Emotional triumph: How De La Salle honored late coach with a win

De La Salle rallied to defeat El Cerrito despite the sudden death of defensive line coach Steve Jacoby.

CONCORD — On the most difficult day of the De La Salle football team’s season, a day of tears and mourning the loss of a beloved assistant coach, head coach Justin Alumbaugh kept his pregame speech brief but to the point.

“Do a great man the honor of putting forth a great effort and having fun,” Alumbaugh instructed the players.

The Spartans had a good time on Friday night.

After learning in a morning meeting that defensive line coach Steve Jacoby died unexpectedly on Thursday, De La Salle took the lead just before halftime on a scoop-and-score from one of Jacoby’s players, senior captain Drew Cunningham, and defeated El Cerrito 31-12.

The Spartans were emotional and introspective after the game, remembering a longtime coach who loved being a part of the storied program.

“It was heartbreaking news this morning,” said Cunningham. “It was a very difficult process.” It had been a long day. But our team worked tirelessly throughout the day. We got through it. Everyone expected Coach Jacoby to request that we play this game in his honor. Tonight, we performed for him.”

The way it played out was Jacoby’s style.

De La Salle scored on its first offensive snap, a 60-yard pass from Toa Faavae to a wide-open Johnathan Guerrero, after forcing a three-and-out to begin the night.

As Faavae rolled to his left, looking like he was going to run, he connected with Guerrero for the early lead.

When De La Salle lineman DJ Asiasi forced a fumble late in the half, Cunningham picked up the ball and raced into the end zone, the score was 10-0. The linebacker/edge rusher reflected on the former defensive line coach, who had just turned 61 this week, with each stride.

“That was all him,” Cunningham explained. “God does wonderful things.” I am extremely grateful. That was a play for him.”

Cunningham addressed his teammates during warmups, delivering a firm message that they took to heart right away.

Matthew Johnson and Chris Biller, defensive linemen, took up residence in the backfield, making big play after big play as the Spartans held El Cerrito scoreless until late in the game.

“Coach Jacoby was one of the guys I’ve been with since freshman year,” Johnson, a junior, explained. “He’s one of those guys I grew up with.” Today was a difficult day. Of all the coaches, I’ve spent the most time with him. He was like a brother to us. “I’m proud of my guys for staying together.”

During a morning meeting, Alumbaugh let the players decide whether or not to play Friday night.

The decision was simple.

“We knew immediately that we needed to play,” Johnson said. “That’s exactly what he would have wanted.” He would have loved nothing more than to join us out there. He would have wanted us to play a game like we did today and win.

“We saw some guys that he invested a lot of time in and really wanted to see succeed and do big things for us.” It’s too bad he wasn’t there to witness it. I’m grateful those guys came through. He’d have been pleased.”

After the game, Alumbaugh shed a tear as he remembered his friend, a coach who had been with the De La Salle program since 2006. Jacoby leaves behind two daughters.

“I hadn’t walked out onto the field without him since 2005,” said Alumbaugh. “He was present in spirit.” He’s a well-liked man because he’s a wonderful person. It was a difficult night, but I’m glad our guys got to experience some joy. Our children deserved it, as did Steve.

“I know from on high, he got to watch our boys do what he loved watching them do, which is play a game and play together and enjoy themselves.”

De La Salle and El Cerrito didn’t have a game scheduled until Wednesday. Both programs had teams cancel on them earlier in the week, forcing coaches to scramble for a last-minute opponent.

On Friday morning, El Cerrito was informed of Jacoby’s death and immediately sent condolences via group text.

“We’re praying for the Spartan community and his family,” said coach Jacob Rincon following the game.

Before the national anthem, the crowd at De La Salle’s field was told about the countless Spartans Jacoby had influenced.

“You can’t replace Steve Jacoby,” Alumbaugh said when asked about the coach’s significance to the program. “You cannot replace him as a coach or as a friend.” He brought a lot of heart. He genuinely cared about people.

“It was contagious, and caring for one another is something we try to preach at our school.” I will be eternally grateful for the opportunity to call him a friend.”

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