SANTA CRUZ, CA — There was nothing Scotts Valley two-way star Tanner Spence wanted more in this world than to play Watsonville in the Friday Night Lights event this weekend at Leviâ€™s Stadium.
â€œYou have no idea,â€ said Jennifer Spence, the teenâ€™s mother. â€œHeâ€™s devastated. Heâ€™s a huge 49er fan No. 1. He got to go up there for media day and he was so excited because the Super Bowl will be played there. His goal was that he wanted to catch a touchdown at Leviâ€™s Stadium.”
Spence broke his foot in the Falconsâ€™ season-opening loss to Los Banos. It was the third consecutive season the 6-foot-7 standout suffered an early season injury and missed significant playing time — though he returned in time to earn the SCCAL Junior of the Year last season.
Marge Peck with a painting of her late son Randy Peck, the former Soquel High and Utah football star.
–Photos by John Murphy
This year Spence is hoping to recover in time to play the last few games of the league season and then compete in the playoffs.
Crestfallen over the starâ€™s injury have been not only his immediate family, but great grandmother Marge Peck, a resident of the Santa Cruz Gardens area whose late son Randy Peck was one of the greatest athletes in Santa Cruz County history. In fact, the four-sport Knight star had the Soquel gym named after him in 2012.
Marge Peck has known sadness far greater than the impact of a sports injury. She recalls March 15, 1970 like it was yesterday as her beloved son Randy was killed in the early morning hours along with one other in a single-car accident in Provo, Utah. A friend of Peck’s lost control of his vehicle on a slick road and wrapped it around a power pole. Peck, 19, and friend Heidi Kratzer, 18, of San Marino lost their lives and four others were injured.
It was a devastating blow to the Peck family, the Soquel High community and the University of Utah football program. Peck had just finished starring at quarterback for the Utah freshman football team, leading it to its first unbeaten season in 14 years.
Jennifer Spence, mother of Tanner, said Randy Peck had been picked up on a snowy night by a friend and told he could get a lift back to his dorm. Some have speculated — though it was never proven — the driver was impaired. What is known is the star quarterback was thrown out one window and the young woman exited out the back window. Both were dead on impact.
â€œHe was only 19 years old,â€ Jennifer said. â€œIt was his first year of college. My grandma got a call in the middle of the night. It was horrible â€“ to this day she hasnâ€™t gotten over it.â€
Seated on a couch in her well-appointed Santa Cruz Gardens home, Marge appeared still saddened by the tragedy but did not shed a tear as she leafed through old scrapbooks. The yellowed news clips of the Santa Cruz Sentinel tell the story of Randy Peck, the All-American kid who succeeded wildly in every sport he tried and then winged his way off to Utah for the next chapter of his promising life.
The San Francisco Examiner reported Utah coach Bill Meek was “extremely happy” Peck had chosen Utah and thought the Soquel High star was as talented a prospect as former Dallas Cowboys’ great Don Meredith, a player Meek had coached.
Peck was also selected to play in the North-South Shrine football game in Los Angeles on July 23. Marge still recalls that “a quarterback from the peninsula had a father affiliated with the 49ers” and they let that QB play while relegating her son to defense. She may be right — the father of Serra quarterback Jesse Freitas Jr. was on one of the early San Francisco 49ers’ teams. Freitas did start for the North in that game and threw two touchdown passes to his Serra High teammate, Tom Scott.
No matter, Peck excelled at Utah, leading the frosh team to its memorable season. Then tragedy struck.
It was huge,â€ Jennifer said of the accident. â€œItâ€™s something all of us still talk about. We donâ€™t let anybody get behind a wheel whoâ€™s had one sip of alcohol. Itâ€™s changed our family a lot and is always in the back of our minds.
“It happened 45 years ago, but I know my grandma thinks about it on a daily basis. Randy had a huge group of friends and they still come over to talk about my uncle.”
IN HIS FOOTSTEPS
Tanner Spence, the great nephew of Randy Peck, has followed in his footsteps as a great athlete. Before Spence’s unfortunate injury against Los Banos, Scotts Valley coach Louie Walters touted the receiver/defensive end as a sure-fire, future major college player.
“Tanner brings a lot to the table as a player,” Walters said. “He was Junior of the Year last year in the SCCAL, comes from a very athletic family and being a 6-7 receiver that has great hands and can run is a huge advantage at the high school level.”
Spence played the entire game against Los Banos, not knowing he had broken his foot. He had a 30-yard scoring catch as well as a 53-yard scoring reception negated by a penalty. On defense he nabbed one interception and had another pick wiped out by a roughing-the-passer call.
Throughout the game he wore his trademark No. 15, the same number favored by Randy Peck. Tanner’s younger brother Carson also rocks the No. 15 on the football field, as does their basketball-playing kid sister, Taylor.
Regarding her son’s injury, Jennifer said: â€œHe was in total shock. He said somebody stepped on his foot and he thought it was just bruised. Later he took his shoe off and all he saw was a bruise. He had no idea it was broken. Thereâ€™s no way anyone could have that kind of luck three years in a row (he suffered a torn meniscus in each knee the previous two years).
Walters said Spence often looks like a â€œman-among-boysâ€ and that certainly appears to be the case during last yearâ€™s game against Harbor.
The towering Spence is seen in Hudl.com highlights terrorizing the Pirates with three touchdowns and a 2-point conversion catch and an interception return for a score that was called back by one of those dreaded penalties. On film against the Pirates, Spence appears to be playing against Pop Warner kids, out-running them with ease or tossing them aside as if they were rag dolls.
But playing an SCCAL bottom feeder in a non-descript game is one thing, showcasing yourself in the San Francisco 49ersâ€™ new $1.3 billion stadium where Super Bowl 50 will be played is another. Spence was amped to play against Watsonville up in Santa Clara until Dame Fate frowned upon him.
Said the Scotts Valley star before the season of playing at Leviâ€™s: â€œIâ€™m excited. Not too many kids get to play there. There are only six teams (that will be there), so itâ€™s pretty cool to be selected as one of them.â€
While the injury is a setback, Spence probably has some football ahead of him this season, unlike his great uncle so many years ago when he met his demise. Heâ€™s been to his great grandmotherâ€™s and heard all of the old stories and seen the scrapbooks and the painting of Randy Peck on the wall. Heâ€™s aware of the legacy.
Tall and handsome and sporting a 3.6 grade point average, Spence has much going for him, despite the injury bug that keeps biting him. Heâ€™s determined to learn from the past and rise above it all.
â€œIâ€™ve heard the stories and itâ€™s tough,â€ he said. â€œI guess (Randy) got into a car with someone who was drunk, but he didnâ€™t know it. What happened to him shows how valuable life can be and how you need to take care of your opportunities.â€
Mom Jennifer, watching her grandmother sift through the old photos and articles, remains hopeful her son can recover quickly and still have one last stab at the brass ring and maybe make a run at a college scholarship.
â€œHe recovered quickly from his two knee surgeries before,â€ she said. â€œI think there will be a silver lining because heâ€™s a great kid and heâ€™s worked hard and thereâ€™s got to be a bigger plan.â€
John Murphy is the Web Content Manager of Prep2Prep. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @PrepCatÂ