Babala Brothers Are Heart and Soul of Dolphins’ Defense
By STEVE GALLUZZO | Sports Editor
Whether it is in practice or in a game does not matter. When they get scored on, Palisades High football players Jack and Johnny Babala take it personally. As leaders of the Dolphins’ defense they expect to keep every opponent off the scoreboard, as was the case in last Friday’s season opener against Cleveland. Competitiveness is in their DNA and growing up going head-to-head against one another has developed in them a thick skin to handle whatever adversity comes their way.
“We’ve always been competitive, especially since we grew up playing sports together,” says Johnny, the older twin by exactly one minute. “I’m always going to try and beat him and he’s always going to try and beat me. It’s what pushes us to be better.”
“We’re always competitive with each other in everything we do, not just football but also school,” echoes Jack. “It’s hard not to be when someone you’re so close with has all the same interests.”
The brothers grew up in Long Beach and spent their elementary years at Westerly School, where they played on the basketball team. They were forwards on their AAU team and spent countless hours in their childhood going one-on-one at the park.
“As kids we played every sport possible but the two that stuck with us were basketball and football,” Jack recalls. “The reason football stuck out to me was the aspect of contact and physicality in it.”
His sibling agrees: “I was attracted to football because we were always surrounded by it. Every Monday, Thursday, Saturday, and Sunday we watched football.”
After moving to Santa Monica, one block away from University High, they went to Paul Revere Middle School and played basketball. Over the summer between eighth and ninth grade they went to a basketball tryout at University and were offered spots on the team, but by then their focus had shifted to football.
“All of our friends from Revere went to Pali so that was part of why we went there,” Jack says. “Once we decided we wanted to play football it was really an easy choice where to go.”
The twins made an immediate impact as freshmen, leading the junior varsity squad to the league crown despite playing new positions. Jack was named Defensive Player of the Year in 2018 and credits Coach Ray Marsden for recognizing his innate instincts at linebacker.
“I’d played quarterback and defensive end since I was 5 and I had my heart set on playing quarterback for Pali,” Jack admits. “Linebacker was something Coach Marsden suggested because he’d made it clear I wasn’t going to play quarterback that year. That was a defining moment and looking back I can’t thank Coach Marsden enough for the decision he made, seeing now how well it’s worked out. If I’d stayed on my high horse and insisted on playing quarterback I’d be a backup right now.”
Johnny also switched to defense after having been a wide receiver throughout Pee Wee and Pop Warner. Despite no reps all summer long he was plugged in at safety and flourished—much to his coach’s delight.
“Jack wanted to try out as our quarterback but we were already set at that position and he wasn’t really standing out, so we convinced him to play defense and he was a ball hawk for a team that had five shutouts and only allowed seven touchdowns all season,” Marsden remembers. “As for Johnny, he was probably the most versatile player on that team. He played both ways, special teams, everywhere. He was a really, really good all-around athlete and loved the contact.”
They have always run in the same social circles and when they are not at practice, doing homework, hanging out with friends or watchingcollege football (they are die-hard Michigan Wolverines fans), Johnny is playing video games and Jack is collecting sports cards, a hobby of his.
“Jack is more vocal on the field and I’m more laid back,” Johnny says. “We both have the same personalities on and off the field.”
“I’m more vocal on the field because me being a linebacker I’m in the middle of the entire defense lining people up and relaying the call to the team,” Jack explains. “We both bring the same strong intensity mixed with passion onto the field. Off of the field we’re both loud outgoing people.”
Johnny’s strongest assets as the starting free safety are his anticipation and quickness. Both were on display in last week’s opener when he intercepted two passes in the first half.
“I love how I can see everything going on on the field,” he says. “Making interceptions and laying guys out coming across the field are the best feelings in the world. On JV many kids had never played so they covered the basics which I already knew. My experience is what led me to get called up my freshman year. The biggest difference on varsity is that the players are bigger and stronger.”
In addition to being a first-string outside linebacker, Jack is also one of the team captains—a role he embraces in the huddle, on the sidelines and in the locker room.
“I loved JV but the competition is definitely different when it comes to varsity,” Jack says matter-of-factly. “Speed is the first thing you notice, then comes the importance of proper technique when making the tackle.”
The twins learn from each other and hold each other accountable.
“We’re always talking about football and the gameplan before games,” Johnny says. “We push each other to be better. We expect each other to do our jobs. When we don’t we let each other know. We’ve always been close and we never stay mad at each other for too long. Jack is always in the right spot and that allows me to shoot the gaps and make plays.”
Adds Jack: “On the field I notice in some sort of weird telepathic way we notice the same things and react the same ways. For example I’ll look behind me to see or tell him to line up farther over to the strong side but he’ll already be there. In most cases we don’t need to talk to each other on the field because we’re both thinking the same way. Johnny is like a linebacker only 15 yards back. He reads the run better than anyone.”
One teammate who looks up to the brothers is junior outside linebacker Toby Manheim: “Jack’s football mind is the craziest I’ve ever seen. It shocks me how he knows the plays before they happen. Johnny’s a superior athlete who is great around the ball and makes a ton of plays.”
At 6’ 3” and 180 pounds, Johnny is two inches taller and 10 pounds lighter. They both aspire to play college football (ideally at the University of Michigan, where many of their family members have gone) but winding up at the same school is by no means a must.
Although the coronavirus ultimately reduced their junior season to four games, all in the spring, the twins were vital to the Dolphins’ success.
“The Garfield game was huge because at the time we were 1-1 and Coach [Tim] Hyde was telling us the importance that game held and the City powerhouse Garfield had been,”Jack says. “That day we blew them out and held them to zero points, so it was very satisfying. We’ve got the best coaches in the whole City and this year our goal is to win the whole thing. I want to graduate with a ring on my finger.”
Adds Johnny: “The only thing that sticks out to me about my high school career is that I’ve never made it past the first round of the playoffs. We plan to change that this year and more!”
Whenever Pali High’s new head coach Chris Hyduke talks about the Babala brothers his eyes light up and his mood mellows, though he laments the six games they were deprived of playing by the pandemic.
“Those two seniors are a big part of our defense,” Hyduke proclaims. “Jack has taken the place of [2019 team MVP] Syaire Riley at linebacker. He’s real headsy, a natural leader and I appreciate the way he takes charge out there. He calls the defense and gets everybody where they’re supposed to be. He’s more serious whereas his brother is the jokester. Johnny likes to have fun. He’s the captain of our secondary, he’s tall, he’s physical, he’s super fast from sideline to sideline and has great reflexes.”
While the City Open Division title is the ultimate prize, the immediate task for the twins is another goose egg Friday night.
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