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Once a Driller Always a Driller

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The sounds of a quick snap, swift movements of a flawlessly executed play, and thunderous roars from the crowd swirl above Griffith Field. Mingled together, they produce breathable adrenaline and it pumps through the stadium. Every father, mother, uncle, grandparent, and sibling is infected. It could be any Friday night during football season at BHS, or it could be every Friday night.

You see, Driller pride isn’t just an expression, it’s a motto; it’s a lifestyle. Something you live and breathe...

Countless movies and TV shows have tried to capture the prestige and drama of high school football; the legendary coaches, star players who’ll do anything to win, championship games. But before these images were plastered on big and small screens alike, they were here in Bakersfield—and had been for a long time.

And while they certainly are popular, these films and shows can never do justice to the history created, traditions formed, and emotions felt for Bakersfield’s oldest high school, because prior to the building of East High in 1938, there wasn’t a single person who didn’t know someone who went to Bakersfield High. It was the only place for high school football. Of course, it hasn’t always been known as BHS. Upon it’s founding in 1893, it was Kern County High and from 1915 to 1945 it was Kern County Union High School.

Name changes (and mascot changes) aside, football has remained a constant source of pride for our city, and Driller legends have lived on...both on and off the field.

Rick Van Horne (played 1975-1979)

Rick Van Horne is someone who’s known that pride for years. Van Horne’s father played for BHS, he played himself, and his son played as well. But Van Horne’s knowledge came from the hours and hours of research he did into the depths of BHS football history, which culminated in the publication of a book, Friday Night Heroes.

According to Van Horne, BHS is unique in many ways and that has made for an outstanding football program.

“For a while BHS was the biggest high school in the state; from 1937 to 1965,” he said. In that regard alone, BHS had a larger selection to choose from for its all-star football team. It may be why today, with 689 wins, BHS is in a heated competition with Long Beach over the most wins in California, is ranked number one in state championships with seven, and holds the record for undefeated seasons with 22. Of course, it could also just be that Driller pride running deep and inspiring our kids to throw farther, run faster, and tackle harder.

“You were selecting from the cream of the crop,” Van Horne continued.

As Van Horne discovered, BHS really became known as the football team to beat in the ‘20s.

“From 1920 to ‘27 we took the state championship every year,” he explained. “Because of that, BHS’s fan base goes back generations.”

Van Horne even elaborated on the totally unique coaching history at BHS. In the 100-plus years, there have been only eight coaches.

“My son had an opportunity to meet his grandfather’s football coach on the field,” Van Horne said. Where else do you hear of that happening? It’s moments like these that add to the legacy of BHS football. Guys like Frank Gifford and Jeff Siemon called BHS home and they brought that legacy to the national forefront. However, many players still call Bakersfield home and continue to keep the Driller pride alive.

Dr. Romain Clerou (played 1926-1930)

Even before BHS was BHS, Dr. Romain Clerou was passing the pigskin around. At 95 years young, this local doctor certainly has his fair share of football memories.

“I played because it was fun,” he said, a smile creeping to his face. You couldn’t get a more straightforward answer. But at his age, what else would you expect?

Clerou played guard on the Jack Frost Sandab team when BHS was still Kern County Union High School, went on to play guard for Bakersfield College for two years, and was inducted into the BHS Football Hall of Fame in 2007. And while he may have played hard and helped his team to an undefeated season his senior year, it was his contributions to BHS football after returning from World War II that helped earn him a spot in that esteemed hall of fame: Clerou became a team physician.

From 1946 to the late ‘80s, he kept the Drillers in prime playing condition. During that time, Clerou did notice a change in the kids playing.

“Kids started getting much bigger. Could have been better nutrition,” he mused, a chuckle escaping his lips. “I was 150 pounds playing back then. Now I couldn’t even be the water boy with that weight.”

Even though it’s been more than 70 years since he last played football, this alum, known fondly as “Doc,” still relishes the good ol’ days on the field.

“That school has been involved in football for over 100 years,” Clerou explained, “so of course it’s going to create tradition.”

Pat Preston’s football career at BHS was a tradition with a capital T. Preston’s father played football at BHS and Preston and his four brothers played.

Pat Preston (played 1962-1966)

“Even my wife was a Driller. So was my father-in-law. And my son played, too,” Preston explained. Currently the principal at Liberty High School, Preston keeps a few mementos of his BHS glory days in his office. Preston played linebacker and tight end for four years until his graduation in ‘66.

Some of the mementos, however, are just old relics (like game posters) from the generations before him. Not only did Preston play, he returned to coach for nine years, for the seasons between ‘88 to ‘96.

“You hear stories like mine all the time in this town,” he said. Because of the longevity of BHS in the community and the size of the school, you’re going to have a lot of graduates, especially football alums, keeping Driller energy high.

“That Driller pride goes with you wherever you go,” he commented. “Because in those days, even as a teenager, you understood the tradition and you were proud to be a part of it.”

And that pride only helped the Drillers with record-breaking wins.

“Those teams coming up against us weren’t just playing our team, they were playing our tradition,” Preston explained. That attitude seemed to spread fear in those teams on the other side of the field from our formidable Drillers.

“It was BHS. The name alone was an intimidation factor,” laughed Marshall Dillard. Dillard graduated from BHS in 1983 after playing running back for all four years.

“The best thing was the friendships,” he said. Dillard was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2006.

“I thought it was a prank,” he explained. “They kept trying to contact me to tell me I was being inducted, but I didn’t think it was real.”

Marshall Dillard (played 1979-1983)

For Dillard, a lot of the pride he continues to feel for his days on Griffith field come down to a nostalgia factor.

“I still have a lot of pride and I continued to follow their seasons after I graduated. Once I moved back into town, it was fairly common for me to attend games.

“Anyone who grew up in Bakersfield knew someone who went to BHS. You can connect with almost any family in town because someone’s family member went there. That’s what keeps everyone so connected to that high school.”

And after coaching the Drillers for 33 years, Paul Briggs (though he currently lives in Santa Ana) will forever be connected to BHS.

“Back then, there was no TV to distract people. And at the time, we were producing an awful lot of good players and so an awful lot of interest was paid to BHS football,” Briggs said, now 90.

“My first year, we won the championship, and sure we had our problems, but you just have to ride them out.

“I never believed in having football dominate these kids’ lives, but for a while we had six football teams playing, and there were 4,800 students when the college was still on the campus, so it seemed to take over,” Briggs laughed.

“Coaching has changed a bit since I retired, but the game stayed the same...you still have four quarters to kick the hell out of the other team.”

Briggs has lectured around the country and says the Drillers are widely known outside of our community as being a beacon of high school football success.

“[Frank] Gifford was the one who coined the phrase ‘Keep the fame and the name Drillers’ and that was heard by millions,” Briggs mused. “So there is bound to be a mystique surrounding the name.”

Which is why students today continue to fuel the Driller fire.

Zack Shanklin (played 1998-2002)

Zack Shanklin wore his jersey with pride as an offensive tackle during his four years at BHS. Shanklin, who graduated in ‘02 knew he was going to play football.

“It was assumed,” he laughed. “My older brother played, so I knew how good the program at BHS was.”

In fact, Shanklin’s senior year also happened to be coach Tim Hartnett’s last season. Hartnett was only the sixth head coach in BHS history and that year (2002) they were undefeated and won the Valley Championship. That’s definitely Shanklin’s favorite memory.

“Football really taught us how to manage our lives, and that hard work pays off,” he explained. And the history and legends of BHS football added to the heightened emotions that the new crop of young men had for their sport.

“It’s never been a weak program,” Shanklin said, “and when you’re winning everyone wants to be a part of it, so everyone is at the games supporting you, which only helps you win more.”

In its over 100 years at BHS, football has been a way for families to connect, it’s given way to legendary players, and it continues to live on in the minds and hearts of every player whose graced the field under those Friday night lights and whose families still bleed blue and white. After all, there’s a reason so many people tout the phrase “Once a Driller, always a Driller.”

--vintage photos courtesy of BHS Archives

Article appeared in our 26-2 Issue - June 2009