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The Gang's Not Here Any More : Santiago High Player Gave Up Street Life

November 06, 1990|CHRIS FOSTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GARDEN GROVE — There's Alex Ripley, see him? There he is on the football field, scoring touchdowns for Santiago High School. There he is at the girls' volleyball game, supporting the team while talking with friends. There he is on campus, laughing, joking, having fun.

Alex Ripley, the football star. Alex Ripley, the hard-working student. Alex Ripley, the role model.

Alex Ripley, being the best that he can be.

Sometimes, even Alex can't fathom the change in his life. A senior at Santiago, he has run the gauntlet and emerged relatively unscathed.

The troubles Alex faced are not unusual for a kid growing up in Garden Grove--exposure to gangs.

In fact, the path he followed was all too typical for the area. What is atypical is that Alex, who spent three years in a gang, got out of that cycle.

Sure, it took two transfers--from Santiago to Garden Grove and back again--and all the help his family could offer. But the end result is that Alex is looking toward the future and has a future that is worth looking toward.

"I decided it was time to grow up," Alex said. "I really had an attitude. I used to think I was bad; I used to think I was hard. I was dumb."

Alex has wised up.

His parents, Eddie and Maggie Ripley, have spent the past two years trying to help their second oldest child. They have moved the family twice to get Alex away from the wrong influences and instituted weekly family meetings to open lines of communication.

Alex finally listened. He returned to Santiago this year with a new attitude and an improved dedication toward sports.

Alex, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound running back, is the Cavaliers' leading rusher with 630 yards and has scored six touchdowns. His abilities have attracted some attention from college recruiters, according to Coach Paul Allen.

A football scholarship would be nice. It would give Ripley a chance to continue playing the sport he has come to love, not to mention further his education. But, for now, what Alex really cherishes is a life that was saved.

His.

"I feel really lucky to be out of that way of life," Alex said. "I thought it was never going to end. If I would have continued, I would have ended up being a dropout and a bum. Or worse."

Two years ago, Alex was the worst that he could be.

By the time he reached high school, he had already joined a gang in Long Beach--the Sons of Samoa. The gang, which included many of his cousins, was a faction of the Crips and was located in west Long Beach.

"A lot of my friends were in gangs; that's the way I grew up," Alex said. "I thought I had to join one. I partied almost every weekend and almost every weekend there was a fight."

The Sons of Samoa are well-known to the Long Beach Police Department. In fact, it was the focus of a sweep a few years ago after gang members had jumped two police officers.

"They were a very tough group, especially when they had been drinking or were high," said Detective Norm Sorenson, who works in gang control in Long Beach. "They were also low on tolerance. They would fight at the drop of a hat."

Alex said he was never involved with drugs. However, he liked to drink and he liked the fist fights. He attended parties, in Long Beach or Garden Grove, looking for a fight.

"I wouldn't start anything, but I would sit back and wait," Alex said. "I would be dressed up like a gangster--baggy blue jeans, a white shirt and blue rag (bandanna). All I had to do was sit there and wait. There would be problems."

Eddie and Maggie Ripley knew little of their son's gang activities. They just thought he was visiting relatives in Long Beach.

The Ripleys had tried to steer Alex and his brother, Dana, away from gangs by getting them involved in sports. The tactic had worked with Dana, who is two years older than Alex.

Dana was a football star at Santiago and received a scholarship to play at Hawaii. He left school after last year to pursue a baseball career.

"Dana, somehow, he knew that gangs weren't a good thing for him," said Maggie, who had moved to Garden Grove from American Samoa with her parents in 1965. "But I always worried that Alex would be the one who had problems, even when he was a kid. He was born with an attitude."

Alex played baseball and football as a youth at his parents' insistence. When he was a freshman at Santiago, he was moved up to the varsity football team.

Although he was talented, Alex didn't really care about sports. He played football, but was not as fanatical about it as Dana.

Still, Alex became an important part of the team, on raw talent alone. He was a starting running back and linebacker.

The Cavaliers finished third in the Garden Grove League, but were eliminated in the first round of the Southern Section Central Conference playoffs.

"I liked playing the sport, but my mind wasn't set on football," Alex said. "I started hanging out with some of the older guys, going to parties and drinking. I kept things from my parents, but as soon as I left the house, I would put on the blue rag."

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