Deuce Lutui got an unexpected lift at his Valley home last October.
Still reeling from the death of his father, the Arizona Cardinals offensive guard opened the door to find the entire Mesa High School football team standing on his doorstep in their jerseys.
As Lutui rubbed the sleep from his eyes, the Jackrabbits broke out a decidedly baritone version of "Carry On," the school’s fight song.
"It was awesome," Lutui said.
And it reinforced his love for his alma mater.
"They’re not just a football team to me," Lutui said. "They’re family."
It’s been an unexpectedly good year for the family. First, the Jackrabbits football team upset its way to the Class 5A-I state championship game before falling to Chandler Hamilton. Now the winter sports teams are threatening to bring home multiple titles.
As of Wednesday, Mesa’s wrestling team was ranked No. 2 in the Arizona Republic’s 5A-I poll, while the boys basketball and boys soccer teams were both No. 4.
Heady stuff for any school, but a full-fledged renaissance for Mesa when you consider the perception, or misperception, that dogged the school for more than a decade. In the early 1990s, Mesa was a football power, producing NFL talent and winning state titles in 1990 and 1992 under controversial coach Jim Rattay.
But as Arizona’s population boomed, Mesa’s star waned. While the school adjusted to the changing ethnicity of its neighborhoods, the Jackrabbits posted no boys state titles for 12 years and the city’s athletic torch was passed to Mountain View.
"The demographics have changed. There’s no denying that," said 14-year boys soccer coach, T.J. Hagen. "There’s a much higher percentage of Hispanics and Latinos, and within those communities comes a greater responsibility for holding jobs and taking care of family instead of putting in extra practice time.
"We’re land-locked, too, so we don’t have new growth and shiny new facilities to attract the rich kids that are moving into the outlying neighborhoods."
Almost overnight, Mesa was tagged an inner-city school that would never regain its glory. But the Jackrabbits didn’t fret over the changing landscape. They embraced it.
"I had the opportunity to go to Mountain View because my mom and dad are divorced and my dad lives in Mountain View’s boundaries," Mesa football and soccer player Tyler Ryan said. "But I chose Mesa High because the diversity is what I love. I’ve always grown up with different cultures – always had Mexican friends, so I’d feel out of place at Mountain View."
Football coach Kelley Moore took that notion one step further when he took the job three years ago. Moore reached out to Mesa’s diverse community, promising them "two and half hours of the best entertainment possible" in exchange for their support.
"The recession has hit this whole community hard," Moore said. "We’re great, cheap entertainment. For five bucks you can scream and yell and not worry about how you’re going to pay your bills for a couple hours."
Moore’s team gave the fans plenty to scream about this season. Despite a realignment plan that placed Mesa in the state’s best region, the Fiesta, the Jackrabbits played everyone but Hamilton to the wire. And when the state playoffs rolled around, the Jackrabbits settled a few scores on their way to a runner-up finish.
"Maybe history is repeating itself," said Lutui, who played at Mesa from 1999 to 2001. "I’ve gone to their practices. They’re hard working, blue collar kids and the coach is teaching them a whole different lesson than any I’ve ever seen. It’s more than just character and hard work. It’s about helping and being a part of their community."
Mesa is not without challenges. Three players on Hagen’s team last year had babies, and Hagen just lost his leading scorer, Miguel Gutierrez, to academic ineligibility for the third time in the past three seasons.
Boys basketball coach Shane Burcar has had players whose home lives were so bad they were forced to live elsewhere.
Still, Burcar can’t imagine working anywhere else.
"I wouldn’t survive at another school. I need the tough kids," he said. "People with money have more opinions and they think they have more power, but the parents we have are pretty respectful and, if things don’t go the way they like, at the end of the day they’re not trying to get me fired."
Purple and gold may be Mesa’s colors, but the campus boasts far more shades of the visible spectrum
"It doesn’t matter if you’re white, black, brown or yellow, and we believe that’s the way it’s supposed to be," Moore said. "The world is not one color, one salary, one anything. Instead of those differences being things that hold us back, they hold us together."
Craig Morgan is a freelance writer who has covered professional, college and high school sports in the Phoenix area for the past 17 years. He currently serves as the Phoenix correspondent for CBSSports.com, covering the Arizona Cardinals, Phoenix Suns and other pro and college teams in Arizona. He also writes a weekly column and other features for The Arizona Republic. You can reach him at email@example.com.