Verdugo Hills players overcome adversities to shine on the field
Verdugo Hills High quarterback Gage Van Kempen is in the thick of it. Deep in enemy territory on the enemy’s home field, his Dons are being pummeled by the perennial powerhouse El Camino High Conquistadors. Things have not been going well.
By the middle of the third quarter, El Camino has been pushing the Dons all over the field all night, and the score is now 32–0. Van Kempen, a senior, and the Dons are at least looking for a little dignity, as any hope of victory or even revenge diminishes.
Now the Dons are actually knocking on the door, poised on the El Camino 5-yard line.
Leaning into the huddle, Van Kempen calls, “1 Black,” an option running play that calls for the quarterback to scamper to his left, and then either hand the ball off to an accompanying running back, usually Ruben Velasco, or, finding a gap in the line, run it in himself.
At the snap, Van Kempen takes off. He fakes the handoff and can see that the line is swarming with El Camino jerseys. Seeing a tiny gap, he bursts straight through toward the goal line. He emerges 5 yards later in the El Camino end zone. That’s one.
Later, Van Kempen finds Troy Richards in the end zone for another touchdown, making the final a miserable 64–14. But within that loss rings hope.
The team bounced back from that victory, and is currently celebrating a blowout victory against previously undefeated Village Christian, where Van Kempen threw for 4 touchdowns and ran for another.
But just a few weeks before the El Camino game, Van Kempen was caught in a pileup in a scrimmage against La Canada High School. When he pulled himself out, his left hand was fractured. The season had not even officially begun.
It had already been a tough summer for Van Kempen. Last spring his Grandfather Tom passed away. “Grandpa Tom” had been a father figure for Van Kempen, whose own father was long absent. Gage’s mother had passed away when he was 10 years old. Grandpa Tom was dad in the house.
“This was a huge blow to him,” said Head Coach Chad Runnels, “but if you didn’t know this about him, you would have no idea. He just shows up every day and goes to work.”
Now Gage and his brothers are being raised by his grandmother, another deeply devoted fan. (Gage’s younger brother quarterbacks the Verdugo junior varsity team.)
Inspired by the life of his grandfather, Gage set about to be the quarterback his grandfather had always urged him to be.
“He always wanted me to be a quarterback,” said Van Kempen one late afternoon after a recent practice. “I was a receiver before, and he would always ask me when the coach was going to play me at quarterback,” said Gage. “He would have been proud.”
For outside linebacker Nick Safi, a junior, the struggle is just as difficult, if not more so. Young “Safi,” as he prefers to be called, recently had his colon removed, as a result of a hereditary condition. His father, who suffers from the same condition, lies in bed at home, unable to walk, and unable to see his young son play.
Since then, Safi has had a number of hospital stays and procedures, and in his position as outside linebacker on defense, and slot running back on offense, he is in the thick of the action on every play. But his doctors say his prospects are good.
“I’m nervous sometimes,” he said, “but once that whistle blows, I’m in the game, I’m focused and I’m ready. I watch the ball, and if I make a mistake, I keep my head up. I don’t look down.”
His hard work paid off in the team’s victory over John Marshall High (“My best game,” he said), where he had 9 tackles, 3 of them in the backfield.
Asked about any message to students and friends who follow the team and who are aware of his condition, he says, “I feel great. I’m back on my feet again, it’s just incredible for me.”
The late afternoon sun illuminates the face of Mount Lukens, the immediate backdrop to the Verdugo Hills High football field. On the stadium field, defensive Coach Armando “Gonzo” Gonzales, is barking orders at the defense, as Van Kempen and Runnels, a former player at Verdugo himself, run through offensive plays over and over. The players move slowly, gradually building up to the intensity they’ll need Friday night.
Van Kempen patiently runs the offense, concentrating on the instructions, as other players joke and yell at passing girls. No such idiocy for Van Kempen. He has a game to win Friday.
Next up on the schedule is archrival Arleta, as the team begins its official Division 2 league season. Both Gonzales and Runnels are optimistic as the season begins.
“Last year at this time, we were 0–4,” said Runnels. “I think we’ve turned that around, and I think we can contend for the league title this season.”
Any coach’s guarded optimism notwithstanding, it’s safe to say that every game this upcoming season, no matter its outcome, is a huge victory for Gage Van Kempen and Nick Safi.