Derwin Henderson first encountered 9-year-old Terrance Flournoy six years ago, breaking into Compton's Centennial High. An off-duty cop with 10 years on the job, Henderson was coaching a youth football team on Centennial's field when he was summoned by suspicious neighbors who had seen a group of boys slip inside.
The boys broke and ran when the policeman arrived -- all but Terrance, who stood his ground and met the officer's eyes. He wasn't stealing, he said, just sneaking around in the closed school "because I don't have nothing else to do."
Henderson had heard that before. Patrolling the streets for the Los Angeles Police Department, he had arrested more than 500 kids: burglars, rapists, drug dealers, robbers. "Hook and book" had become his motto. "I thought juvenile hall was where they belonged."
But he had begun a new assignment the year before: visiting schools for the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program, talking to children about gangs and drugs. And in every class, he met boys like Terrance: aimless kids destined to drift into trouble, all energy and audacity. Bit by bit, boy by boy, he was coming to another point of view.
So he didn't take Terrance into custody, at least not in the LAPD sense of the word. That turned out to be a momentous decision for both the boy and the officer.
"Nothing to do?" Henderson said. "Come with me."
He led the boy to the football field. Henderson had recently taken over his nephew's Pop Warner team, because the coach had quit unexpectedly. Already he had loaded it with boys he met on his rounds of inner-city schools.
Terrance shook his head when Henderson asked him to join the squad. His mother wouldn't let him, he said. The family had just spent six months in a shelter for the homeless. There was hardly money for groceries, much less football.
So when practice ended, Henderson drove the boy home and made his mother an offer he had made to other mothers: He'd pay the fees if she would let him join. Like the others, she signed up her son. She was 25 and single, with four children and problems of her own. She knew she needed help with her burly, hard-headed oldest child.
At first, Terrance wasn't much good at football. He was big, but didn't know his left from his right. Still, he seldom missed practice, even when he had to walk the three miles to the park.
Henderson coached his team the way his dad had coached him. Henderson had been the star wide receiver at Harbor City's Narbonne High School and earned his college degree on a football scholarship at James Madison University in Virginia.
Discipline, he would tell his players, means investing in something outside yourself. His boys couldn't be late for practice, be disrespectful to teammates, talk back to coaches or get bad grades.
From the start, it was a struggle.
Most of his players came from families too poor to afford league fees and uniforms. So, Henderson ponied up the money.
Many had no way to get to practice, because their single mothers had no cars or worked nights or were just too busy to get them there.
So Henderson took the money he had been saving for a house and bought a van big enough to carry them all. Some boys wouldn't show up for Saturday games. So Friday nights, they went home with him.
On those overnights with his players, Henderson tried to simulate the middle-class childhood he knew growing up in Hawthorne 30 years ago.
His father, Louis, was a salesman at Sears but found time to coach his son's baseball and football teams. His mother, Betty, worked part-time as a clerk but spent most of her time tending Henderson and his sister, Carletta. "What I remember most," he said, "is they were always there."
So he gave each player chores -- setting the table, taking out garbage -- "so they'd have some responsibility," he said. "We'd go to sleep at a certain time, get up in the morning all together, have breakfast as a family, then head for the game. I wanted them to see what that felt like."
To some boys, the hard-nosed Henderson seemed more warden than coach. Many quit the team. Others were kicked off for breaking rules. But Terrance soaked up the attention.
Henderson realized Terrance was coming around the night that an 11-year-old teammate stole the coach's cell phone. Terrance went to him and fingered the thief. "That went against everything he'd learned on the streets," Henderson said.
On the field, Terrance's hard work was paying off. A running back with size, speed and tenacity, he began to attract the attention of high school coaches.
But off the field, his life was careening out of control. He was arguing with his mother, battling her boyfriends, fighting his schoolmates, failing his classes.
His mother would be gone for days, and he would skip school to baby-sit his siblings. He ran the streets with older boys, who called him Duke because he was always ready to brawl.