John Perez Sr. pulled into the stadium parking lot nearly three hours before kickoff and was still tardy to the tailgate party.
There, he found a full Game Day spread. Spare ribs and sausage on the grill. Tortillas on the table. Salad and chili in the bowls. Friends and strangers, alike, each flavored in team colors and apparel.
“It was like we were going to a 49ers game,” Perez said.
Only this wasn’t Candlestick.
Or an NFL Sunday, for that matter.
There in the wind-swept parking lot of Stockton’s Spanos Stadium, Perez huddled among other Manteca High alumni spanning various generations, all of whom braved the wind and driving rain on Friday evening to cheer their beloved Buffs to a monumental victory.
Manteca seized its fourth Sac-Joaquin Section championship in record fashion, obliterating the Sacramento Dragons 49-6 in the most lopsided Division III final in section history.
The bonus, beyond the championship ring and ceremonial blue banner: A 15th football game, with a chance to play for the state title. The Buffaloes (13-1) will host Enterprise (12-0) of Redding on Saturday during the CIF Northern California Division II regional bowl at Spanos Stadium at Lincoln High.
Did I say host?
By definition, Manteca is considered the “away” team in this matchup of medium-school titans. But that the CIF scheduled the game 20 minutes from Manteca – and not at a neutral site, says, in Sacramento or somewhere in the Northern Section – speaks volumes about the Buffaloes’ drawing power.
The show of force by the faithful hasn’t been lost on Reis.
The 12th-year coach says the program’s special season extends into the bleachers, where young and old have helped turn each play into a moment with their signs, noisemakers, screams and spirit.
Not even the rain could drown them out.
“Realistically, I don’t think we get this game at Lincoln if it weren’t for our fans that showed up on Friday night. Here we had a night that was freezing with the winds and the rain and we still packed the place,” he said. “It was a strong statement to the CIF.
“There were people from Sierra and East Union. There were a ton of alumni. We felt a tremendous amount of support from the city, not just Manteca High. That contributed a lot to us getting this game.”
Perez, 75, is part of a select group of alumni, The Old Geezers.
He estimates there are about 10 or so members of the club, including Bill Moreno, Manuel Valverde, Pete Smith, Bill Sarina, Sammy Bologna, Alfonso “Fonse” Limas and John Aguilar.
The Geezers follow Manteca High where ever the schedule dictates, gathering this fall in the top row of the bleachers beneath a sign that reads: “The Old Geezers are back!” The water-proof sign was donated by Valverde.
“It was funny this year when we played in Oakdale. They got there really early, so they sat down by us (during the sophomore game),” Reis said. “They were really excited about what was happening. They’ve definitely seen a lot of football games.
“That’s part of that tradition we always talk about. One of the advantages of having a school with tradition, everyone feels like they’re a part of it. The Old Geezers club, that’s something that’s been around a long time.”
Perez embodies the commitment, spirit and old-man stubbornness shared by the Geezers. He hasn’t missed many games since graduating from Manteca High in 1957 and he’s passed his love affair with the city’s oldest high school down the family tree. All four of his children attended Manteca High and his granddaughter, Amanda Perez, played soccer for the Buffaloes.
The owner of Perez Cabinets on Main Street, Perez was a defensive end and linebacker for the 1956 team. “I wasn’t very good,” he quipped.
His biggest contribution to team may have come as a fan. He’s attended all 14 games this season and hopes to cheer his alma mater straight through to Carson, the site of the CIF state championship games on the weekend of Dec. 20-21.
“There are some guys that want to go,” he said, “so yeah, we’ll see what happens.”
His only problem: Getting out of a crab feed commitment on Saturday.
“I’m going to have to give my tickets away or something,” he said, “because I’m going to that football game.”
Aguilar is the baby among this bunch of gray-beards. He’s 68.
Though his memory is hazy and he sometimes forgets his grandchildren’s names, Aguilar fancies himself a judge of talent and legacy when it comes to rating Manteca High football teams over the years.
Like Perez, his Fridays have belonged to Manteca High for more than 50 years.
“Let me put it this way,” Aguilar started, “I went to Manteca High and I’ll always be a Buffalo.”
Aguilar captured at least a share of four Valley Oak League championships from 1959 to 1963. His teams won two frosh-soph titles – “They were called B teams back then” – and two varsity crowns.
His nephew, Brad Evans, was the quarterback for the 2001 team that garnered the program’s first section banner, and Aguilar has watched the last three closely from the stands. So how do they rate?
The debate isn’t much of one. At least not in Aguilar’s eyes.
While Manteca’s other section-winning teams may have had more talent and
“star players,” this year’s bunch plays with a camaraderie and bond that reverberates in the farthest reaches of the stadium.
Even the Old Geezers can see it.
“It’s the greatest team,” Aguilar said. “In my years, I’ve seen some good teams, but this has to be the greatest. They’re a good bunch of kids and you can see the camaraderie on the team.
“I’ve seen a lot of good teams through the years, but this one here is by far one of the best I’ve ever seen. It’s not just one person. It’s a combination of everybody. They have (running back Alex Laurel) and he’s darn good, but there are other running backs. And that line is tremendous. The defense … You know how they say bend but don’t break? That’s their defense. You can tell they’re a really balanced team.”
That camaraderie exists among the Geezers, too, proof the program’s ideals don’t belong to players and coaches alone. Aguilar missed the runway victory over the Oakdale Mustangs, but received a phone call shortly after the final whistle.
He won’t miss another – wife willing.
“If we go (to the state championship), I already said I’m leaving,” Aguilar said. “But now I’ve got to convince my wife.”