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By Mike Wood
Special to Chabot Athletics
Football is back at Chabot College this weekend, with a heavy dose of mystery.
It'll be a journey into the great unknown when the Gladiators see their first game action in two years on Saturday, Sept. 4 against Fresno City College. 
Still, head coach Eric Fanene and his Gladiators team are thrilled to be returning to game action.
Week 1 games always tend to be unpredictable, but the range of possibilities is off the charts for this opener, which kicks off at 2 p.m at Chabot. With the 2020 season lost to the COVID-19 pandemic, experience is at a premium. Fanene admits to having "not many" players with community college game experience.
What Fanene is most excited about is that his team has reached its goal of 100 percent vaccination against COVID-19, quite an achievement for a roster of nearly 100. Everyone has received at least one shot and shortly everyone on the team and staff will be fully vaccinated, as required by the college for high-contact sports, he said.
"We are reminding the players that the team that handles this best has the best chance to succeed," he said.
But after the lost 2020 season, questions abound for the fall return:
How will Chabot fare against Bay 6 National Conference powers College of San Mateo — ranked No. 1 in the JC Athletic Bureau Coaches Preseason Poll, No. 5 City College of San Francisco or No. 11 Laney?
And can the Gladiators improve from their 2019 mark of 4-5 overall and 1-3 in Bay 6 National games?
Can Chabot — ranked 25th in the JCAB poll with Diablo Valley College — muster the offense to overcome the loss of all-everything quarterback Chayce Akaka, now at Weber State?
Mainly, what will the season look like, with most players not having played a full season at either the JC or high school level for two years?
Fanene is squarely focused on the basics, on the heels of a scrimmage on Aug. 26 with Santa Rosa.
"In Game 1, when you don't know much about your opponent, it's all about technique and discipline," he said.
Fanene said the full buy-in on the vaccination goal should be a plus for his team, not to mention Chabot being among the forerunners in getting their players back together safely.
"It's going to sound like a super cliche, but no one wrote the book on how to handle a pandemic," he said. "We are so lucky to have a great administration and we were one of the first in the state to get back on campus, and do things as a team. They have done a great job."
Just the additional time of gathering, whether in person or virtually, helped greatly with team-building. He focused on bringing hope to his players and keeping them engaged during difficult times.
"That can be our edge because we have been together longer," Fanene said.
Not only did the situation draw the Chabot team together, but the experience found Fanene enjoying the additional time spent with his own family. Last year was the first fall without football since the sixth grade for Fanene, who's spent the past 15 seasons coaching.
"I have four kids, and they're thinking, 'Daddy's never been home like this'... It's been awesome."
Fanene took to heart advice from his coaching mentor, legendary Gladiators coach Danny Calcagno, who is now at California High in San Ramon.
"He told me you always have time for coaching, but you don't want to wonder later on, why did I stay away and not be with my family as much," Fanene said. "He gave me this advice before the pandemic."
There's a bit of change in coaching duties. While Jerome Manos returns as defensive coordinator, the offensive coordinator is now George Zuber, the former coach at James Logan High in Union City. Zuber served as offensive line coach previously, and getting him involved at Chabot has been something Fanene wanted since Zuber stepped down at Logan in 2015. There was a roadblock to that happening right away.
"When he stepped down from Logan, he was the first guy I wanted," Fanene said. But when they talked, he told me 'my wife would kill me,' if he didn't take at least a year from coaching, Fanene recalled with a chuckle.
Fanene is now working with the offensive line, a departure for a coach known for his defensive mind. He's enjoying the change, and liking what he's seen from the group of linemen. He's been impressed by both sides of the line.
"I thought our O-line was strongest, but the D-Line really brought it in our intersquad scrimmage," Fanene said. "We've had some late additions, so there is a lot of depth. So they have a good problem over there on the defensive line."
Fanene said keeping the team connected, whether in person or on Zoom meetings, built a foundation that has helped draw an influx of new talent.
"Word started going out about how Chabot is doing stuff, so that helped the numbers of high school graduates coming in," he said.
The Gladiators will need to compensate for the many contributions from Akaka, the Bay 6 National Offensive MVP in 2019. The dual-threat standout from Maui led the conference in passing yards per game with 191.9 and 19 touchdowns, and his 60.1 rushing yards per game ranked fourth.
Fresno City and Chabot opted to not trade film, adding to the intrigue of what the teams will look like. A scrimmage opponent the previous two seasons, Fresno City and Chabot split four matchups from 2014-2017 and have history going back to the days as foes in the Valley Conference.
Saturday's game will be open for fans, with many trappings like the snack bar back. Attendees must wear face coverings as per Chabot campus policy for outdoors crowds, and fans are asked to exit right after the game, as opposed to typical casual on-field post-game gatherings. The game will be live-streamed by