VAN NUYS — Javier Soto had to think quickly when he got off work each night. As he walked from his office at Delano Park to the parking lot, usually after 10 p.m., he would invariably find men sitting on the hood of his city-owned truck.
Soto, the park's director, would try to avoid confronting the men by dropping his keys, stopping to tie his shoes--anything to alert them he was coming, in hopes they would clear off on their own.
Gang members, he figured. And they were ruining the park.
"They were a threatening factor, an intimidating factor," recalled Soto, 35. "They were not discreet about their actions."
As park director, Soto was supposed to be organizing youth sports programs and other activities for the neighborhood. But few parents would bring their kids near the place. Soto said he felt like a hypocrite for trying to persuade parents to bring their children to a place where he wouldn't take his own kids.
Then in 1996, after two years on the job, Soto had an idea: Why not try to get gang members involved in the park?
On a one-by-one basis, Soto began working with gang members who appeared ready for a fresh start and whose talents could benefit the park. One helped him paint signs. Others got involved with youth sports, coaching and refereeing games.
"They became what I would call functional. People realized, 'You know what? They're harmless,' " said Soto, who is now senior recreation director at Highland Park in Los Angeles. "I saw that glow in their eyes when I asked them to do something for me. Finally somebody saw them as more than a gang member."
The once-troubled park "has seen a big decrease in graffiti, in drinking in public," said LAPD Officer Angel Munoz, a former member of the department's anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums. "There has been a huge decrease in violent crimes in the area, which is the most important thing for the neighborhood. People tell me they are not afraid to come to the park."
Munoz gives Soto much of the credit for that. But Soto says another man played a big role: Javier Gonzalez, Delano Park's sports director and president of the Delano adult soccer league.
"Javier was the first one in the line of fire. He's known many [gang members] as young teenagers. They looked upon him as such a role model," Soto said.
Gonzalez, 40, said he noticed that gang members came to watch the soccer matches at the park. Soon, he was officiating informal games among gang members. Finally, he encouraged them to organize their own team and join the Delano Park league.
The young men formed a team known simply as "Van Nuys." Several of the team players are or were members of Barrio Van Nuys, one of the oldest gangs in the Valley, with about 300 members.
Players never considered naming the team after the gang, said the team's president and ex-gang member Jorge Navarrete.
"We don't want to make it seem like a gang thing," said Navarrete, 27. "We want to make it look as decent as we can."
In fact, many of the Van Nuys players say they are moving away from the gang lifestyle, getting jobs and starting families. Soccer becomes a way to work out aggression and get together with friends.
"Getting involved in sports brought us out of the streets," Navarrete said.
Still, some other teams were unsettled at the thought of playing a team composed of gang members.
"People said, 'Why did you give them a chance to play?' " recalled Gonzalez with a grin. "Everyone was so afraid to play them. Those who haven't played them think they're going to play the devil."
During one early game, one gang member did start trouble--by trying to stab an opposing player with the spike of a corner flag, Soto said. But officials and players like Navarrete made it clear that fighting would not be tolerated.
"I have to go and explain, 'Don't argue because you're never going to win. You're not going to make the referee change his mind. You make it worse for the team,' " said Navarrete, a video engineer.
Although the team had limited soccer experience, it had fast players who wanted to win.
"They played with more heart," said Carlos Torres, 31, of Pacoima, who plays for the team Garcia Income Tax and has played against Van Nuys. "They made games more interesting. Opponents knew it would be a hard game."
Two years ago, Van Nuys petitioned to join the independent Cristobal Colon league. But of its 66 teams, not one wanted to play against Van Nuys.
But Navarrete urged league officials to give the team a shot, and Van Nuys has been in the league ever since.
"They've respected all our rules," said league president Hector Anaya, 46, of Van Nuys. "In this world everybody deserves a second chance."
"They don't come out here to start trouble. These guys just come to play," added Marin Rivas, a recreation assistant at Delano. "They're players now, not brawlers."
Soon the team started winning and captured several championships.
"We allowed them to have a glass display for the trophies they won. It gave them a positive image," Soto said.