Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Amtrak Is Worth The Time, Money

When my family wanted to go to my parents' house in Shreveport, LA., over the Christmas holiday, we went online to look at prices for me, my wife and my three children, two of which are now adults. It would have cost most than $3600 round trip on even the cheapest airfare. So, we looked into Amtrak. The price was almost, to the dollar, half the price. The only issue was it would take almost three days each direction.

After talking to the kids, and using the word, "adventure" it was decided it would be fun. We made the reservation and did add the cost of something called a "Roomette". That would accommodate two of us with the other three having to ride coach.

I'm writing this at my parents' home and have to say that the first leg, Sacramento-Oakland-Santa Barbara-Los Angeles-Marshall, TX. (home of boxer George Foreman) was a great experience. We did have to take an Amtrak bus between Oakland and Santa Barbara which wasn't a great experience and don't recommend that, especially overnight, but the trains were great.

First, the seats were spacious, could be made to recline so you can sleep comfortably and thus not be tired. The roomette was just fine for us to take turns so there was a nice quiet compartment to sit in, snooze, read, place games, etc.

The train stops frequently enough that if you want to step off to get some fresh air, you can. The food was much better than expected and service was good (an occasional jerky steward on a couple stretches, but the rest of the stewards/conductors were quite nice). I would also recommend the roomette or a regular sleeping room. There is a shower, but it's small and the water wasn't hot, but maybe it was because I may have followed a couple people in the shower.

And, to top it off you meet some really nice people. You cannot have a table to yourself. They call it community seating in the dining car where you are sat with one or two other passengers. I sat with Al, a retired film editor with MGM, Candy, also a community college teacher who lives 30 miles outside of Tucson in the desert by herself, Max, a cowboy who like me went to high school in the Denver area, but now lives on a ranch near Walsenberg, CO., and has a foul mouth (i.e. with my son, Max, sitting with us, he remarks that beers cost $4.50 apiece on the train so they better have naked women that come with the can).

There was also Connie, who was on her way to Oklahoma City to visit her sister, a minister of a Methodist church and to deal with their mom, suffering from dementia. And, the most interesting, Hammish, a South Afrikaner, who loves to travel the world. He was really fascinating. I loved his deep English accent and his dry humor. He was a true gentleman, too.

Though I'm looking to opening presents on Christmas morning, me and the entire family are looking forward to traveling home to Shreveport on the California Zephyr.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Laguna, N-U Plays a Mud Bowl

I am coming out with an article about this, but did you see all the muck Laguna Creek and Nevada Union played in on Halloween night? They looked like extras for the movie Leatherheads. I'd have to agree with Joe Davidson of the "Bee" ... it is embarrassing for an Elk Grove School District facility to be in this kind of shape.

We're not playing football like they did in the 1940s. This is the age of turf, like it or not.  

My story in the Citizen will quote an assistant superintendent who says there will be one or two of the EGUSD facilities which will be playing on turf by opening kickoff in 2009. 

But, we need to take issue with the fact there is little or no maintenance on the facilities right now and school athletic directors are being told to keep their hands off the fields.  Lots of parents/fans have offered to take care of the fields, but have been told, "no."

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Hosting a Forum on EGCitizen.Com

Pretty soon I will be hosting a forum on the Elk Grove Citizen's website, www.egcitizen.com. I've already posted something there I'd like fan feedback on for use in an eventual story.

For all the money and support our local high school football programs get in this area, our facilities are really poor. Look at the conditions on the fields at Elk Grove and Sheldon high schools. Someone left the sprinklers on earlier this week at Sheldon and it was virtually all under water. Pleasant Grove and Sheldon play there Friday. Let's hope it dries out.

There is talk about replacing everything with artificial turf, but in the meantime does anyone in the maintenance department know how to keep an athletic surface in good shape? Or do they care? Seems to me safety should be a big issue to the school district.

Leave me your comments at EGCitizen.Com.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Nill Family

Here is a story I wrote recently for the Elk Grove Citizen. It's about Coach Mark Nill, head football coach at Laguna Creek High School. I think he's having fun this year. One, his team is good, but more importantly, he's coaching his youngest son, Sean, a good defensive player and his oldest son, Ryan, is one of his assistant coaches:

Mark Nill is in the enviable position of being able to coach his sons in football at the high school varisty level. Not very many dads can say they've been able to do that.

And, you cannot accuse Nill of playing daddy-ball, either. Both sons have been and are outstanding high school football players.

Ryan was Laguna Creek High School's middle linebacker and an offensive lineman in 2004 and 2005. Sean was the only junior on the All-Metro football team last season. And, already this season, opposing offenses look to see where #55 is lined up before calling the cadence. Opponents admit they run away from Sean.

In fact, Elk Grove coach Dave Hoskins last season called Nill the best defensive player in the Delta Valley Conference. Last week, Sheldon coach Ed Lombardi complimented Nill, too.

“Nill is one of the best defensive linemen our offensive linemen will ever see,” Lombardi said.

The family trio are together this season on the Cardinal football field. After Ryan is finished with his classes at Sac State (he's not playing football anymore), he drives back to Big Horn Blvd and serves as his dad's linebacker coach.

Mark is enjoying this season because of this. It's the one opportunity to have a son in uniform on the team he coach and have his other son alongside of him on the sidelines, before Sean likely heads to college and perhaps more football there.

“He's probably going to be an English major, “ Mark said.

Schools such as Sac State and Weber State have really been after Sean to play for them next fall. The only factor against Nill may be his size, something his dad admits.

“We just have to see, “ Mark said. “You can be a real good high school football player, but whether that translates to the next level, you can only hope.”

Ryan really thinks his brother will succeed in college. “He's smart, he's nasty, he's just one hell of a player.”

“I think his knowledge of the game will make for his lack of size,” Ryan continued. “I know when he's talking to colleges the heighth thing comes out. Dad didn't exactly help out in that part of the thing.”

Sean is listed at six-feet tall, 225 pounds.

But, having both Ryan and Sean with him is special. “I think it's awesome,” he said. “Ryan went down south to play football last year and it didn't work out, plus he missed his brother's junior year, so he wanted to come back home. He wanted to coach and we brought him on to help with the O-line and handle the linebackers and he's really good at it. It may be something he may want to do as a career, we'll just see.”

Mark admits that there have been some challenges to coaching his boys at the high school level. “Maybe the hardest thing is to remember when you get in the car to head home, you're now Dad and not Coach,” he said. “When you try to do that communication is a lot better, but we've had our challenges.”

“Sean and Ryan are a lot different, “ he continued. “They are both the kind of kids that are coaches on the field, because they've been around it their whole lives. But, they are different types of players. Ryan was real cerebral. Sean's got a motor that never stops. He plays the same from start to finish.”

Ryan says being around his dad for this long has taught him what it takes to be successful as a coach.
“I now understand now all the things he was saying to me when I was playing for him,” he said. “It's a bit of a humbling experience to play and then coach in the same program. I wish I could have maybe one more year to play now that I understand all the things from a coaching perspective.”

He sees that he has a special role as a coach especially since he's just a few years older than the players. “I think I understand that most of the players want to do more than just football, whereas some of the older coaches just talk football all the time,” he said. “I think I can relate to the guys in a special way.”

And it's fun for Ryan this season, too. “My dad's an awesome coach and it's great to be on the sidelines with him”

Sean doesn't seem to mind having both dad and older brother coaching him. “I've been playing football since I've been a little kid, so I'm used to the fact that football doesn't stop in our house,” he said. “Sure we talk about other things, but we all love football in our home.”

He says there are some advantages to being the coach's son in high school. “I do get to see the game film before anyone else and we go over it together, but otherwise I'm just like anyone else on the team,”

And, he loves the fact his brother is now a coach, too. “My brother is a genius at football, “ Sean said. “He's one of the smartest X's and O's persons I've been around. He helps me with the whole mental part of it.”

And the youngest Nill says his dad is a great coach. “He's a great motivator and has been a great father-figure to lots of players, not just me. And if he wasn't my dad, he'd still be a father-figure to me because that's how he coaches.”

All the Nills agree that the disappointment of the past two weeks, losses against Pleasant Grove and Sheldon, can be forgotten this Friday if they pull off a win over Jesuit.

“The big difference this season was that we took the ball away from Florin and Vacaville and we gave the ball to Pleasant Grove and Sheldon,” Mark summarized. “We lost the turnover battle (the past two games) and it showed up on the scoreboard.”

“We've got to be more disciplined as a football team altogether, “ Ryan added.

Sean said the losses have been just minor potholes in the season. “Our goal is still to play 14 games, no matter what, “ he said. “It's got us more focused than anything. We will go out this Friday and play the game we played the first two weeks.”

So, whether both boys follow in dad's footsteps remains to be seen. “Ryan appears to have a knack (for coaching),” Mark said. “Sean, it's too early to say. It's going to be up to him. Maybe it may be right for him. Maybe he'll be on Broadway one day, Who knows?”

For Sean, he's got a few more songs to sing on a high school football field.

-- 30 --

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Nixon Hired, Guy Won't Talk

What I have below is another column that I wrote for the Elk Grove Citizen that pretty well describes what happened in the hiring fiasco of a new football coach at Elk Grove High School. The truth needs to be told before we can put a lid on this story. Congrats, though, to Chris Nixon for being hired the Herd Football coach!

Here's the column:

After the seven-month-long soap opera called “One Coach To Hire” ( the Elk Grove take-off on One Life To Live), you’d figure the woman playing the role of Susan Lucci’s character would want to have the last say before we put away our hankies and begin to follow our local spring sports teams into the playoffs.

But, as wacky as the winter and spring has been for those who bleed blue and gold, having the principal of the Thundering Herd basically refuse to answer the questions Elk Grove football fans want to know shouldn’t be all that surprising.

The purpose of calling and emailing Catherine Guy earlier this week was to offer her a public forum to explain why the Elk Grove Unified School District’s Human Resources Department pulled rank and rescinded the hiring of Carlos Meraz, the man Guy wanted to coach the varsity football team. Then the Citizen wanted to give her the opportunity to explain why the man Human Resources hired, Chris Nixon, never even got an interview during her coaches’ search earlier this year, despite his excellent football coaching resume and the fact he’s a teacher at Feikert Elementary School.

Ms. Guy and I played phone tag for a couple days this week before we talked Tuesday afternoon. She asked that I not record our phone interview which I do because of the ethical necessity of quoting exactly those to whom I talk when working on a story.

I told her the intention of this story was to be a “Q & A” format which my questions would be printed word-for-word and her answers printed word-for-word. I think all Thundering Herd fans, and for that matter, any local sports fan deserves the right to know:

1.Are you relieved EGHS finally has a new football coach? How has the news of Mr. Nixon being selected as the new coach been received by the players and parents?

2. Looking back over the past seven months, what should have been done differently?

3. When were you informed that a mistake had been made by hiring Mr. Meraz, and if you can, tell me what transpired the past month?

4. Were you aware of the regulation in the (California Educational Code) which basically overruled your hiring of Mr. Meraz? If not, when did you become aware of the regulation?

5. When Mr. Hoskins resigned/retired last fall, was it your intention to bring someone from the outside to replace him?

6. When were you personally aware of Carlson's status as an assistant football coach, according to his coaching stipend contract? Did you think all along he was on the same level as Mr. Hoskins (a head varsity coach), as Mr. Carlson has claimed?

7. Jake Messina, the defensive coordinator at Merced High School, has written me and has also put a posting on an Internet website, norcalpreps.com, that he was offered the job prior to Meraz, but turned you down because he was not guaranteed a teaching job. Is this true?

8. Has this incident shown Elk Grove how big Thundering Herd football is to this community?

9. What steps are you taking to mend fences between school administration and the football program?

I’m not a pushy guy, ask my wife and those who know me. But, I’m not afraid to ask the right questions, the questions that ,objectively, people who have given of their time, efforts and money to Herd Football really should be told.

Guy asked me to email her those questions and she’d respond. Early Wednesday (after the deadline) I got my response:

Thank you for giving me the opportunity to address your questions
regarding the football coaching situation at Elk Grove High School. I
appreciate your willingness to give me the "last word" as we move
forward with a program that helps to represent the proud legacy of Elk
Grove High School for generations of families in our community.

I am of course pleased to have the coaching situation resolved and am
encouraged by the enthusiasm that has greeted Coach Nixon. While
reaching our goal has not been without challenges, it is important to
remember that the best interests of Elk Grove High School and its
students, family members, alumni and community have always been foremost in our considerations.

The rules and regulations we work under are designed to create the best
environment for our students and for the success of our academic
mission. From start to finish, the hiring process involving the Elk
Grove football program was conducted within the spirit of our mission,
and while there was a misstep along the way, I believe the process
ultimately worked in the best interest of the students, community and

The football program at Elk Grove High School is important on many
levels. There is an educational component, but there are deeply held
community interests as well. It is this intensity of community loyalty
surrounding our school and athletic programs that makes Elk Grove High
School so unique. Thanks to the hard work, spirit and understanding of
many people, the Thundering Herd's legacy will endure.

Did I expect an answer to all my questions? Maybe not. She probably cannot answer #6 and #7 and maybe, #3, but she could have at least replied, “No Comment.”

But, Thundering Herd fans are due the answer to #4. In talking this week to coaches and faculty throughout the school district, not just at EGHS, everyone continues to question, “Someone, whether it’s Guy, (athletic director Pete) Archerda or (District Athletic Director Jim) Smerker, should have known you cannot offer a coaching position to someone outside the school district without first offering it to a qualified candidate within the district?” A mis-step?

This story has received more reader feedback on EGCitizen.com than anything else, except for a recent story I did about Jolene Henderson and the Sheldon Lady Huskies softball team marching through the Delta River League … and it’s mainly Elk Grove and Sheldon softball fans doing some trash talking in our comment section.

But, emotions have run high inside Room P-61 and the Herd weightroom. Maybe this soap opera won’t be over with this episode. There may be another chapter to “One Coach To Hire” to be written this summer following the conclusion of the academic year.