At first, the Long Beach Poly (Calif.) football players weren't all that enthused.
"The first thing they said was, 'Aw, man, we have to sell some more tickets?' " Jackrabbits coach Raul Lara said.
Long Beach Poly has long been an athletic powerhouse in California. With state championship teams in most sports the Jackrabbits have been in the national spotlight of high school sports. Check out the photo gallery including Poly grad Willie McGinest and numerous other NFL players who are not yet in the Poly Hall of Fame.
Now, though, the fundraising is over, the tickets to the event have been sold and the Poly football Hall of Fame is in place. Now, when quarterback Morgan Fennell thinks about the permanent home for the best of Poly's past football players, about how 12 former Jackrabbits were inducted this summer into the inaugural class of the Hall of Fame, he thinks: Yeah, this is pretty cool.
"I think it's pretty big," said Fennell, who's returning for his senior season. "It reminds us of where we're all coming from and the guys we're following behind. When people think of Poly, they think of a tradition of champions. It's a motivation type thing. It's like, 'Wow, Willie McGinest went here. I could be doing the same thing.' "
Sure, it's a motivating factor for his current players, Lara said. But it's also about pride for the school. Even if an NFL player such as McGinest actually hasn't been inducted yet, pride in the current – and former – players only can help the program.
"What's so funny is that when the committee started announcing there would be a Hall of Fame, we had a lot of letters that came back to us that said, 'What about this guy and what about that guy?' " Lara said. "There's a lot of pride that came out of this. The guys that were inducted, they were shocked when they got their letterman's jacket. When you win the Masters, you get a green jacket. Now, these guys are bragging about their Hall of Fame jackets. Now, everybody wants one.
"It's going to be something that will go on for a long time. We did something here that was really good – not only does it recognize our past players, but it helps our program in the future."
Whether it helps this season's team remains to be seen. What definitely would help the Jackrabbits this season is more of an emphasis on offense.
Last season, during its four-game playoff run to the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) – Southern Section Pac-5 championship, Poly's defense allowed only 24 points. In its final two contests – including a 2-0 victory against Orange Lutheran in the semifinals – the Jackrabbits didn't allow a touchdown.
Earl MCullouch Drafted by the Lions, McCullouch won the NFL Rookie of the Year award in 1968.
Sam Dimas After being injured in battle, Dimas was the coach at Poly for nearly forty years.
Willie Brown Played for the Rams and Chargers in the NFL. Was also drafted to play pro baseball.
Gene Washington Played nine seasons with the 49ers and is now the NFL's Director of Football Operations.
Dee Andrews A former Cowboy, Andrews was a two sport star at Poly excelling in track.
Bill Jessup Another multisport star Jessup played in the AFL, CFL and NFL.
Don Norford Assistant coach Norford has produced more NFL players than any other high school coach.
Tony Hill Played ten seasons for the Dallas Cowboys, leading them in receptions and yards in eight of those ten years.
Mark Carrier Set an NFL rookie record with 10 interceptions and won the Rookie of the Year award in 1990.
Marquez Pope A ten-year veteran of the NFL, Pope played for all four California teams in his career.
Brian Tuliau Teamed with Carrier at Poly and USC. While at Poly the team did not allow a touchdown until the last game of the season.
Kirk Jones A punishing runner who lead Poly to three CIF championships in the early 1980s.
But they've lost their entire secondary to Division I-A schools. Though they return their starting linebacker corps, Fennell knows he and his offensive teammates have to pick up the slack.
"We want to take a load off our defense's back," said Fennell, whose team wasn't selected to play for a state championship last season despite its CIF section title. "We want to share the load. You put points on the board, you win games.
"Last year in the playoffs, the defense shut down teams, all these big, strong teams. We just didn't help out. When games are 2-0, that wasn't a game. We didn't know what that was. We made it harder on ourselves. There were times when we just didn't execute. That's what it comes down to. We got down the field, but we didn't finish. We get down to the 20-yard line and then mistakes would happen."
Fennell hopes to correct those mistakes this season. Although Lara said the receivers and the offensive line are inexperienced, three running backs - all of whom started at some point in 2007 - will help the offense.
That unit, Lara said, certainly will need to be better because the defense isn't quite as experienced as last season. Although Poly returns six starters on defense, some high-profile defenders, including Vaughn Telemaque (who signed with Miami) and Jurrell Casey (a USC signee), are gone.
"On paper, you think the offense is going to do better than last year," Lara said. "But you never know in high school until you put the pads on. I hope the offense does a lot better. But defensively we're going to be very good again. Are we going to be as good? I don't see Vaughn Telemaque and Jurrell Casey out there. These new guys have to prove it to themselves."
They'll have to do it fast. The Jackrabbits open the season by traveling to play Miami Northwestern, one of the top prep programs in the country. But Poly is used to playing early season games against the nation's best. The Jackrabbits did it last season, beating Cleveland Glenville, and they've also traveled to Washington and Hawaii to face top squads.
And who knows? Perhaps Poly will advance to a state title game this season, win it and provide the Hall of Fame with more players it'll have to consider.
"The current players that actually went to the Hall of Fame banquet – they came out astonished," Lara said. "They'd say, 'Wow, there is a lot of history at Poly.' When you see these players and the path they've taken, I think they went out there and were like, 'Man, I'd like to be one of these guys.' "