SAN JOSE -- Anthony Santa Cruz wasn't the best player on the San Jose High championship football team last fall. But that didn't matter to coach Darrell Williams.

He saw a teenager who was escaping the grip of gang life and trying to build a better future -- not only for himself, but also for Santa Cruz's young son. That's why Williams choked back tears as he talked about Santa Cruz, who was stabbed to death near the high school Wednesday afternoon.

"Anthony wanted something different, and that's what makes this so tragic," Williams said, pausing to regain his composure. "He was just a nice young man whom you wanted to be around. I know that it's hard to pull yourself out of that world, but there was not a single threatening thing about his demeanor. He had a beautiful smile that drew people toward him."

Police have not released the name or age of the homicide victim, but the team and friends held a vigil for Santa Cruz at the school Wednesday night. San Jose's fifth homicide of the year occurred about 3:15 p.m. in the 300 block of North 21st Street. Police believe there might have been an altercation just off-campus before the incident, and the killing is being investigated as possibly gang-related.

But Williams said it's important to him that the teen not be defined by the way he died. The coach describes the junior, who was either 16 or 17, as a young person who had gained new focus through fatherhood.


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"We had a lot of time on the sidelines together, and I was just so impressed that he wanted me to meet his son," he said. "He was so proud of him and told me that he was trying to be a real father. He said, 'Coach, there might be times when I'm late because I have to pick him up.' I made concessions because he was trying to do the right thing."

While the coach said they talked often, Santa Cruz never discussed specifics about any prior gang activity. The teen did have, he said, two distinctive scars on the back of his head and had intimated they came from knife wounds.

"He said he had been in a previous fight where he almost lost his life, and that was another reason why he wanted to change," Williams added.

A police spokesman said Wednesday that "a lot" of students had given statements. But Thursday, the police were not releasing any additional information. Paul Higgins, a San Jose Unified School District spokesman, said he could not comment because the police investigation is ongoing.

"But we have stepped up security on campus to have a greater presence and made sure the faculty is being more aware of what's occurring on and off the campus," Higgins said.

Twenty-four hours after the stabbing, police officers stood next to a cruiser parked on campus as students gathered at a makeshift memorial beneath a school sign. There, they placed candles, roses, balloons, rosary beads and personal messages addressed to "Lil Lucky."

"He always had a smile on his face," teammate Isaiah Espinoza said Thursday. "He loved being on the football field and having brothers all around him, and being away from the stuff on the streets. He said he did have a bad past but was trying to get away from that. I just can't believe this happened."

On the football team, Santa Cruz was "small, but quick and very tough," Williams said. "He didn't have any fear." He played primarily on special teams and, the coach said, was noticeable on the field because he wore green cleats, which stood out against the school's colors of cardinal, gray and white.

"When our team gathered at the school, that was one of the things his teammates talked about," Williams added. "We were always joking with him, saying, 'Man we need to get you some different cleats.'"

While being academically eligible to play football hadn't been an issue for Santa Cruz, Williams said he had been working to improve his grades. He also had intended to participate in the team's offseason workouts to prepare for his senior season.

Instead, the team will meet Friday to discuss how best to honor him next fall.

"I know people are saying it's gang-related, but whatever happened, a life was lost," Williams said. "A father, a son, a teammate is gone, and nobody deserves that. Our country loves a good story of change. Why shouldn't Anthony have been any different?"

Contact Mark Emmons at 408-920-5745. Follow him at twitter.com/markedwinemmons.