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Straight Into Compton

A former NFL player returns to his hometown for challenge of coaching Centennial football

September 27, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Aaron Craver could have been a scout, or taken a front-office job with one of his former NFL teams. Or, he could have gotten into college coaching, where the athletes have already been at least partially groomed.

Instead, he returned home to Compton as the football coach at Centennial High. And that means Craver, a 1984 graduate of Compton High who starred at Fresno State and was a running back with Miami, Denver, San Diego and New Orleans for eight seasons, is starting from the ground up.

Last year, Centennial was winless and outscored by nearly 500 points in 10 games. But the on-field challenges of his new job are only the beginning.

Truancy is rampant at Centennial, as are other behavioral problems. In addition to medical forms and report cards, Craver also scans rap sheets -- a district probation officer routinely watches over football practice, afterward piling a few players into his car and driving them to mandatory meetings.

Most other coaches, Craver surmises, "don't have to deal with this kind of stuff."

Craver, 36, is willing, though, because one of his goals is to restore the passion the Compton community had for high school football when he was growing up.

"There was so much life in the community back then," he said before a practice last week. "We never cared about going to professional games or watching them on TV. Starting on Monday, everyone looked forward to the high school games."

Nowadays, fans rarely outnumber players at games and school spirit has collapsed under the weight of routinely lopsided losses. But already there are indications Craver is making a difference.

Centennial is 1-3, but its victory, 12-6 over Daniel Murphy 10 days ago, ended a 19-game losing streak. And even during a 38-6 loss to Salesian on Friday -- a game played in front of about 25 fans on the home side and no band or cheerleaders -- Craver saw progress.

Although two players unhappy about their playing time stripped off their pads and quit during the game, the vast majority of Centennial players fought hard until the end. Craver, who had benched six of his starters for disciplinary reasons, noted that his team won the fourth quarter, 6-0, scoring on a 45-yard pass from Sean Taylor to William Moss.

"Look at their faces; look in their eyes," Craver said afterward. "They are smiling and proud even though we lost. That to me says something. In other years, they would have quit on me and lost by 50 points, but this is a good sign that they're starting to understand."

Craver isn't measuring success by the win-loss column. He wants to establish a program the school and community can be proud of on and off the field. His goal is to build a blueprint that will demand discipline but will result in his players' easily meeting college entrance requirements.

"There is no doubt that we have the athletes to become a formidable team within a couple of years," Craver said. "But building a program is different. Right now we got kids that don't even go to class. My biggest thing is showing kids how to reach their full potential."

That, the new coach has found, starts with baby steps. For example, one afternoon last week, a starting player approached Craver to ask whether it was OK to miss the next day's practice. The player said he needed to care for his brother while his mother worked.

"That's a big improvement right there," Craver said. "I bet last year that kid just wouldn't show up."

Recently, Craver came down hard when players from his freshman football team -- which was off to a 3-0 start -- began cutting class and missing practice. So he didn't let them play last week, forcing them to accept a forfeit loss.

"They think that just because they won a couple of games, they could do whatever they want," Craver said. "So the only way to get through to them is to take football away from them. Just getting in trouble isn't enough."

Practices are of prime importance to Centennial players because so many of them have little or no organized football experience. Handoff drills, basic pass patterns and simplified zone defenses are typically the order of the day.

Notably absent during workouts, though, is the chatter, intensity and spirit typical of top programs. At one practice last week, Centennial players on the sideline casually visited with classmates who stopped by, one even taking a break to eat a cheeseburger brought by a friend.

"That's the level we're dealing with," Craver said. "They just want to go out and play. They don't understand the concept of practice."

Some players reacted skeptically when Craver took over, but they quickly learned their coach was serious.

"We've been down and we've been losing, so why would someone like that want to come here and coach?" senior linebacker Jerry Sorrels said. "But he really cares. He motivates us and puts it into our heart that we can have success.

"He lets us know how to get through things, to not let anything stop us, just put our mind into it and whatever it is, we can do it."

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