It kind of started as a joke. Ryan Kraft had been bugging his close friend Michael Costa to join the Bret Harte High School football team since their freshman year. Costa continually rejected the proposal. But Kraft was persistent.
Heading into their final year at Bret Harte, Kraft again made the suggestion that Costa join him on the football field. And for the first time in years, Costa was receptive to the idea. However, he laid out a counteroffer.
Costa would play football for the first time in his high school career if Kraft agreed to play basketball. A deal was struck.
Seniors Kraft and Costa each participated in a new sport and finished their Bret Harte athletic careers playing next to one another on the baseball diamond.
“I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way,” Costa said. “We had three seasons together and it was exciting to be there with him. It was a fun experience.”
Rivals before teammates
Before Costa and Kraft were Bullfrogs, they were rival athletes at different schools. Costa attended Mark Twain Elementary, while Kraft went to Avery Middle School. Although they didn’t grow up together, each one knew of the other.
“I always heard that Ryan Kraft was some kid at Avery who was really good at sports and honestly, I didn’t have anything against him, but it started to become a competitive thing between us,” Costa said. “A lot of people would say, ‘Ryan Kraft is really good at sports, have you ever seen him?’ I always heard about him.”
Their paths officially crossed at a youth track meet. By the end of their elementary school lives, they were teammates on the Pop Warner football team. Even as young teammates, Kraft knew he would always have some sort of competition with Costa.
“We both wanted to be the best and we didn’t want to get shown up by the other guy in any sport,” Kraft said.
The two gelled on the gridiron. On defense, they roamed the secondary, while on offense, Kraft quickly found a target whom he felt comfortable throwing the ball to. Kraft figured that quarterback-to-receiver connection would continue when they became high schoolers, but that wasn’t the case.
“We played football together our eighth-grade year and after that, I didn’t want to play anymore,” Costa said.
“He left me hanging a little bit,” Kraft added.
A football life
Even without Costa, Kraft blossomed into a quality quarterback. In his sophomore season, Kraft threw for 824 yards and 14 touchdowns, while running for 612 yards and five scores. The next year, the confident quarterback threw for 1,467 yards and 17 touchdowns and ran for 588 yards and five scores.
Heading into his final year of football, Kraft didn’t want to have any regrets. So, with spring practices about to begin, he once again asked Costa to play.
“Once he said, ‘I’m in,’ I was hoping that he was serious and I made him show up to spring practice,” Kraft said. “Once he showed up every day to all the spring practices, I knew that he was going to stick around. But then I realized that I have to worry about playing basketball.”
Costa returned to the field for the first time since his eighth-grade year and was quickly reminded that football is not an easy sport to play.
“Over the summer, it was grueling,” Costa said. “I practiced every day and it was continuous work. But being there with all of my friends and everyone else on the team made me feel welcomed.”
In his first ever high school football game, Costa found the end zone. But an injury forced him to watch the majority of the season from the sideline. Costa had his best game of the year in the final game of the year. In a 47-27 home loss to Calaveras High, the speedy receiver had 136 yards on four catches and two touchdowns.
“It was really exciting for me,” Costa said about his performance against Calaveras. “It was a big rivalry game, and it made me wish that I could have played during those four or five games I was hurt and make an impact.”
Bret Harte head coach Casey Kester would have liked to have had Costa all four years of his high school career.
“He is a naturally gifted player and was a tremendous asset for us,” Kester said. “But if he had been out all four years his on-field skills would have been that much greater. He wasn’t scared or anything, it is just a matter of learning when to duck and when to attack.”
As for Kraft, his three-year run as Bret Harte’s starting quarterback had come to an end. He finished with 3,641 yards passing and 44 touchdowns. On the ground, he rushed for 1,471 yards and 13 scores.
“He had the arm, the eye, the aggressiveness and the speed to hurt defenses,” Kester said. “Kraft holds most of the passing records now. He was a three-year starter, he took the ’Frogs to the playoffs his sophomore year, so yeah, you can make a darn good case that he is the best quarterback that I’ve seen here.”
Once the football season came to an end, Kraft held up his end of the bargain and traded his cleats for basketball shoes. Like Costa to football, Kraft hadn’t played basketball since his elementary school days and it showed at times. But Kraft wasn’t trying to fool anyone into believing he was better than he was. He hoped that his work ethic and athleticism would outshine his lack of basketball skills.
“I knew that I’m not a good shooter,” laughed Kraft. “I knew that the whole time. All I wanted to do was help out as much as I could, focus on defense and play my role. I just wanted to be an athlete out there. I would work really hard in practice and I wouldn’t even come close to being good. It was crazy to watch him (Costa) do these magical layups and I’m just struggling to make a shot.”
Even though Kraft was a fish-out-of-water, he still kept a good attitude. But that didn’t mean he wasn’t a target for jokes and ribs.
“I was giving him a hard time, but I don’t feel that it was just me,” Costa said as Kraft laughed nearby. “It was our teammates and our coach, but everyone was just playing around. But when he’d make a layup or do something small, I’d be sure to hype him up. It was pretty funny.”
Kraft added, “Everybody wanted to pick on me a little bit, but I felt like I held up my end on defense. I just couldn’t put the ball in the bucket.”
There was nothing funny when Costa was on the court. Like Kraft, Costa was a three-year varsity starter. In the 2018-19 season, Costa scored 455 points, pulled down 81 boards, dished 61 assists, collected 25 steals and knocked down 50 3-point baskets. Costa ended his Bret Harte career as one of eight 1,000-point scorers and No. 1 in 3-point baskets made.
Costa finished the year as a first-team Mother Lode League player.
For the first time all year, Costa and Kraft believed they were on an equal playing field. Both players were entering their fourth year as varsity players. But days before the first game of the year, Kraft had to deliver some bad news to Costa and the rest of his team.
During the football season, Kraft injured his ankle and played the rest of the year, plus all of the basketball season in pain. He had no other option than to have surgery, which put his final year on the baseball diamond in jeopardy.
“It was shocking,” Costa said. “Ryan told all of us that he wasn’t going to participate and it was heartbreaking. Ryan’s a big part of our team and I felt like I didn’t have my shortstop anymore.”
Following his successful surgery, Kraft was determined to suit up and return to the field. With nine games remaining in the season, Kraft was cleared to play. But the road to recovery wasn’t always one without bumps and detours.
“I put a plan together to have a goal to walk one week and then jog around the house the next,” Kraft said about his rehab. “It all started falling in line to where I might be able to get back for a few games this season. We started following a schedule and working out daily. It would get sore after some games or practices and every once in a while, I’d feel like I pushed it too much. If it started hurting, I’d back off and let it heal up some more.”
Because of his injury, Kraft didn’t put up the numbers that he typically does. He collected only four hits in 27 at-bats, but Kraft didn’t let his lack of success at the plate take away from his journey just to play again.
“I was very grateful,” Kraft said. “I struggled at the plate a little bit, but if I struck out, I wasn’t mad. I got to play baseball, so how mad could I really be?”
As for Costa, he hit .296 with 21 hits, 15 RBIs, 14 runs scored, with four doubles and one triple. He finished the year on the Mother Lode League’s second-team.
The final chapter
In four years at Bret Harte, Costa and Kraft never won a Mother Lode League championship in any varsity sport. Costa and Kraft never made the playoffs in basketball and played in just two playoff baseball games. Kraft reached the postseason in football during his sophomore year, but lost in the opening round.
Kraft and Costa leave Bret Harte with numerous records to their names. But perhaps what means the most to both athletes is they leave as best friends.
“He’s a good teammate and probably my best friend,” Kraft said. “There’s no other person that gets me on the field and off the field as much as Michael.”