Turlock has a rich tradition of football excellence. From Turlock High to Pitman High, and even Turlock Christian High, coming-of-age Turlockers have spent a majority of their formative years on the gridiron, locked in competition. As is the case in many other towns in the area, these players often get their start at the youth level where they learn the game, sharpen their skills and build friendships that can last a lifetime.
But it wasn’t always like this. There was a time, a little over three decades ago, when high school football served as the starting line for aspiring players from Turlock. This was before the dawn of what would become Turlock Youth Football; a time few in Turlock can still remember.
Ernie Peters is one such person, however. Peters, who helped organize and form the first incarnation of the Turlock 49ers, has served Turlock Youth Football in one form or another since the 49ers’ birth in 1984.
“A gentleman from Hilmar came to us, named Richard Orozco, and he wanted to know if we wanted to join their youth football league,” Peters said.
Turlock had dabbled with the idea of youth football prior to Orozco’s invitation to join the Trans Valley League, but youth sports in Turlock was essentially relegated to soccer and baseball. Creating a football team was a big decision. Not only would there need to be enough interested players, there would also have to be funding. A meeting was held early in 1984 to address these concerns with Peters, Orozco, Ed Mirza, Frank Cusenza (Turlock High’s then athletic director), Rod Hollers (Turlock High’s then head varsity football coach), and Frank Godinez (Turlock Journal sports reporter) in attendance.
“We kicked it around and decided we’d go forward with it,” Peters said.
It was decided in the meeting that there was enough support and interest from the community to create a team. With the decision to move forward in place the only question remaining was how they would foot the $8,000 bill to get the project started.
“We had no money, no funds, and we weren’t’ subsidized by anybody,” Peters said. “We borrowed money and received donations, and the people who donated were people from Turlock who thought it was a good idea.”
By the end of 1984 enough money had been raised to field JV and Varsity teams, each donning Turlock 49ers uniforms, though they looked much different from today’s uniforms.
“The first couple of years they played in their practice pants,” Peters chuckled.
The program became an instant success. Before long, there was enough interest in playing that another team was created — the Turlock Vikings. Shortly after, the newly formed nucleus of Turlock Youth Football was forced to create its own league which was dubbed the CenCal Youth Football
“The numbers started to accumulate and we had to start doing some cutting,” Peters said of the decision to form the Turlock Vikings. “Then the Trans Valley League said, ‘You guys are way too big for us now,’ and we were very competitive. So we were forced to create CenCal, which pretty much paralleled with the high school.”
Peters was named the first CenCal president. In the years following the reshuffling, both Turlock Youth Football teams began to emphasize the importance of coaching. It wasn’t just about the x’s and o’s—though those were heavily impressed — it was also about instilling values in the children.
“We were told by the high school coaches to make sure to get people who understand the game and who can teach the fundamentals,” Peters said. “But they did things outside of football. If a kid was in trouble they’d talk to him. Blocking and tackling and learning assignments, and conditioning, comes into play. But maturity is a big factor.”
“That’s the big deal, can you teach them life lessons? When you get knocked down you got to get back up,” Peters added.
Now, as the 49ers and Vikings prepare to clash in the annual Bud Bowl, Turlock Youth Football has become a mainstay in Turlock. Generations of Turlockers have passed through the program. Some players (COUGH, Colin Kaepernick) have even ascended into the professional echelons of the sport.
As for Peters, he’s back on the football field in the role of coach as Turlock Youth Football nears the end of its 30th year, coaching his two grandsons who play at the Pee Wee level. He’ll be walking away from the organization after this season to, as he puts it, let some “new blood” in, but the unexpected success of the teams and the subsequent bonds formed over the years will always leave an impression on him.
“Probably one of the most rewarding things for me, and you can ask any coach who’s ever coached, is when I see a kid riding his bike home and he’s got his helmet and pads with him. That’s cool; I get a warm feeling about that,” Peters said.
Turlock Youth Football players can be found celebrating the organization’s tradition on Saturday when the 49ers and Vikings clash at Joe Debely Stadium in the Bud Bowl.