Saturday, Sept. 9, 2006 | Dave Ponsford, football coach and U.S. history teacher at La Jolla High, patrols the sidelines once again for the Vikings’ traditional Saturday afternoon football home opener. It’s safe to assume, though, Ponsford’s mind is more clearly focused on today’s game plan than five years ago.
Then, the traditional game was played just five days after the 9/11 terrorists attacks on New York, Washington, D.C., and the sky over Pennsylvania.
The 9/11 tragedy hit La Jolla High harder than most campuses because the Vikings lost a distinguished alumnus, Brent Woodall. Ponsford was an assistant coach when Woodall was a three-sport athlete and scholar at the school who went on to play football and baseball at Cal and pitched two years in the Chicago Cubs’ minor-league system.
At the time of La Jolla’s game in 2001, Woodall was listed as missing but presumed dead. He was a 31-year-old stockbroker working on the 89th floor of the World Trade Center the morning of the attacks.
He had called his parents, John and Mary, who still reside in La Jolla but are in New York this weekend for events recognizing the dark anniversary, to say he was OK after the first plane hit the other WTC tower. He called again to say he was getting out after the second tower he was working in had been hit.
The last he was heard from was a call to his pregnant wife, Tracy, telling her he had made it down to the 87th floor but was trapped with others trying to get through a door to a stairwell. Pierce Ashley Woodall was born seven months later.
The nation had a heavy heart that week, but La Jolla and other San Diego high schools played football games over the weekend. Ponsford feels as strongly now as he did then that playing the game was the right thing to do.
“There is no doubt in my mind that Brent would have wanted us to play that game,” Ponsford said. “Brent was a focused and tenacious player. I think he would have been upset that terrorists had been able to disrupt our society. He wouldn’t want us to give in to them.”
Five years later I don’t wonder if today’s high school and college students have given in to the terrorists. I wonder if they give 9/11 any thought or feel their lives are impacted by the tragic turn in history.
Three to four decades ago students protested the Vietnam War because the draft made it a very real part of their future. I remember my uncle, for whom I’m named, serving in Vietnam as a Colonel in the Marines. After he had seen enough of the quagmire during his tour, he wrote to my dad, telling him to send my older brother to Canada if that’s what it took to keep him out of the military during Vietnam.
But in today’s volunteer military, Afghanistan and Iraq don’t seem to merit much debate among most high school or college students. It’s someone else’s war, usually poorer classes of students who see the military as an avenue to education and a way to pull themselves up the socio-economic ladder by the boot strap.
At La Jolla, though, Ponsford believes a legendary athlete’s legacy personalizes the 9/11 tragedy more than on most campuses. In June, La Jolla’s Travis “Moose” Halperin received the fifth annual Brent Woodall Memorial Award that includes a $1,500 scholarship.
“A lot of people don’t relate to 9/11 event in the same way because they don’t know someone who was killed,” said Halperin, a three-sport athlete who is continuing his education and baseball career at Claremont McKenna College. “Brent Woodall was a person to look up to on our campus and someone you hear about a lot. He brings realness to the tragedy that may be lacking for some people.”
As a history teacher, Ponsford said 9/11 is just now making its way into history textbooks for students.
“We talk about world affairs in my classes and sometimes that’s 9/11,” he said. “I suppose as long as there are old fogies around like me who knew Brent, kids at La Jolla are going to hear about 9/11 more than at most schools. There is a tie that makes it hit home.”
Ponsford explains he often tells his football players about Woodall when a former student or player stops by practice.
“I’ll talk about Brent to the kids and what kind of player he was,” Ponsford said. “I don’t believe in using something like that to fire up and motivate my team, but when a former player stops by practice, I’ll introduce him to the kids. I also tell the kids that a few of the players, like Brent, aren’t coming back.”
A plaque in the school’s main office memorializes Woodall and lists each recipient of the award. But even before 9/11, Ponsford used a teaching tool that made his history students aware of previous generations of La Jolla students who faced world conflicts and wars.
Once the history book turns the pages to World War II, he tells them he’s taking them on a field trip. They perk up at the idea of leaving campus, but he merely takes them on a short walk to the main office. There, he shows them a plaque with the names of La Jolla High alumni who died serving their country in World War II.
“The kids have all been in the main office before, but most of the time they don’t pay attention to the plaque,” Ponsford said. “I bring them back to the classroom and I tell them that those guys were sitting in classrooms on this campus in 1939 or 1942, and they had the same kind of wants and concerns that kids have today. But life gave them a different direction.”
As La Jolla plays its traditional Saturday afternoon football home opener, today’s students may not understand 9/11 as well as they did five years ago when a picture of Brent Woodall graced the football field’s entrance gate. As a sportswriter, I knew Brent as a great athlete and a good guy. His picture and the events hit me hard that day.
Regardless of political opinions of whether we should be in Iraq, I wonder if other American students understand the impact of 9/11 as they do at La Jolla.