Malcolm Jones was watching the Oaks Christian (Westlake Village, Calif.) JV football team play last year when one of his varsity teammates came rushing over.
"Will Smith and Tom Cruise are in the stands!" he yelled.
Jones didn't believe him. But he wanted to make sure, just in case. As he glanced toward the stands, sure enough, two of the biggest names in Hollywood gazed down at the field.
"Only at Oaks can that happen," says Jones, now a senior running back/linebacker.
Smith and Cruise were there to watch Smith's son, Trey, who played wide receiver on the JV team last season. By now, everyone who's followed Oaks knows the whole celebrity angle. There's Trey, now a junior on the varsity. There's senior Nick Montana, the starting varsity quarterback and son of Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana. And then there's junior Trevor Gretzky, backup to Nick and son of arguably the greatest hockey player of all time, Wayne Gretzky.
No doubt all three sons are great players and their celeb connections are intriguing. But rather than face never-ending questions about their famous dads, they like to talk about how fun it is to be part of the Lions' ultra-successful football team, which entered the year ranked No. 6 in the preseason ESPN RISE FAB 50.
"We all have a good time and we're all good pals," says Smith.
"They don't see me as some wonder child," adds Gretzky. "Going in as a freshman, I didn't want people to think, 'Oh, this kid thinks he's so special.' But they embraced me as one of their own. It was cool."
Cool is probably the best way to describe playing for Oaks Christian. Sometimes you'll see Will Smith or Wayne Gretzky sitting in the stands, but every day in practice you see coaches who have had a fair amount of success in their own right.
Head coach Bill Redell was a star quarterback at Occidental College in Los Angeles and is in the College Football Hall of Fame. Former defensive coordinator Clay Matthews, who still helps out coaching the defense, was a four-time Pro Bowl linebacker and played 19 years in the NFL. Offensive coordinator Casey Clausen was a four-year starting quarterback at the University of Tennessee, and he'll be helped out by Joe Montana this season.
"It's not every day you get to even meet a guy who played 19 years in the NFL," senior defensive tackle Cassius Marsh says about working with Matthews. "To be coached by one is amazing."
But perhaps the coolest aspect of donning the Oaks Christian jersey is that each season you'll be playing for a winning team that can help prepare you for the next level.
When Redell took over as head coach after Oaks Christian opened in 2000, the program started as a JV team before becoming a varsity squad the following season. Since then, Redell has led the Lions to a mark of 101-8-1 and a California Interscholastic Federation Southern Section-record 48 consecutive wins, a streak that was snapped in September of 2007. This season, Oaks will look to extend its record streak of consecutive section titles to seven.
"I came here with no expectations we'd have a program that we have now, that it would reach the level it did," says Redell. "I was very content with building a good program in the lower divisions of Southern California."
The Lions went 22-3-1 and advanced to the Southern Section semifinals in each of their first two seasons before breaking through for their first of six straight section titles in 2003. Since then, the players have come in droves. The chance to win a championship, learn from an elite coaching staff, play and train in facilities second to none, and earn a college scholarship has some families willing to pay nearly $25,000 a year to send their kids to Oaks.
In terms of sending players to college, Redell is one of the best. More than 30 players who've suited up for the Lions have gone on to Division I programs, including current Notre Dame starting quarterback Jimmy Clausen, Casey's younger brother. This year's squad features a bevy of seniors who are headed to play college ball. Jones is rated the nation's No. 33 recruit in the ESPNU 150 and is looking at schools like Stanford, UCLA and Cal. Montana has committed to Washington, and senior linebacker Zac Stout has pledged to BYU. Marsh, meanwhile, is looking at Cal, USC, UCLA, Oklahoma and LSU; left tackle Erik Kohler is considering Washington, UCLA, Cal and Notre Dame; and defensive end/tight end Alani Fua is receiving interest from BYU, Washington, Arizona State, Ohio State and UCLA.
There are also plenty of talented underclassmen, including Gretzky, Smith and sophomore wide receiver Jordan Payton, who had six touchdown catches among his 10 receptions last year.
Jones is the best of the whole lot. Last season, the 6-foot-1, 217-pounder ran for 1,504 yards, caught 20 passes for 340 yards, scored 34 total touchdowns and tallied 39 tackles on defense. He's been starting for the Lions since his freshman year when standout running back/linebacker Marc Tyler (now at USC) went down for the season with a leg injury. In the inaugural CIF Division III State Football Championship Bowl Game that season, Jones returned an interception 64 yards for a score and added 15 tackles and two sacks.
"We probably wouldn't have won the state championship game without him," Redell says.
Jones' performance as a freshman highlighted a philosophy of the program -- if you're good enough, you'll play. So even though he was playing with the likes of Clausen, Tyler, older brother Marshall Jones (now at USC) and current Oregon linebacker Casey Matthews (Clay's son), Malcolm knew at some point he'd be counted on to contribute.
"The one thing at Oaks is that we're going to play the best guy, no matter how old you are," says Casey Clausen. "If you don't pick up your game, there's a younger guy ready to take your place."
When Montana transferred to Oaks Christian from national-power De La Salle (Concord, Calif.) last year, he discovered even sons of NFL legends weren't guaranteed spots in the lineup.
The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder had to earn the starting nod, which he did with an impressive summer, and even then nothing was a given. Of course, Montana proved Redell's decision right by completing 133-of-241 passes for 2,404 yards, 33 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. In the CIF Southern Section Northwest Division championship, Montana connected on 14 of 21 attempts for 234 yards, three touchdowns and no picks as the Lions rolled past Junipero Serra (Gardena, Calif.), 63-28, to finish the year 14-0.
And he's only gotten better by getting tips from Dad.
"His best football is so much further down the line it's scary," Clausen says.
With Jones, Montana and the rest of their talented teammates returning this season, Oaks Christian should be a nightmare for any of its opponents. Speaking of which, the Lions' opponents is where the criticism comes in. Yeah, they're good, but they don't play anyone.
"It gets really annoying," Stout says.
While that may have been true in the past, Oaks beefed up its schedule this year and hopes to silence its critics. The Lions' biggest test will come when they travel to No. 9 Skyline (Sammamish, Wash.) on Sept. 18 in an ESPNU-televised game.
Trying to beat Skyline while also attempting to uphold the winning tradition at the school seems like a lot of pressure. But pressure doesn't faze this group. Hanging out on weekends at the beach or at barbecues has created chemistry that makes playing in big games -- and dealing with celebrities in the stands -- that much easier.
"We're all a bunch of buddies playing football with one goal in mind, and that's not to get media attention. It's to win championships," Kohler says.
"I love it because you're surrounded by a bunch of guys who love to practice every day and want to win," Montana says. "Everyone just comes out and competes. We have a lot of fun."
No matter who's watching.
Jon Mahoney covers high school sports for ESPN RISE Magazine.