Colin Bell stepped from his BMW and into the early evening darkness that enveloped most of Broadway Avenue next to the Hawthorne High School football field. Minutes later, the 27-year-old Long Beach firefighter greeted several husky men who, like him, were wearing football pants and T-shirts.
Under the glow of a dim street light and a few twinkling Christmas lights on nearby houses, the men quietly donned shoulder pads and helmets they had brought to the stadium.
Bell, his high school football jersey at his feet, continued to gaze across the field through a chain-link fence. An icy breeze licked at his shirt as he adjusted a baseball cap that hid his dark hair.
"Gotta get some lights on here," he said anxiously to his companions, who passed the time more patiently by swapping stories about rescues they had made.
A school security guard happened by and radioed a custodian to turn the lights on. By now, 30 men from the South Bay Firefighters football team were milling around in the dark, waiting to begin practice for the recent South Bay Charity Bowl football game against arch-rival South Bay Police at El Camino College.
They Take It Seriously
After risking their lives all day, members of both teams sacrifice their personal lives to practice each night. So they take the game seriously.
"Hopefully, we'll beat the pants off them this year," said Bell, who is stationed on Terminal Island.
Nine previous Charity Bowl games had raised a total of more than $100,000 for Exchange Club centers for abused children, according to Charity Bowl President Manuel Martinez of Inglewood.
"A lot of these guys give a lot more than just time here," said one firefighter coach, Capt. Bill Moorehead of Hawthorne. "These guys work hard all day and don't get time off to play."
Players on both sides receive little, if any, compensatory time off from their departments to participate in the game. They often swap shifts so they can attend practices. Firefighters, who generally work 24-hour shifts, say these "trade-outs" are easier to arrange for the police officers, who work eight to 10 hours a day.
"I'm traded down to the bare minimum," said Beverly Hills Firefighter Ray Navarro, who drove from his home in Ontario each night for the final week of practice.
But for many, there was a special kind of reward.
Said Bell, whose career as a defensive back ended in the Air Force: "I just wanna play ball again."
Those thoughts were echoed by many of the players as they trotted single file onto the field. A heavy chain across the only gate made it difficult for the bigger players to pass with their shoulder pads on.
"My body doesn't respond like it used to when I was 18, but this gives me a chance to test myself," said defensive back Bobby Harper, 41, an Inglewood firefighter playing in his seventh Charity Bowl.
Reed (Bing) Bingham, a Long Beach firefighter, never played organized football, though "I boxed some in the Marines." This is the seventh game for the burly, crew-cut nose guard, who sports a tattooed dragon on his right forearm.
'One More Chance'
"You pick things up (about the game) after awhile," he said.
"This game gives guys that have played football before one more chance to do it again," said Dan Ane, 28, a firefighter from the City of Bell.
First-year player John Costley, a Los Angeles County firefighter who gave his age reluctantly as "39" but looked more like 50, said he "is in the twilight of my career."
"I've been wanting to play in this game for a long time, but they wouldn't let (county firefighters) in," he said.
This year's team had a lot of new faces. Many South Bay-area firefighters retired after last year's 21-7 loss, so organizers, short of personnel, recruited outside the area. Long Beach provided 15 players, the most of any department.
From his station house in Inglewood, Coach Mike Squires explained by telephone: "Getting people (to come to practice) is a big problem."
On this night, many key men were missing, including Squires, who had to attend a fire drill.
Team Unity Builds
Although the firefighters had lost two straight and trailed in the series, 5-3-1, Moorehead said the mood was "one of team unity, something we haven't had the last few years."
"We just started to come together about three or four practices ago," Squires said.
Practice, scheduled for 7 p.m., got under way 25 minutes late with stretching exercises on the elevated field, which was lined with white chalk for the high school soccer season. After a hard-hitting practice the previous night, in which starting tailback Steve Islava suffered a broken jaw, the coaching staff had decided to slack off for the remainder of the week.
But when the defensive and offensive teams lined up against each other, the popping of helmets on shoulder pads sounded real.
"Hey, are we supposed to be going full contact?" a player asked Moorehead after a particularly vicious hit.