By STEVE MAYBERRY | [url=http://www.LaJollaLight.com]http://www.LaJollaLight.com[/url]
A small army of La Jolla High School students, coaches, trainers, teachers, sheriffs, parents and fans will be flying to Cuba this summer.
The ostensible purpose is to play a pre-season exhibition game between La Jolla and San Diego’s Bonita Vista High School varsity football teams.
However, parents hope to expose their children to a foreign culture, and others view the trip as a last chance to see Cuba under the waning rule of Fidel Castro, who took power in 1959, which was not coincidentally the last year an American-style football game was played in the country.
The trip has required substantial organization and initiative. Several dozen football parents formed communications, documents, logistics, fund-raising, gifting, and other committees. The most immediate goal was to raise an estimated $72,000, enough money to pay the way for whichtever players could not otherwise afford to make the trip.
“The reason we set it there is we didn’t want to leave any kids home,” said Chuck Millenbah, father of player C. J. Millenbah, who presides over the organizational meetings. “We don’t want to leave any of the coaches home, either.”
Seats are still available for anyone willing to pony up the cost of the trip: $1,200.
“It’s a helluva deal,” said Millenbah.
Planning and fund-raising began back in 2002, but has only recently hit its stride.
“The fund-raising basically got off the ground in April, with Ryan Hill and his restaurant Don Carlos,” said Kate Potter, co-chair of the fund-raising committee, and mother of current junior Patrick McDowell.
On the first Wednesdays in April and May, Hill donated 25 percent of his profits and all the day’s tips to the team, and he will do so again on June 4.
The fund-raising committee is working with Current Affairs bookstore in North Park to host a celebrity book-signing on June 28 at Torrey Pines Christian Church, potentially headlining Carol Channing. Although it is difficult to know exactly where the fund-raising currently stands, all the organizers fully expect to achieve their fund-raising objectives.
Potter estimates that the school needs to raise only another $10,000.
The organizers are also looking for in-kind donations to use as cultural exchanges. Lucky Cuban spectators will receive more than 500 regulation and mini-footballs, donated by Fotoball USA. Organizers are also looking for soccer and baseball equipment to give out to Cuban children during the trip.
Two La Jolla High School teachers accompanying the group plan to brief the students and their families about Cuban culture, identify historical sites to be visited, and give the group an overview of Cuban history.
The teachers also hope to bring back some of the insights from the trip to the staff and students who were not able to travel with them.
The idea to bring students to Cuba originated with Dan Hodges, a Bonita Vista football coach, who had traveled there several times. Hodges, together with Bonita Vista High School principal Ram-n Leyba and La Jolla High School principal Dana Shelburne, regularly organizes annual summer trips for students. When he had the idea to bring students to Cuba, Hodges naturally turned to long-time traveling partner Shelburne to see if the Vikings would be interested in going along.
Despite the unfamiliarity of American-style football, Cuban interest in the game is said to be high. Organizers have been told that the 9,000-seat stadium has already sold out. For the players, the opportunity to play for a packed stadium, in front of many people who will be seeing American-style football for the first time, is a potential highlight.
But most parents are obviously planning for more than a high school football game. Many hope to expose their apolitical teen-agers to another culture and a very different way of life. Others are seizing on the chance to see what they increasingly view as a historical relic: Cuba as ruled by Fidel Castro, now 76.
“It’s an interesting time in the history of Cuba, and it will be interesting for all of us to have a look at Cuba under Castro,” said Susan Jones, member of the communications committee and mother of football player Chris Jones. She predicts that Cuba will soon be moving beyond the Castro era, “and it will be interesting to have a point of reference.”
Potter sees the game as a chance to help open up the secluded Cuban culture.
“Maybe it’s a little too idealistic,” said Potter. “But who knows, maybe this game will pull these countries together.”
The Vikings and Barons and their respective entourages will leave San Diego by bus Aug. 30, and fly AeroMexico from Tijuana to Havana, connecting in Cancun. The teams will return to Tijuana on Sept. 7.