Monday, Nov. 20, 2023 | 2 a.m.
Chris Sawyers has made the drive countless times north on Nellis Boulevard and east onto Hollywood Boulevard on the way to his teaching job at Sunrise Mountain High School.
He sees the telltale signs of an at-risk community. The homelessness and vacant buildings are hard to miss.
He’s heard the stereotypes about the people who live here. “It’s a low-income school. Some will say this is the ghetto,” Sawyers said bluntly.
But spend time at Sunrise Mountain, like Sawyers does every day, and you’ll realize there’s something special about the students.
Sawyers is one of the best football coaches in Las Vegas. He could probably get hired just about anywhere.
But he chooses to live on the east side and coach the Miners. On Tuesday, he’ll coach his players in the biggest game of their lives, as Sunrise Mountain takes on Centennial in the Class 4A state championship game at Allegiant Stadium.
“That’s what people don’t understand,” Sawyers said. “These kids love and hurt just like everybody else. They aren’t some pariahs living on the east side. We are blessed to have the kids we have here. The staff loves these kids and cares about them. And the kids love us back. It’s a great place.”
Sawyers spent five years coaching at Sunrise Mountain through the 2018 season before moving his family to southern Utah for four years.
When he returned, the first order of business was earning the trust of his players — not the easiest thing to do for an adult from a different background.
Sawyers describes himself as a “fat, white guy,” while the school’s 2,600-students are predominately Hispanic and Black.
“They can sniff out a phony,” Sawyers said. “It doesn’t matter your race or color, they will listen to someone who knows what they’re talking about.”
Sawyers has created a culture where the players feel loved and respected. They have learned to rely on one another. That, after all, is what being part of a team is about.
“We feel we have the best team,” said Kendric Rice, a Sunrise Mountain senior. “Everybody has been (doubting) us, but we know the team we have. The success is what we worked hard for and what we expected.”
Dream coming true
Tuesday won’t be the team’s first trip to Allegiant. The players got to tour the stadium last month for a special occasion: a surprise announcement naming Sawyers the Raiders’ Tom Flores Coach of the Year.
The teens walked on the field of the nearly $2 billion, 65,000-seat stadium that opened in 2020. They looked around in amazement.
They captured the moment on their phones, surely dreaming of one day getting to play at the NFL stadium.
As fate would have it, that game would be just a few weeks away.
“The lights stood out,” Rice said. “They are brighter than the lights on our school field.”
On Tuesday, eight Nevada high school teams will have the thrill of playing in the stadium in a series of championship games that will produce a lifetime of memories. And the teens building those memories won’t be limited to the players. There are also members of the band, cheerleaders, students and community supporters.
Sawyers, following Sunrise Mountain’s win Nov. 14 in the Class 4A Mountain League title game, summarized it best: “What a blessing it is to take these kids from east Las Vegas to Allegiant Stadium to play a game of football.”
Sawyers doesn’t plan to borrow a play from the basketball movie “Hoosiers” by measuring the field to show it’s the same size as their field at home.
In the movie, coach Norman Dale, played by Gene Hackman, measures the court for the Indiana high school championship game to show his small-town team that basketball is basketball, regardless of the venue.
“They are excited,” Sawyers said. “My biggest task is to convince them that this is (just) another football game.”
Sunrise Mountain is arguably a surprise participant in the game, beating Canyon Springs 6-0 on a defensive touchdown to advance. In the week prior against Eldorado, the Miners won 36-35 on a 2-point conversion with time winding down.
Centennial, by comparison, has outscored its opponents 411-177.
“When (the season) is all over, we’ll sit back and be super thankful,” Sawyers said. “But we still have a game to play and we are focused on getting 1% better every day so we can shock the world. We’ve had that mentality for a few weeks now.”
It wouldn’t be the first time the Miners won a game nobody thought they would.
In 2017, the first playoff win in school history was a 30-28 victory against state power Moapa Valley. It was one of two playoff games Moapa Valley had lost at home since moving to its new campus in 1993. It is widely considered one of the most notable upsets in recent Nevada playoff history.
Many football programs across Las Vegas attend team summer camps at Southern Utah University or Boise State. Players stay for a week in the college dorms and participate in scrimmages against other schools, strengthening their team bond and getting valuable game reps a few weeks before practices begin.
But the camp costs a few hundred dollars per player — funds some students at Sunrise Mountain don’t have access to.
Sunrise Mountain, Sawyers said, is the lowest-income school in the state. But before finishing his thought, he stressed that that doesn’t define the program and is never used as an excuse.
“This path chose me, and I love it,” he said. “Money brings problems. You are dealing with self-righteous people who think they deserve something for nothing. That’s not how I coach.”
Sawyers’ methods have clearly resonated with his team.
A beautiful scene erupted when he received the coaching award, with players jumping up and down in excitement following the announcement at Allegiant in the Raiders locker room. The Raiders bused the players to the stadium to surprise their coach.
He became emotional when addressing them, giving a glimpse of how this football program has become a family. You play games to win them, but along the way something else happens: relationships become a foundation for future success. And those relationships are everlasting.
Sawyers has seen players go on to college, start families and get jobs. He, unfortunately, has also had to cope with two of his players being murdered.
If the Miners win the state championship, you can guarantee Sawyers will be thinking about how Pookie Farmer and Dalvin Brown gave everything they had to football before being gunned down in senseless tragedies.
“I’m blessed to be in the position I am and to have the kids I have,” Sawyers said.
[email protected] / 702-990-2662 / @raybrewer21