REEDLEY -- It's a midweek evening here, the Reedley High varsity football team is practicing in the school stadium and adjacent to the facility are 40 little guys doing the same.
They range from kindergartners to second-graders, separated from the varsity not so much by size and skill -- not at this historical time in the community -- but by a green scoreboard topped with a covered panel in the stadium's north end zone.
Today at about 7:20 p.m., before the Pirates' season opener against Dinuba, it will be unveiled: "SAL GONZALEZ FIELD."
And oh, how he will be smiling from above.
"His vision is coming to fruition," Mike Padilla says of the man he followed "blindly."
Padilla is president of Reedley Youth Football, which feeds Reedley High.
Gonzalez was president for more than two decades, along with being a 34-year coach in the organization, before collapsing on this same facility's west sideline and dying shortly after because of a heart problem during an eighth-grade game Oct. 29. He was 53.
He had been the driving force -- "the mastermind," says Isidro Arroyo, a youth coach here -- of a massive overhaul of the community's youth football program.
"It was never about him," Padilla says. "He didn't even have kids. He wasn't running for Congress; he had no personal agenda. His agenda: 'Let's get as many kids playing as possible while getting the program compatible with the school district.'
"He set us on the path and we're just carrying the torch."
That includes Steve Rapada, who coached with Gonzalez for 33 years and raised $76,862 for the scoreboard tribute.
Rapada says donations flowed from throughout the community and even out of state: "Somehow a couple from Colorado who knows nothing about us sent a check for $100.
"Sal was more than about football. It was school first to him. And he and his wife, Diane, also spent thousands of their own dollars to make sure kids ate and had shoes and jackets. That's why he's being honored; he touched so many lives."
Besides the scoreboard dedication, the district's program seventh- and eighth-grade teams will bear on the backs of their jerseys: "SAL OUR PRIDE IS FOREVER."
And not only all of the youth program's players from kindergarten to sixth grade, but the entire league they compete with, including Clovis and Fresno teams, will sport "SG" decals on their helmets.
Today, following a blueprint long executed with success by the Clovis Unified School District, Reedley youth football is structured by grade -- as opposed to age and weight -- from kindergarten through eighth grade. Among many benefits, this has afforded opportunities to play for many above-sized boys who might have been denied by weight limits previously.
In addition, the plan has bonded a youth program and school district that once competed for players while also affiliating the teams with competition from Clovis, Fresno and Madera. Until six years ago, Reedley's youth teams concentrated on competition to the city's south, like from Dinuba, Visalia, Hanford and Lemoore.
And, while the Reedley teams often won championships, the success did not transfer to the high school level.
Reedley High last won an on-field varsity football league title 40 years ago under then-coach Skip Pendergast in the West Yosemite League (the Pirates would win the 2002 North Yosemite League title by forfeit from Edison).
Further, according to Central Section historian Bob Barnett, Reedley has won only seven league championships total in a program that kicked off in 1912 -- yes, 100 years ago.
"Sal was trying to fix the black hole: Reedley youth football generating championship after championship, but then what the hell is going on at the high school?" Padilla says. "Sal was trying to bridge that gap. Some people in the community wanted to stack teams to win championships, but Sal's like, 'It's not about us. We need to develop five quarterbacks for the high school. We need to develop 20 running backs.' So Reedley youth football has gone from a competitive model to a developmental model."
There are positive signs, notably last year, when Gonzalez's eighth-grade team went unbeaten and Reedley High's freshman won an NYL title.
"Slowly," Padilla says, "it's coming; it's working."
And when there are questions, he adds: "It's like those wrist bands -- 'What would Jesus do?' Around here, it's 'What would Sal do?' "