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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

It's a Small Price to Pay for Wilson to Coach Son

November 03, 1996|Bill Plaschke

The security lights have just flicked on, flooding a tiny lawn at the Crenshaw Christian Center, portending 30 more minutes of football practice, when a car pulls up.

Stanley Wilson shrugs.

It is a mother who will be driving home three of the players.

Which means one thing on a team of 14.

"Practice over," he says.

The remaining players finish their sprints, Wilson collects the balls and tee, buttons up against an early chill.

"A long way from the NFL," he says.

A long way from a lot of things.

*

When we last left Stanley Wilson, he was being kicked out of the Super Bowl on the eve of the 1989 game for alleged cocaine use.

His Cincinnati Bengals lost the game to the San Francisco 49ers, and Wilson, one of their top running backs, never played in the NFL again.

Two years later, he was sent to jail for residential burglary, allegedly to support his rock cocaine habit.

This story is not about those things.

This story is about little things.

An inner-city high school with an enrollment of about 37 daring to field a tackle football team.

A father daring to reattach with his son.

"Welcome to our little world," said Ben Merchant, head coach. "It's something, isn't it?"

Located on Crenshaw Christian Center's lush, gated and guarded grounds that also house the FaithDome church in South-Central Los Angeles, the K-12 school's official name is Frederick K.C. Price III Schools.

It is shortened to Price High for high school athletic activities.

That's not all that is condensed.

In its second season, the team competes in an eight-man league for small schools, the only inner-city team among them, none as tiny as this.

The Knights, who are 1-5-1, practice on the small, round lawn in front of the school building. There are bushes for end zones and a full sidewalk for the 50-yard line.

The goal posts? Two palm trees.

Yard lines? In their dreams.

When the Knights scrimmage, they can work with only one half of the line at a time.

"It is either a left-side scrimmage, or right-side scrimmage," Merchant said.

When a couple of players must miss practice for tutoring sessions--they are required to carry a 2.5 grade-point average--the team doesn't scrimmage.

It plays its games at a rented high school field down the street but, even then, there is no doubt that this is no ordinary school.

There are prayers before and after every game, and no cursing or demeaning talk allowed at any time.

"You don't have to cuss out somebody to motivate them, or degrade them to build them up," said Becky Lynch, president of the school's parent-teacher organization. "We wanted football here as an outlet for our boys, something to give them goals outside of the academic environment. But we will not stand for all that other stuff."

Earlier this year, into this environment stepped Stanley Wilson, Banning High graduate, star running back of the University of Oklahoma and the Bengals, two years out of prison, an expert in all that other stuff.

With sawdust in his hair and tar on his pants, he would leave his construction job to watch son Stanley Jr., the team's freshman cornerback and running back.

Between his football and his troubles, Stanley felt he had not seen enough of the child.

"His grandfather raised him as much as I did," Wilson said.

Amid the sounds of blocking and tackling and trying, Wilson sensed the chance for a new start.

Merchant, watching Wilson on the sidelines, knowing he was a member of the church, sensed it too.

"We all started praying for him to volunteer to help us coach," he said.

Wilson inexplicably showed up several weeks ago with a clipboard. He hasn't left since.

"This is something I can pass on to Stanley Jr.," he said. "Something I can give him."

And so he does, unabashedly lavishing extra--if not tougher--attention on his son during practice. He scolds him for looking at the quarterback when he should be looking for the ball, urges him to run harder, pushes him to step higher.

"It's fun," said Stanley Jr. "My dad is funny."

He said it with wonder, the way 13-year-old boys talk about things they have seen for the first time.

During recent post-practice film sessions, Stanley Jr. learned more. For example, that his father really did play in the NFL.

"That's what is so neat about this, that I can sit down with him and go over my old videotapes and say, 'Look, Stan, that's your dad, that small guy,' " Wilson said.

He was not a small guy on that front lawn that recent Wednesday, lecturing the kids about resiliency, the ability to adapt, giving raw yet heartfelt advice.

"I saw the film of this team we're playing this week, and they have one real fat guy, but don't worry about him," he announced. "He walks around, 'Oh, oh, here come Fat Albert.' "

Behind his facemask, Stanley Jr. shook his head and chuckled.

Merchant smiled.

"You can be down, and football teaches you to get up," he said.

Like they say over there in the FaithDome.

Amen.

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