At about 6 pm last Thursday, Jefferson High School's junior varsity football team finishes losing to Lincoln. The raucous crowd in the school's lone grandstand clears out. The cheer squad goes home.
At the south end of the field, a Guatemalan kid named Francisco Pedro starts stringing a flimsy orange net over the bottom half of the football goalposts. The Jefferson Democrats' other football team is about to play its first true home game in two years.
Last year, Jefferson's boys soccer team was relegated to JV status, thanks to having too few bodies and too little experience. (Jefferson's girls team is JV this year.) Even though the Demos rejoin the varsity this year, many of their "home" games will be several miles north, at Delta Park. So tonight's game against the St. Helens Lions gives Jefferson soccer a rare chance to represent on the home turf of its school, a fiercely proud North Portland basketball powerhouse. With players from nine different countries, the team is undoubtedly distinctive. But can the futbol Demos put their own stamp on Jeff's athletic identity?
It depends, in part, on if anyone shows up, including enough players for coach Ehren Plummer to field a full squad.
Soccer may be the world's game, but in America it's often the property of the suburbs. Jefferson, a largely African-American school with a plummeting enrollment and tattered facilities, is far, far away from the world of minivans, travel teams and manicured practice fields.
Plummer stands at field's edge, hustling players to the locker room. Five guys missed practice yesterday. It happens a lot. Most must work or otherwise pitch in-at fast-food joints, bakeries, translating for their parents-to help their immigrant families.
"It's not like this at any other school," Plummer says. "Other coaches will say...'We have too many players coming out.' We're just trying to make this work." He looks across at the St. Helens players, warming up in their slick yellow-and-black uniforms. "Now, I gotta go find these guys a bench to sit on."
When the Democrats line up in their comparatively plain white-and-blue-after a scramble to make sure everyone has shin guards and shorts that fit-the contrast is sharp. The St. Helens boys are a strapping, towheaded crew of Carsons, Ryans and Bradys. The Demos are a mix 'n' match of super-slight Africans-midfielder Daniel Sado looks like a gust of wind could be the end of him-and diminutive Central Americans.
In the first half, the Demos' game plan revolves around a Somalian junior named Elias Muhammad, an electric striker. As the team feeds Muhammad every chance it gets, Plummer's gritty defenders and midfielders assert control of the game. But Jefferson misses a couple golden opportunities, and the half ends scoreless. Just after the break, lapses in concentration lead to a deflating pair of St. Helens goals.
Jefferson loses 3-1 to close out a winless pre-season against small-school opposition. Ahead, a Portland Interscholastic League slate full of powerhouses like Lincoln, Wilson and Grant. Plummer knows the Demos' record is not likely to improve (especially since, just as this issue went to press, Muhammad abruptly transferred to Madison). And really, he says, that's not the point.
"The biggest thing I'm trying to do is build young men of integrity," the coach says. "I'm trying to use soccer to teach them about life, to prepare them for the real world. I tell 'em to play hard, play smart and have fun. If they do that, I have nothing to complain about."
These kids might hail from Nigeria, Togo, Ethiopia, Mexico and many other points on the map, but for this one night in North Portland they followed Plummer's advice. They were a team.
The Jefferson Democrats take on the Madison Senators at 7 pm this Thursday, Sept. 29, at East Delta Park, North Denver Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.