDJA administration hadn’t had problems with either. “Yes, there are injuries, but they weren’t playing Oaks Christian and these big high schools,” Heller said. (Oaks Christian’s football team won championships in California’s southern section in seven of the last eight seasons. One alumnus went on to play quarterback in college at Notre Dame.)
Heller said she was confident that with the right coaching, training and safety, tackle football could work at Milken.
Milken has a full-time specialist in sports medicine on staff. The strength and conditioning coach, who used to work part time with all the school’s teams, has since been brought on full time and will help prepare the Wildcats for next year’s football season.
Head of athletics Jason Kelly said that many of the sports students already play at Milken bring with them dangers of their own. Young female athletes are prone to ligament tears in the knee, and water polo is known for inflicting damage on the bodies of its players. “Flag football itself is kind of dangerous, because kids are playing without pads,” Kelly said.
Quarterback Charlie Heller isn’t worried about injuries. “Not with football,” he said. He has only suffered one major injury, in the fourth grade, when he broke his arm during a practice for the Stephen S. Wise school basketball team.
Practice for the Milken football team starts Aug. 1, and the Wildcats will play their first game, at Faith Baptist, on Sept. 8. Faith Baptist went undefeated (3-0) in the four-team Heritage eight-man football league in 2010. Milken will join Santa Clarita Christian, Windward and Hillcrest Christian in trying to unseat them.
The Wildcats are hoping to play at least one more game next season, against the SDJA Lions. No date has been set for a Wildcats-Lions match-up, but one thing is certain: Like every Milken game, it won’t be on a Friday night.
“We’re playing with names for it,” Ablin said. “Maybe ‘The Kiddush Cup.’”