For once I can recommend a fact-based melodrama that doesn’t have to dip into cornball fiction.
The film is called “Gridiron Gang,” the story of a football team formed in a Los Angeles County juvenile probation camp in Malibu. I haven’t seen it yet, and probably won’t go see it when it debuts next week.
The reason: I saw it in real life 18 years ago, and it gave me goose bumps. I felt like I was watching a movie.
I was working as a Metro reporter for the L.A. Times when a guy I knew in high school and who was now working at Kilpatrick told me what had happened: Two probation officers and a camp teacher thought they could teach work ethic, pride and discipline through football. One of them was Sean Porter, who is portrayed by the movie’s star, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson.
Kilpatrick recruited some football talent from San Fernando Valley Juvenile Hall. The Camp Kilpatrick Mustangs would compete in the California Interscholastic Federation’s 8-man football league, which catered to small schools. Everybody emphasized that winning was not important, but the team kept winning. The Mustangs were 7-1 by the time I caught up with them late in the season.
"I learned to feel respect and how to get respect," one of the kids, incarcerated for assault, told me. "What surprised me was that we got over the gang thing, learning to play with guys from other neighborhoods who'd be enemies where we grew up."
Another boy came to Kilpatrick with 298 pounds on his 5-foot-11 body. As the team practiced each afternoon, he began losing weight. He liked it. He started running on his own. He began dieting. He lost nearly 90 pounds, and told me that when he went home on a furlough he walked through his neighborhood unrecognized.
“This is the first time I've ever been good at anything,” one of the players told one of the coaches. “I didn't know I could do anything but gang-bang.' "
You never know how much of this is real when you interview somebody briefly. Lucky for me, I was able to watch the Mustangs in a CIF playoff game against a much better team from a private high school in Brentwood that charged tuition of $7,600 a year. Kilpatrick had started the season with 24 players. Now only 15 were left because of injuries, dismissals or releases.
Here’s how the story described it:
The Brentwood field is built into a bowl off Sunset Boulevard, below a charming side street. Some Brentwood students brought low-backed lawn chairs to sit near the sidelines. Brentwood had uniformed cheerleaders and enthusiastic parents. Camp Kilpatrick had Sean Porter, his face sunburned angry red, hollering at the silent, contemplative players in the tiny locker room before the game.
"Here and in the real world, the only thing you can control is you!" Porter bellowed. "As long as you give 100% you know who and where you are."
It was 6-0 Kilpatrick at half-time. Kilpatrick's players had started sluggishly but began to dominate the game with each series of plays. They were faster than Brentwood, and they were hitting harder. Brentwood's fans watched in stunned silence.
Hey!" [Coach Mo] Friedman exploded at the players after they had returned to the locker room at half-time. "This is the greatest thing in the world, because we--individually--are doing it."
Everyone was tired. Suck it up, the coaches said, the way football coaches always do.
The Mustangs held together through most of the third quarter. Then Brentwood surged and its star back, Jay Langan, ran for a touchdown. A two-point conversion put Brentwood ahead. Its fans were noisy and confident. The Mustangs looked ready to crack.
They didn't. They squeezed out several first downs, pushing the ball as far as Brentwood's 17-yard-line. Finally, though, the drive ended.
Brentwood had the ball again, and this time it drove the length of the field for a second touchdown. It was 15-6, and when the Mustangs got the ball back they might as well have run out the clock, but they didn't. With little more than two minutes to go they pushed it down to Brentwood's 16-yard line, but could go no further. Brentwood took over, ran out the clock and celebrated.
Earlier in the year, the Kilpatrick coaches talked about how their kids would accept adversity and success, whether they cared enough about either to be moved. Some of these youngsters had been so hardened by life on the streets that they took on the numbed, uncaring stance of much older men. It is a look that says they cannot be hurt because they do not care.
Now, on the Kilpatrick sideline, several players were crying. A few teammates embraced and consoled them. Several players' parents had driven out to see the game and to share a few moments with their sons after the final gun. One of them brought a player's baby girl onto the field so the boy could cradle his child.
The coaches were still bellowing at the players, but with a different message.
"You got nothing to be ashamed of!" Porter said.
A couple of days later the headmaster of Brentwood, who rarely writes letters about football games, wrote to Kilpatrick, complimenting the camp on the comportment of its players and inviting Kilpatrick to be Brentwood's 1989 homecoming game opponent.
On the bus back to camp after the game a Kilpatrick lineman who had probably cried the hardest of anyone, sobbing uncontrollably as he sat on the bench, tried to apologize for his tears to Mo Friedman.
"Coach," he said, "I couldn't help it. It just meant so much to me."
"Hey," Friedman said, "welcome to humanity."