Rio Linda football is all about tradition, family and — in 2013 especially — winning.
By TREVOR HORN | Contributor
Rio Linda is a rural community set just minutes north of the greater Sacramento area. A throwback to neighborhoods made up of multi-generational families that continue the same traditions throughout the decades.
On the corner of Dry Creek Road and Elkhorn Boulevard sits the Rio Linda High School football stadium. It’s a sanctuary where grandfathers, sons, uncles and brothers all share one love — football.
Mike Morris has been the head coach of the Knights for over two decades. He has seen it all. When he walks into Creekside Diner, his favorite eatery in town, family members of former players and all well-wishers congratulate Morris on the season. There is still a newspaper cutout from the 2004 Sac-Joaquin Section Division III championship on the wall there.
Family is paramount to Morris, his football program and to the community of Rio Linda.
“I’ve always tried to foster that around here,” Morris said. “I think it’s one of the strengths of our community and our program is there is so many multi-generational families here in Rio Linda.”
Rio Linda completed the best regular season in school history with a 9-1 record. The only blemish came in the first game at Roseville on a last-second blocked field goal return in a 22-14 heartbreaker.
Now rolling, the second-seed in the Div. II playoffs, Rio Linda has a 10-game winning streak heading into the second round of the playoffs after blanking Antelope 34-0 in the first round on Nov. 15.
FATHER AND SON
Morris coached his oldest son, Michael Jr., a half-decade ago when the junior was the starting quarterback for the Knights. This season, it’s his youngest son, Matthew, a starting lineman and co-captain. “It’s been a great experience with my youngest boy in his senior year,” Morris said.
The Morris’ aren’t the only family affair for the Knights. Senior fullback and linebacker Leonard Skattebo IV is living up to the name where his father was an all-star for Rio Linda in the early 90s. The elder Skattebo was an all-league football and basketball star for the Knights in the early 90s despite playing just his senior season. “It’s pretty cool to be able to follow in his footsteps,” Skattebo said.
The younger Skattebo has been a two-way wrecking ball for Rio Linda this season. The senior rushed 134 times for 776 yards and 11 touchdowns and was the battering ram the rest of the time, clearing the way for junior tailback Marcel Brown.
Skattebo also led Rio Linda’s “Black Knight Army” defense with 122 tackles and racked up seven tackles for loss and one interception in the regular season. The defense gave up just over 10 points a game in the regular season with brothers Vaughn and Fila Hingano, who combined for 166 tackles and 14 sacks.
“You can just tell the passion they have playing together,” Skattebo said of the Hingano Brothers. “They’re always celebrating together. It’s cool to have all the family going on here.”
Every Friday, the elder Skattebo sits in his same seat in the stands “on his little blanket.” His son says he cherishes the fact that the two can connect on a level most fathers and sons don’t.
“It means a lot to me to play for the same community and the same school that my dad played for,” Leonard IV said. “It’s just different. Not many people can say, ‘Hey, my dad was a superstar.’
With his helmet on during Friday nights, the younger Skattebo says he doesn’t hear barking or yelling from his dad in the stands. But the two talk in great detail afterwards. “He sits in the same spot on his little blanket,” Leonard IV said. “He’s very quiet. He isn’t a yelling parent. He’s very internal with his emotions. But after the game he always tells me I did a good job and that’s cool to hear him say that.”
SEARCHING FOR GREATNESS
Marcel Brown has been nothing short of amazing on the football field for Rio Linda the last two seasons. As a sophomore, Brown led the Knights with 1,454 yards and 15 touchdowns, but the Knights were eliminated in the first round by Vacaville. Rio Linda hosts the same Vacaville team in the Div. II quarterfinal on Nov. 22.
Then, because of a one-game suspension handed down by Morris because Brown didn’t complete needed offseason requirements, he was not in uniform as the Knights opened 2013 at Roseville.
With just three seconds on the clock, and Roseville holding on to a 16-14 lead, Rio Linda lined up for a field goal. The kick was blocked and taken back for a final touchdown. That sting was felt deep inside Brown. Not being there with his brothers in the lone blemish on an otherwise stellar season so far.
Brown takes the blame.
“It’s more my fault than their fault,” Brown said. “They went all out and it was my fault that I didn’t do what I could have done to help them out during the game.”
“It definitely motivated me,” Brown said. “After that loss, I still think about it to this day that I can’t be lazy, I can’t do this to my team anymore. I already cost them a 10-0 perfect season. So every day (at practice) I do what I can.”
In the final eight games of the regular season (Brown sat out the 54-7 win over Foothill-Sacramento on Sept. 20), the junior rushed for 1,496 yards and 19 touchdowns. That included a school-record 296 yards with five touchdowns in the regular season finale at Del Campo.
Playing football with Brown since junior high, Skattebo knew he was witnessing greatness years ago in his backfield partner.
“I knew (then) that as a senior, I would be blocking for one of the best tailbacks – I say – in the country.” Skattebo said. “That’s a big thing to say, but he’s up there.”
Despite the records and the yardage piled up, Morris says Brown, who is big in stature at 6-foot and 190 pounds with bursting 4.3 speed, has stayed humbled by his past and by his mentors.
“He’s never been selfish in anything I’ve seen out here at all,” Morris said. “He’s never mentioned how many carries or how many yards. In an option offense, where we give the football to the fullback a lot, he’s never grumbled about that. He understands the wisdom that the better Leonard does, the better he’ll do.”
Brown agrees with his coach, who he calls his “authority figure,” but it has been the wisdom and guidance from a former Knight running back that has been the bond Brown was missing growing up as a child without a father-figure at home. Marty Johnson played for the Knights a decade ago before starring at Butte College and led the 2004 undefeated Utah team with 14 touchdowns as a senior.
Brown took to Johnson’s mentorship of doing the right things, and not falling into the pits of stardom like Johnson did at times in his playing career. “He’s basically my big brother now,” Brown said. “He comes to the games and watches me play. He helps me out.”
Brown lived with the Skattebos’ when the two were in junior high together. Brown credits all three relationships with Johnson, Morris and the Skattebo family as reasons why he has grown into the person he is now.
“I feel that all around me are just great people who want to see me succeed in life.”
To Skattebo, bringing home a section title would mean the world to him and the community of Rio Linda.
“It’s very important to this community to keep this run going,” he said.
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