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Team Presents a United Front

Jefferson football players are asked to share the message of unity and tolerance learned on the field with a high school campus torn by racial strife.

November 17, 2005|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Early this year, Will Ross said he was stabbed four times by Latinos in a racially motivated attack near his South Los Angeles home.

On May 6, his father was killed in an apparent gang-related shooting in Long Beach.

Ross, a senior at Jefferson High School, says that these events sent him spinning into emotional turmoil.

They did not, however, lead him to join the brawling between Latinos and African Americans that broke out three times on the Jefferson campus last spring -- a restraint that he credits to lessons he learned playing football at the Southeast Los Angeles school.

"There was all this stuff happening to me and then this black-on-brown stuff at school, but I looked past it because I play football," Ross said. "If I didn't have Coach [Doi] Johnson and my teammates, there's no telling what I would have done."

Ross wasn't the only one whose actions were influenced by football.

During the large-scale melees on April 14 and 18 and May 26, a few football players tried to keep the peace, according to players, coaches and administrators. Others pulled friends out of piles and defended themselves when attacked, but most of the players stayed away.

They say their sport taught them the importance of trust, unity and camaraderie -- that they learned to view one another as teammates rather than members of another race.

There are 41 players on Jefferson's team, 22 Latinos and 19 African Americans. Latinos and blacks stand side by side on Jefferson's offensive line. They protect a black quarterback who throws to Latino receivers.

"When you play a sport like football, you learn to trust in the other men to protect you," said Dezmen Jackson, a senior fullback. "That carries off the field too. For most people, during the riot it was like, if you didn't fight, it would seem like you weren't supporting your race or you were disrespecting your race, but the football players stuck together."

The team has a credo that refers to the school colors and its mascot: "The only colors on the football field are green and gold, the only race is Democrat."

Players say they take that message to heart.

"I would stick with these guys no matter what," said senior lineman Andres Benavidez. "We're a team. Team comes first."

Added senior quarterback Contrell Walker: "We have to be a family, united as one, no matter what color."

The actions of Jefferson's players drew the attention of school administrators, who asked the football team to continue to set an example for the 3,800-pupil campus.

It hasn't been difficult. Black and Latino players already were spending free time with one another, joking and teasing like any other high school team. They eat lunch together, walk to and from school together and carpool to dances and parties.

"We started hanging together more to set an example," Walker said. "We figured if people saw a black person and a Hispanic person hanging together, then they'd probably want to do it too."

On weekends, players gather for impromptu flag football, video game competitions and barbecues. Everyone is invited, regardless of ethnicity, and they say they take seriously their new mission to unify a school that has been portrayed as one rife with racial discord.

"We want to be the ones to make the school shine again," said Edwin Flores, a senior lineman. "We're going to be the ones to bring the school back to life."

Months after the unrest made headlines, the school remains at the center of controversy. Hundreds of marchers converged on Los Angeles school district headquarters Tuesday, calling on officials to relinquish control of the overcrowded campus and transform it into six independent charter schools.

But racial strife is nowhere to be seen. Blacks and Latinos sat together in the stands cheering the football team at a recent game. On a basketball court near the football field, a black student and a Latino student play one-on-one basketball, then walked home together.

Much of the harmony can be attributed to the expulsion of a handful of troublemakers, said Athletic Director Andy Fujitsubo, who added that the actions of the football team also have helped.

"Most of the administration realizes that sports is an avenue to bring people together," Fujitsubo said. "Students feed off of what the athletes do and our football players exemplify what our sports programs are all about."

Assistant Principal Tony Solorzano said Latino and black students regularly mix at dances without incident and sit side by side in classrooms. Between classes, they walk the halls together and at lunch, they sit in groups divided only by what separates cliques at any high school.

He said the football team deserves some credit for keeping cool and helping restore order on what has traditionally been a peaceful campus.

"Without a doubt," he said. "They are held to a higher standard because they are athletes. It is their responsibility to maintain composure and they showed what a strong program they have."

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