Phillip Brents | Fri, Sep 05 2014 03:29 PM (photo by Jon Bigornia)
They kept arriving as game time approached, and even some after last Friday’s high school football game between the Desert Ridge Jaguars from Mesa, Ariz., and the host Eastlake Titans actually started.
They had no intention of missing the chance to see one another again — and celebrating what they accomplished five seasons earlier. They were members of the Titans’ first San Diego Section Division I championship team.
And the halftime on-field reunion in front of former coaches, teachers and administrators had to rekindle cherished memories.
“The No. 1 thing I remember about that 2009 championship game was Daniel Johnson,” noted John McFadden, who coached the Titans varsity squad for 14 seasons, winning coveted CIF titles in 2009 and 2013. “He had three interceptions in the game, including one in the last seconds to win the game. I remember Tony Jefferson running all over everyone until he got injured. Our defense played great and all the kids on the team stepped up. Overall, it was a great win.”
Five years later, players have embarked on new careers. Evan Linney wore his Chula Vista police officer uniform to the game while Johnson, the defensive hero of the 2009 championship game with a game-winning interception in the end zone in the final seconds, was about to embark on an educational sojourn to England.
As for the team’s star player from that history-making season? Tony Jefferson received permission from his current employer — the NFL Arizona Cardinals — to attend last Friday’s festivities.
Johnson had three picks in the game, including the game-saver with three seconds to play, while the Titan defense racked up four sacks.
Jefferson, Daniel Diaz and Jordan Hines each scored touchdowns.
“The thing that I remember most is that we never lost,” alum Marcus Mendillo said in regard to the Titans’ 11-0-2 season. “We kept winning and winning and winning.”
“The three years before we had failed to make it to the championship game, (so) we had a lot driving us and pushing us to make it to the championship game,” all-CIF linebacker Matt Cellery said. “We had a lot of hard work and a team that came together. I miss playing with the guys from that year. We had a lot of fun, a lot of great times.”
Jefferson said his top memory was playing in an NFL stadium for the first time. “It was fun,” he said. “It was the first time for Eastlake to get that far. We owed a lot to coach McFadden. He demanded respect and we gave it to him.”
The game dispelled much of what was thought of that 2009 team, Jefferson noted.
“I got injured just before halftime and tried to come back in the second half, but it didn’t work out so well,” Jefferson recalled. “I lot of guys thought I was the whole team but that game brought up definite character issues about our team. The guys rose up and won the game … It was an emotional time after the game.”
Johnson said the memories will never fade.
“It was an amazing experience,” he said. “It was the first banner for the school, it was a great honor. It makes me feel good knowing I was part of that team whenever I see that banner in the gym.”
As for advice for future teams?
“Work hard, don’t give up and don’t lose focus on what you really want,” Johnson offered.
More on Tony Jefferson’s NFL Career: