‘The hottest place on Earth’: Millikan says farewell to its Dungeon

While architectural styles might vary from one Long Beach high school to another, each campus features some configuration of more or less the same components, with a quad, gym, classrooms, auditorium and other mundane hallmarks. For the last 32 years, Millikan has had a unique feature on its campus: a dungeon.

It’s not a literal dungeon, although it might appear that way in the memory of the Rams football players who’ve been through the grind there. It’s the half-joking, affectionate nickname for the team’s ancillary weight room, and it’s officially closing after years of disuse.

“It was ugly and it was super hot in the summer and cold in the winter, it was perfect for building football players,” said former Millikan coach Kirk Diego, who coached the Rams from 1999 until 2011. “A little bit of toughness. Never any chance of hurting a kid or putting them in peril, but some toughness.”

Picture the side of a high school football stadium, and the triangle formed in the space underneath the bleachers. That’s where Millikan’s weight room is located, a space that was nowhere near big enough to accommodate the football team in its heyday. The weight room held two 16-station Universal machines and would have about 40 total lift stations depending on its configuration. That wasn’t sufficient for a Millikan program with 120 kids.

So, in 1987, strength and conditioning coach Kirk King, a substitute teacher on campus at the time, built a little sweatbox annex on the back of the weight room, crammed into the narrowest part of the triangle under the front of the bleachers. Because its ceiling was the metal of Millikan’s stands, it got hot in there, and it was pretty cramped. But King squeezed in an additional 15 work stations, which Diego would later expand to 20 with new equipment.

“That made it possible for us to work out 80 to 120 kids at the same time,” said Diego. “I could stand in the doorway between the two rooms—to my right was the main weight room, to the left was the dungeon.”

The Dungeon in better times; better being a relative term.

The dungeon was a staple under coaches David Shawver, Dave Radford and Diego, but after Diego’s departure following the 2011 season, it began to fall into disuse. The last couple of seasons it hasn’t been used at all, and this school year it’s been essentially a storage room for trash or broken equipment. The famous “Together Everyone Achieves More” sign is blocked from view, the handprints that were painted on the underside of the bleachers faded.

Now the room has been labeled a fire hazard because there aren’t enough points of egress, and it’s officially closed for good.

“It’s disappointing,” said Paul Slater, a former Millikan quarterback who graduated in 2010. “It matched up with the kind of players we always were at Millikan: ragtag, underdogs. That’s what that room meant, putting in the hard work where nobody could see us.”

The room itself became a kind of status symbol among Millikan football players. Dave Radford, the son of coach Radford, remembered hoping to earn his way into it.

“It was an honor to finally be able to lift in there after freshman football,” he said. “So much sweat and self-confidence came out of that place. The dungeon had a habit of weeding out the lambs and making Rams. I’m bummed to see it go.”

That idea of sweating out weakness, separating tough players from weak ones, has since fallen out of favor in youth sports, at least among parents and kids. Plenty of coaches still yearn for those days, but the current Millikan administration is aware that the day for that has passed—for better or worse.

“Look, it had a great history, but I think we all know parents aren’t lining up to send their kids to the dungeon,” said Millikan athletic director Kevin Marchael. “Things change.”

Slater said the importance of a room like that wasn’t just about separating players into categories, but about bringing them together as a de facto clubhouse as well.

“It was the hottest place on Earth,” he said. “We had a fan that would blow but it was just blowing 150-degree heat at us. So we’d all be back there cracking jokes about how miserable it was. I’ll never forget the ‘Together Everyone Achieves More’ sign, we made fun of it every day. But that was the fun of being on a team—when we see each other we make jokes about the games and we make jokes about the dungeon.”

The Dungeon was the handiwork of strength coach Kirk King.

Slater also said that while he has fond memories of lifting with his friends in the summer heat, he’s not surprised that it fell out of use or that it’s being permanently closed.

“The people there now, they’re not crying because the dungeon’s going away, it doesn’t bother those kids,” he said. “For the older generations it’s kind of disappointing because it meant so much to us, but that’s not the game anymore.”

It’s worth noting that the game is in good shape at Millikan. The Rams won playoff games each of the last two years, the first time that’s happened since the Dungeon opened. Participation on the team is up, and Millikan has been the second-place team in the Moore League the last two years.

Diego also said he understands how things have changed, and why there’s a move away from football classics like the dungeon (although he’s still annoyed at it being labeled a fire hazard after three decades of use). The longtime coach is set to retire from teaching at the school in a few months, and while he’s aware of the change that’s happening to his sport, he doesn’t see it as a positive thing.

“In my humble opinion it’s a toughness issue,” he said. “Like any other skill, you’ve got to train to be tough. Alabama football’s motto is ‘Fighting Through Breaking Points.’ The teams that move that breaking point, the guys that play at that other level, they win.”

The dungeon has become a symbol for a larger transition in football. Nobody knows what the future will look like, one where the game is safer but also perhaps requires less toughness. What is clear is that those who were there for the way the sport used to be will miss it.

Slater, who was an honors student in Millikan’s QUEST magnet in addition to a quarterback, said he’s glad he grew up in the era that he did, even if it wasn’t that long ago.

“I just don’t think that type of environment is part of the game anymore,” he said. “I don’t know. The science proves head injuries are bad, and it’s better to take care of your body. I get that. But I wouldn’t trade any of those memories for anything.”

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Mike and JJ go together like mac and cheese: they’re best friends, business partners and Long Beach sports experts. They’ve been working together for over a decade covering Long Beach local sports and now run the562.org, a community-funded nonprofit media outlet.