SALINAS — A crowd of more than 100, composed of athletes, coaches and parents from schools throughout the Salinas Valley, gathered in front of Star Market in Salinas as part of a Let Them Play rally in late January.
The statewide series of rallies have called for officials throughout the state to consider a safe return to high school athletics. On Friday, Jan. 29, the Salinas group held up signs and got the attention of drivers passing by the busy intersection, many dressed in their school colors.
“I’m out here to be the voice for the voiceless and encourage our kids and young people to return to sports,” said Art Berlanga, Gonzales High School’s football coach. “If we can make it happen as quickly as possible, I’m for that.”
Berlanga said many states have returned high school sports programs, which have proven that athletics can be carried out in a safe manner.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here, it’s been done,” he added.
The rally was formed by way of community reaction, as Berlanga said he was made aware by numerous coaches and parents who showed him a flier for the event.
“It’s student- and parent-driven,” he said.
Berlanga noted the loss of direction youth face during the endless stay-at-home shutdowns of schools and athletics.
“Mental illness, suicide, obesity and alcohol and drug abuse is all up for kids,” he said. “Sometimes the cure is worse than the actual disease itself.”
Jayden Perez, a Soledad student who plays football at Palma High School, said he and his fellow athletes in the county want to get back to playing sports.
“We’re tired of sitting at home and not doing anything and watching all these other states have their championships and enjoying their high school lives,” Perez said. “… We’re out here to influence some sort of decision because we need to get going.”
Noah Pulealli, a senior at Palma who came from Marina, also plays football.
“Sports is more than just a game,” Pulealli said. “Some people use it as a life-changing opportunity.”
Both Perez and Pulealli said they would like to see all sports return, but understand the need for health guidelines, which include ones that put sports like football at a high danger level during the pandemic.
“We need to do what’s best for everybody’s health,” Perez said. “At the same time, there’s some sort of way that this could have been figured out in a different way to where we could have played sports.”
According to Perez, area schools, including Palma, previously held conditioning sessions for athletes where they were spaced apart and equipment was sanitized.
“We love to see things like that because we were following all the guidelines and doing our best that we could,” he said. “At the same time, we were working hard and with our friends and laughing and talking and having an all-around good time.”
The Jan. 29 event was part of the second round of Let Them Play rallies. The California group has requested that Gov. Gavin Newsom permit youth sports to resume immediately, citing data that shows youth athletic competition does not pose any significant Covid-19 risk to the participants or the community at large.
“It’s a really unfortunate time that we’re in,” Perez said. “People that we look up to, like our parents, teachers, big political figures and celebrities, they can’t even answer for us right now, so we’re kind of lost. Sports is one of those things that gives our lives a lot more purpose.”
Pulealli added, “I hope what we’re doing today changes people’s perspective on things, that we can be safe while coming out here and doing the sport we love. If we can do it, other schools can do it.”