CONCORD -- The most famous high school football team in the nation never intended to be a school known for its athletic achievements.
De La Salle, responsible for one of the most illustrious winning streaks in the history of sports and the subject of a major Hollywood film opening Friday, "When the Game Stands Tall," experienced minimal football success for nearly a decade. The program struggled to get on its feet.
"It was never built as a sports school; that has developed over the years," said Mark DeMarco, a 1978 graduate of the Catholic all-boys school in Concord, and now its president.
There was no weight room in the early years, a striking contrast for a program now renowned for its offseason training regimen. The school was struggling to keep its doors open and couldn't provide financial support to the football team. Ed Hall, the program's first coach, raised money for bleachers and uniforms by organizing crab feeds, wine tastings and golf tournament fundraisers.
"Otherwise there was no football," Hall said. "There wasn't going to be any money for it."
Members of the offensive line from the inaugural team in 1971, which played as a junior varsity team, averaged about 160 pounds.
And the Christian Brothers who run the school weren't looking for a football mastermind when they hired 24-year-old Bob Ladouceur for the head coaching job after Hall stepped down following the 1978 season.
"They really didn't ask me many football questions at all, they asked me mostly about education, teaching," Ladouceur said. "And I kind of liked that in a way. I didn't feel any pressure to succeed or win. They never put that kind of pressure on me to turn this program around or anything like that. They were more concerned with putting solid people out in front of their kids."
Back then, no one could have predicted that the program would become movie material. It took a long time for football and De La Salle to become synonymous, and that was never the goal.
The program was born several years after De La Salle was founded in 1965, even though the school couldn't afford it and some in the De La Salle community were philosophically opposed to having a football team. Brother Norman Cook, the founding principal who died in 2003 when De La Salle was at the tail end of its national record 151-game winning streak, hired Hall to start the program, partly because the school was beginning to lose prospective students without football.
"(Brother Norman) was insistent," said Hall, who has coached in the area for more than 40 years and now coordinates the defense for Diablo Valley College. "He said 'It's going to be hard, a lot of people don't want it, no money is going to come from the school, it's all going to be fund-raised. But we're going to do it.' ... I was the energy behind it, he was the inspiration and the godfather."
Hall describes those first years as "really hard." But he was enthusiastic and dedicated.
Though he worked full-time for the San Francisco police force, Hall poured hours into starting the program. In addition to coaching duties and organizing fundraisers, Hall practically built the field himself. He and his assistants installed the goal posts, scoreboard and even attempted to assemble the bleachers before handing the job to professionals.
It was all about saving money.
"I'm one of the few people that you could meet who created a 26-hour day in a 24-hour day," Hall said.
On the field, the team was usually small in numbers and size. Hall had a student body of about 400 students to draw from in the early years, and few had previous football experience.
They played on hot Saturday afternoons in front of sparse crowds that consisted mostly of parents.
There were occasional triumphs, but no playoff berths or sustained success.
"Many games we only had like 20 players because of injuries or people missing or whatever," said Patrick Mullen, who played quarterback for the school's first few teams. "Lots of people had to play both ways. It was definitely a challenge for (the coaches), but they were very positive."
The program began to expand, adding a freshman team in 1976.
But Hall was worn out and resigned after a tough 1978 season in which the team won just one game.
When Ladouceur took over the next spring, football was still an afterthought on campus.
"Everybody wanted to play us," remembers Chris Crespi, who was a junior on Ladouceur's first team. "The team was very tight, but we were the perennial doormats. We had no respect. It got to the point where kids didn't want to play."
Crespi and his teammates gave Ladouceur -- who was young enough to be someone's older brother -- a shot. After scoring five touchdowns in a preseason scrimmage, everyone was buying in.
"We would watch him, and he would work his butt off," Crespi said of Ladouceur. "He'd scrounge to get us a weight room and scrounge to get new uniforms. When you see your coach working that hard it kind of makes the team work hard."
The Spartans went 6-3 in Ladouceur's first year. They didn't lose that many games in a season again until 2004, when the winning streak ended.
"The first team had like 28 kids on it, but every year we'd build on the last," said Ladouceur, who stepped down as head coach in 2013 with a career record of 399-25-3. "Ever year I got more and more kids out. Kids started getting interested in it. In my fourth year we won the (North Coast Section) title. It built its own momentum."
Indeed, once the program began to take off, it never slowed down.
"Ed Hall started to build the foundation," DeMarco said. "Bob just took it and took it to the next level."
To a level so high that even Hollywood can't ignore De La Salle football.
Contact Stephanie Hammon at firstname.lastname@example.org.