Sunday, Sept. 15, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Jeff Eskin wasn’t going to let this souvenir out of his grasp.
As the last seconds ticked off the clock in Valley High School’s 1969 state championship game victory, the quarterback Eskin held tight to the football and eventually placed it in his helmet for safekeeping during the celebration. The ball has become one of his most prized possessions, partially because of Eskin’s unmatched love for Valley and because of the seemingly impossible odds his Vikings overcame to beat Wooster for the title.
Entering the 1969 season, Valley had won five games in five years of existence and sported an ugly 0-15 conference record. Even worse, they had no home field.
“I have had (the football) ever since, 50 years,” Eskin, proudly holding the ball, told a group of current Valley players last week. “We’ve passed it around at all of our reunions. A lot of good hands have been on that ball.”
Eskin made sure those good hands also included members of the current Valley team. He visited campus to speak with the modern-day Vikings, who also face long odds for a successful season. The obstacles of an inner-city program, most notably a lack of participation, have led to consecutive losing seasons. Things got worse in August when the Clark County School District determined the turf home field was unplayable, forcing the Vikings to practice on the outfield grass of the baseball field and play exclusively road games.
Eskin stressed to players the significance the ball had in his life, passing it to them and asking a simple question of each teenager receiving the pass: “What’s your goal for the season?” One by one, they spoke from the heart, some giving the obvious answer of reaching the playoffs, and others with a response more fitting for the program’s struggles — become eligible to play or developing a stronger team bond.
In some ways, the 1969 Vikings and the 2019 Vikings have much in common. Both programs entered the season with little expectations from outsiders, both lacked a field and, most important, both featured teens hungry for a memorable high school experience.
That’s something Eskin made sure the players realize. We are all Vikings, in good times and bad, he emphasized.
“We were so proud of this school,” Eskin said. “We really felt we had the best school in the state.”
Las Vegas, long before our population boom, featured just a handful of high schools, all of whom enjoyed various levels of success. But most of the athletic programs at these schools — whether it’s Chaparral, Western, Rancho or Valley — are a shell of their former selves. The school gym has plenty of championship banners prominently featured that serve as a reminder of the winning ways of yesteryear, but those reminders work best with a reenforcement. That’s what makes Eskin’s visit significant.
There’s a group of Valley — or Chaparral, or Western and Rancho — graduates who are cheering from a distance. They are checking scores or attending a random game, they speak proudly to their children or grandchildren about their alma mater, and would be willing to help, if only asked.
We need more graduates like Eskin, who went out of his way to coordinate the meeting with Valley players. And when he got that meeting, he delivered — telling players that he believed in them and was proud of them. He also brought plenty of photos and newspaper clips documenting the championship season.
“Time passes fast — I hope you enjoy the opportunity to play for this school,” he told them. “I certainly did.”
Valley has dropped its initial three games, meaning there’s a chance some players could lose interest in the season's prospects. But to coach Quincy Burts’ credit, he’s kept the players engaged. They are a pass completion or two from at least one win, and still have an entire conference season to play, he repeatedly has stressed.
When you consider that three of the four teams in the 3A Sunset League reach the postseason, Valley has a legitimate chance to play in meaningful games later in the season.
Don’t overlook the impact of the history lesson from Eskin. It’s exactly what Burts and Principal Ramona Esparza envisioned.
“It was great to hear the background of Valley High School and how they were road warriors,” Burts said. “The biggest message is that chemistry and how they stuck together. It is huge, huge.”