By Bill Paterson
Today is one of the most enjoyable of the year for Burbank High School football coach John Heffernan.
It's National Signing Day.
So even though Heffernan has won his share of games and a couple of Metro Conference titles - the Titans beat Grant in 2007 to win the school's first league championship in 40 years - and righted what once was a struggling football program, the biggest victory for the nine-year head coach comes when his players land college athletic scholarships. That opens doors to a world beyond their sometimes troubled South Sacramento neighborhoods.
"The championships are great, the wins are great, the rings are nice but as long as we can play football the right way and get kids out of here, then we feel we're doing our job," said Heffernan whose Titan teams have gone 46-25 over the last six seasons and 26-4 in their last five seasons in the Metro.
At 3:30 p.m. today in the library at Burbank, multi-position standout Tu'uta Inoke and defensive tackle T.J. Poloai will sign NCAA national letters of intent in front of family, friends, teammates and faculty.
Inoke, who can play quarterback, fullback or linebacker, will sign with Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo. Poloai will try to help Washington State rebuild in the powerful Pac-10.
"This is huge for us," Heffernan said. "We really like acknowledging their accomplishments. More importantly, it lets the young kids see that this can happen at Burbank, that it's just not kids at Grant or Folsom getting scholarships."
Inoke, who who rushed for 1,653 yards and 19 touchdowns and passed for 1,097 yards and eight touchdowns, was the Metro Conference Most Valuable Player and a Bee All-Metro second team selection this season.
He maintains a 3.5 grade-point average and is an outgoing, personable leader who likely will get a shot at playing quarterback at Cal Poly despite playing the position for little more than two seasons in high school. But Cal Poly also has a similar run-oriented option-style veer attack to that of Burbank.
"His big advantage is that he's done all the triple option reads," Heffernan said. "His biggest weakness is his accuracy throwing the ball."
Heffernan said the 6-foot-1, 205-pound Inoke could be a better fit and likely get on the field quicker as a fullback.
"He's a heck of a runner," Heffernan said.
Poloai may have an even better chance of getting on the field right away at Washington State. The Metro Conference Lineman of the Year and Bee All-Metro first team selectee is college strong at 6-foot-1 and 275 pounds. But it's his quickness makes his special, Heffernan said.
"He's the most explosive kid we've had for his size in a long time," Heffernan said. "He's got a tremendous burst off the ball."
Poloai, who had 73 tackles and eight sacks last fall, took his recruiting trip to Pullman, Wash., with Grant linebacker Darryl Paulo, who signed this morning with the Cougars.
They knew each other from before but quickly developed a close bond, Heffernan said. It helps that former Burbank assistant Dave Lose is on the Washington State staff as a student assistant coach.
"They hung out together the whole time on the trip," Heffernan said. "That's going to make the transition a little easier. T.J. also liked that the team had a real close-knit family-type feel."
Inoke and Poloai are the latest among at least 12 Burbank players that have gone on to play at four-year schools in the past six years, with several first taking the community college route at the College of San Mateo, Heffernan's former school.
Among the other college Titans: Defensive back Terrance Mitchell at Oregon; defensive end Anthony Larry at Eastern Washington; safety Eddie Elder at Arizona State; safety Terrence Simien at Louisville; and wide receiver-punter returner Kiare Thompson of Grambling State, who recently completed his senior season and played in the HBCU All-Star Game.
Others who have played or are still playing are wide receiver Francisco Ragsdale (C.W. Post, now coaching at Burbank), defensive linemen Tony Finau and Raymond Lewis (New Mexico Highlands), and tackle Kameron Edwards (Lamar University, Beaumont, Texas).
Heffernan expects two others, quarterback Miles Freeman and defensive back Lucky Dozier of San Mateo, to move on to four-year schools.