Sparkle Peterson has just finished another long school year as the principal at Nelson Academy Middle School, and she’s only a few short weeks of summer away from retirement. She’s in one of those stretches where even one additional phone call on the schedule, a nagging request from a sportswriter, might be an untenable imposition. Instead, she answers the phone enthusiastically, not because she needs one more thing on the last to-do list of her career, but because of why the reporter is calling.
“I truly thank you so much for writing about Coach,” she said. “There is no person more deserving of this honor, he could never get enough credit for the things he does.”
Earl McCullouch Jr. did something special this year, coaching three Nelson teams to All-City championships. What Peterson appreciates about him isn’t just that he’s forcing the school to buy a bigger trophy case—true story—but the way he’s been a mentor to the students in the heart of the city.
It isn’t easy growing up in the shadow of a legend, and there are few more legendary than Earl McCullouch. The Long Beach Poly football star went on to an All-American career at LBCC and USC, and would eventually become the NFL Rookie of the Year with the Detroit Lions in 1968, playing seven seasons in the league. If his football exploits weren’t enough, McCullouch was a standout on the track as well, setting two national high school records and running the leadoff leg on USC’s world record 4×110 relay.
McCullouch was such a world-class athlete that he had to turn down a spot on the Olympic team—he would have been a gold medal favorite in the sprint hurdles—to pursue his football career because the NFL paid and the national track team didn’t. Because McCullouch came from an era when athletes didn’t live in gated communities, he and his wife, Peggy, raised their family in Long Beach, and his kids grew up competing on the same fields and tracks that he did.
Earl McCullouch Jr. got his father’s name, but not his world-class talent.
“It was fun growing up in Long Beach,” said McCullouch Jr. “Everywhere I went, everyone knew about my dad. Me being ‘Junior,’ every year I had coaches asking me if I’m trying out. I had to deal with that a lot.”
McCullouch Jr. ran track and played a year of basketball at Poly, missing out on football because he didn’t have the grades. After graduating from Poly in ‘95, he played football at Golden West and was a standout there, going on to play for the Long Beach Lions, a semi-pro team; McCullouch helped lead the Lions to their first championship.
By 2000, McCullouch Jr. had found a job working for the Long Beach Unified School District at Mary Butler Middle School, and soon after he started coaching the school’s athletic teams, something he initially did for fun but would eventually realize was his calling.
‘Where I’m Supposed to Be’
McCullouch Jr. coached at Butler for several years, then moved with virtually the entire staff to Nelson Academy when it opened seven years ago. McCullouch Jr. works as a recreation leader, campus security officer and coaches four of school’s teams: football, boys’ and girls’ track and boys’ soccer.
“It’s a great age group to work with,” he said. “A lot of them really want to learn and at our school, most of our kids don’t play club sports or sports outside of school. I’m just looking at PE classes for kids that can throw or kids that can run. When we can beat a team like Hughes, that feels so good; most of their kids are in clubs. When we’ve been able to beat powerhouses like that it feels like the Raptors beating the Warriors.”
One of the reasons Long Beach has had such a great history of high school sports is the LBUSD’s organized middle school sports program, and coaches who’ve decided to dedicate their time to coaching at that level. McCullouch Jr. is one of those coaches who believes there’s something special about coaching at the 6th to 8th grade level.
“These kids really need male role models and mentors in their lives, a lot of them don’t have father figures around,” he said. “I think you can have a bigger impact on kids at this level. I coached at Cabrillo for a year, and it wasn’t for me, this is where I’m supposed to be.”
Peterson has been the principal at Butler and Nelson, working with McCullouch Jr. for nine years. She said in that time, she’s never seen anyone else as dedicated to students as the man she affectionately refers to as “Coach.” McCullouch Jr. implemented high school-level grade requirements for his athletes, who have to have a 2.0 GPA to compete.
“He establishes a relationship with every single kid he coaches,” said Peterson. “The kids come back to see him because when they’re here, he pulls kids aside and he mentors them. There’s something unique about his spirit. As long as you’re with Coach, you’ll never go hungry, you’ll never go without clothes or shoes.”
‘The Best Year Ever’
Administrators decided last summer that 2018-19 was going to be a special year at Nelson.
“We declared in August that this was going to be the best school year ever,” said Peterson. “We posted that all around the school. And every time Coach and his scholars won a championship he’d say, ‘Told you Ms. P, best year ever.’”
The school had won only a few championships in its history, but this year won three, claiming titles in football, as well as both track programs—the football and girls’ track teams had never won one before. At the Long Beach Century Club’s All-City Middle School Banquet, all the Nelson championships teams were recognized, with McCullouch Jr. and Peterson appearing on stage with the winning athletes. When McCullouch Jr.’s name was announced, the packed house of 750 at the Grand roared.
At the end of the night, Nelson was announced as having won the award for the best Division 2 middle school sports program in the city, and the kids and parents screamed in celebration.
“We’ve been putting the banquet on for 31 years and that’s as loud as it’s ever been,” said Keith Hansen, who organized the event this year.
Among those in the audience cheering were McCullouch Jr.’s parents, both of whom have attended more than enough athletic banquets for one lifetime, but who couldn’t miss their son being recognized alongside his athletes.
“I’m so happy he’s found a way to give back to Long Beach,” said McCullouch. “I know it means a lot to him.”
“Hearing everyone cheer like that, it really set in what a special year it was,” said McCullouch Jr. More than the applause or the championships, he said his satisfaction comes from having found the place where he can best serve.
“This is my calling,” he said. “This is my purpose in life. To give back to the community I was raised in. I couldn’t be in the NFL like my dad, I wasn’t a star. But I watched him coaching when I was growing up, and I knew I could do that. Give back to the youth, try to keep them out of the streets. We might win two or three championships, but if I can keep two or three kids away from gangs every year, if I can save two or three lives every year, think of the impact that can have.”
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