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Enjoying City Life

Ed Croson Has Been Pleasantly Surprised by His Team After Leaving Private Chaminade High for Birmingham


VAN NUYS — For moving only a few miles, the change in the landscape was jarring.

Coach Ed Croson and his fleet of loyal assistants fled Chaminade High under fire and huddled up at Birmingham.

They left a parochial school in West Hills with every amenity, a place of privilege where the profile of a football player went like this: Extremely motivated, highly intelligent, moderately athletic.

They moved to a troubled City Section school that was 3-17 the previous two seasons. Several top players transferred a year ago and the profile of holdovers went like this: Questionable motivation, poor knowledge of the game, untapped athletic ability.

Croson was aware of the stereotypes. Then he met the Birmingham players and discovered it was all fiction. His roster is full of extremely motivated, highly intelligent, superior athletes.

Expecting to painstakingly rebuild a program in ruins, he discovered numerous gems amid the rubble. All it took was some polish. Birmingham is 3-0 entering tonight's game against unbeaten San Fernando.

"You hear stuff about City schools, that there are bad kids," Croson said. "Sure, kids struggle. But these are good kids. And they want to succeed in football and in life every bit as much as kids at private schools."

When it comes to reaching for the stars, John Walker is in another galaxy. The talented senior receiver-defensive back has committed to USC. His grades are high. And he was a child actor whose credits include "ER," "Seventh Heaven" and numerous commercials.

He stopped acting two years ago to focus on football and school. Walker considered transferring last year along with six teammates, but he is glad he stayed.

"Last year we had a lot of anarchy on the field," Walker said. "If something didn't go right, there was a lot of yelling on the field. You can't function like that.

"This coaching staff has really brought out the talent our team possessed. Everyone is more disciplined. I feel blessed. I'd walk on hot coals if they asked me to."

Kevin McCleary, a junior who has rushed for 334 yards as the lone setback in the Patriots' spread offense, is one of several skill-position players with heat in their feet because of track team experience.

Birmingham's track program is one of the best in the state. Sprint coach Kertic Carruth doubles as the running back coach and is the thread between the two programs.

"His specialty is track but I think he's a way better football coach," McCleary said of Carruth. "He's like a big ball of motivation."

McCleary should know. He runs behind huge barrels of motivation known as Birmingham's offensive linemen. They plow over defenders and shatter stereotypes, as their career aspirations attest.

Guard Dindo Navarro, a native of the Philippines, wants to become an accountant. Guard Israel Diaz plans on joining the LAPD. Tackle Mike Kushnatsian builds cars and dreams of starting his own business. Tackle Mario Palomino wants to become a teacher and center Joseph Campos aspires to become a sports agent.

Other Birmingham players plan to become architects, archeologists, computer engineers, doctors and lawyers. McCleary envisions a career as a counselor for children unless he becomes a poet first.

"I love to read poetry and every once is a while I write a poem," he said. "My brother brought home this poetry book and I read one poem called 'Phantom Delight,' that reminded me of my girlfriend. I've been breezing through poems ever since."

Not every high school football player has enough self-esteem to admit enjoying poetry. But learning, experimenting and reaching for the top rung of the ladder are in vogue at Birmingham.

Croson introduced a sophisticated no-huddle offense. Pass routes and blocking assignments are determined by recognizing the defense and making adjustments at the line of scrimmage.

"Each week we are getting better," Croson said. "We've had some real problems at times. But the kids are working through them. There is a lot of communication and terminology to learn."

Birmingham defeated Canoga Park, Van Nuys and Reseda by outscoring them, 104-34. San Fernando, a power that has won 13 of its last 15 games, will be tougher.

"We might not match up with them physically," Croson said.

But in desire and momentum, the Patriots can measure up with anybody. Birmingham has always had one of the City's best facilities, an 11,000-seat stadium. The scoreboard is new and the stands renovated.

The program has had glory days, most recently in 1997 when Emmanuel Evans rushed for 2,205 yards in an 8-3 season. In 1994, Birmingham advanced to the City 3-A Division final behind Marvin Powell and Courtney Blunt.

"There is a lot of potential here," Croson said. "There's no reason why Birmingham can't be among the best programs in the Valley."

That potential convinced a stable of former Chaminade assistants to join Croson, including Floyd Peterson, Mike Hoffman, Tyler Fenwick, Kevin Norton, Dino Dinielli and Fil Popescu. Another assistant, Isaac White, joined the staff.

Already in place were Jim Rose and Carruth, whose work as a personal trainer as well as with Birmingham sprinters and running backs is renowned. He is the brother of Rae Carruth, the Carolina Panther receiver awaiting trial for the murder of his pregnant wife.

McCleary, Walker and other Patriot athletes let Kertic Carruth know they cared for him.

"He was having problems but he wouldn't make it a burden to the kids," McCleary said. "Our whole team told him our hearts go out to him. We gave him love like he gives us love."

The sentiment is in keeping with Croson's approach.

"Sometimes I feel more comfortable around my coach than my real family," Walker said. "It's against his rules to say we are a team. He prefers family."







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