The sun is setting a burnished orange, and three groups of children jog across the football field in their pads and helmets to the sideline. It's quitting time on a pleasant summer evening, no school for a while yet, but 10-year-old Xavier Bernal isn't grinning.
For more than four decades, this field at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights has teemed with football players ages 5 to 14, so many jostling Rowland Raiders that each of the program's age divisions overran the next. But last year's nine squads have dwindled to three, and the usually robust cheerleading squad has gone from 80 girls to nine.
To hear Xavier tell it, blame falls squarely on the youth football league's most famous and controversial former coach.
"I'm mad at Coach Snoop," he says. "He was so cool; he told me to play my heart out and to play everything I've got. But now I just want to ask him, why did he take all our players?"
Walking with Xavier toward the parking lot, parents and coaches describe rapper Snoop Dogg as a modern-day Pied Piper luring football players with his song "Drop It Like It's Hot" blasting from a school bus pimped out with enough bass, TV screens and gadgetry to persuade any kid to sell out the old for the new.
Snoop rocked the youth football world two years ago when he volunteered as a Rowland Raiders "daddy coach," and then again last month when he broke from the franchise to start his own conference. The Raiders aren't the only team in the Orange County Junior All-American Football Conference to feel the screws; Long Beach and Compton teams, also in competition with Snoop's new league, report similar hemorrhaging.
And as Snoop talks of expanding the Snoop Youth Football League beyond its initial eight Southern California chapters, parents and coaches in the old conference accuse him and his agents of mounting a campaign of sabotage and misinformation.
Snoop's camp calls the furor sour grapes over its new league, which it says will be more effective and will better serve cash-strapped urban communities.
What's clear is that there's more at stake than football: Both practical goals, such as gang prevention and scholastic achievement, and more amorphous concepts, such as tradition and community, pervade dialogue at either end.
To understand Xavier Bernal's gripe, first enter a world where many families stick with teams for generations and involvement rarely ends with graduation from the program. Xavier's mother spent her girlhood afternoons cheerleading for the Rowland Raiders and later became the cheer coach and league treasurer. His grandfather has been coach, chapter president and now conference commissioner.
For Xavier and others, games are part competition, part family reunion.
Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, also has deep roots in youth football. He remembers the life lessons he learned while playing for the Long Beach Poly Junior Jackrabbits.
"It taught me how to work with other kids," he says, "how to have a relationship, how to learn. My coach taught me about religion as well as football, about keeping God in everything we did."
So two years ago, with Snoop's two boys old enough to play league ball, he enrolled them in the Rowland Raiders program, signed on as an offensive coordinator and weathered the media hullabaloo that ensued.
League Commissioner Bob Barna received "some e-mails from parents, saying, 'How dare you let somebody like that be with our youth?' " Barna says. "But did he bring anything negative? No. He acted like a dad."
A very cool dad. Coach Snoop was the talk of football fields and playgrounds throughout the Southland. Then, as the season came to a close, some of the league's all-stars received recruitment calls from the rapper, asking them to join the Raiders the next year. The league allows 15% of a team's players to come from outside its immediate area, Barna says, and a team can recruit without limit in cities where no team exists.
Snoop took full advantage, nabbing players like Derrick Marbrough from Long Beach. "I played against him, and then he wanted me on his team, so he called my mom," says Derrick, 11. "I switched teams."
"It was \o7so\f7\o7 \f7cool," remembers Duon Rucker, who also came to the Rowland Raiders from Long Beach as a 10-year-old last year. "Everybody at school was all over me, 'Are you about to go with Snoop? Can you get me his autograph?' Everybody wanted to get a picture of me and him together."
And then there was the bus.
"It's a mini-school bus," Derrick says, "and it had TVs in it where we watched our games from last week."
"Yeah," Duon enthuses, "and everywhere we went, you could hear us coming down the street, we had like hydraulics from all the bass! We listened to Snoop's music -- our theme song was 'Drop It Like It's Hot.' "