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Playing Outside

Taking part in football games gives juvenile offenders from Camp Kilpatrick a rare chance to leave detention facility; the program is featured in a new movie.

September 14, 2006|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

Hollywood producers who didn't know the back story would have yawned and retired to their luxury cars by halftime.

Camp Kilpatrick and the Brentwood School engaged in a season opener this month that seemed perfectly unremarkable. There were penalties galore and numerous sloppy plays typical of two high school football teams playing their first game.

Only after the Kilpatrick Mustangs had scored a 20-10 victory and exchanged the usual postgame pleasantries, slapping their opponents' hands and repeatedly muttering "Good game, good game," was there any indication that this might be something worthy of a feature film.

That's when the Mustangs players spread out in one corner of the field to congregate with friends and family for a half-hour, the early-evening shadows descending upon them as they slurped down sodas, ate chicken and savored every moment as if it would be the last time they'd see their loved ones for a while.

Because, for some, that was exactly the case.

Kilpatrick is a juvenile detention facility for teenage boys nestled in the hills of Malibu. The camp's 112 occupants have committed mostly petty crimes such as theft and assault, though one year an accused murderer was there.

"It's not Camp Snoopy," said longtime Athletic Director Duane Diffie.

Visitors to the razor-wire-enclosed facility are rare, so you can imagine the boys' excitement last year when Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson and Xzibit descended upon the camp to film "Gridiron Gang," a movie about the birth of the camp's football team. The actors portray real-life probation officers Sean Porter and Malcolm Moore, who struggled to teach the wayward teens discipline and self-respect in the program's early years.

In its infancy, the team had to drive deep into the desert to find competitors willing to play. But for its Sept. 1 opener this season, only a short journey to Brentwood was required.

And as it turned out, the private school hosts from the other end of the social spectrum were happy to have them. Players, parents and students from the Brentwood School said they had no concerns about their Eagles playing a team of juvenile offenders in a game that encourages physical contact.

"The games are just like any other games," said Alan Bennett, whose son Chase, a senior fullback, was playing against Kilpatrick for the third time. "It's just a bunch of boys out there playing football."

Brentwood administrators said their teams have played Kilpatrick in several sports for more than a decade without incident.

"We don't have any security here, actually," said Brentwood Athletic Director Jeaney Garcia.

As freshmen, Brentwood students acknowledged that they had nervously joked about playing "the prison school." Tito Goldstein, a senior who once played for the junior varsity team, said he had "heard some rumors that these guys were going to hit harder than everyone else and do some dirty things underneath the pads."

But Goldstein said his fears quickly subsided after a Kilpatrick player committed an incidental personal foul -- and then apologized.

"They acted just like we did and came out and played and did what their coaches told them," Goldstein said.

Kilpatrick's coaches, all probation officers, work hard to ensure that their players share a singular focus. Players must meet behavioral and academic standards to participate in athletics. One player with a poor attitude several days before the opening game was left behind.

"Every kid you see out here earned the opportunity to come outside the facility to play sports," said football Coach Derek Ayers, a former UCLA tailback. "It means a lot because it gives them an opportunity to step into an environment that allows them to be kids again.

"It allows young men that maybe would have shot each other on the street to play together and become a family."

Not that there aren't some false starts. Diffie, the athletic director who is leaving the facility next week to assume the same position at Moreno Valley Calvary Chapel High, recalled that the team once had a quarterback and a halfback from rival gangs, and that the quarterback refused to hand his teammate the ball.

In most cases, though, football bridges those gaps.

"It's different gangs, different 'hoods," said two-way lineman Terry Shook, who was sent to the camp after he was convicted of grand theft auto, driving without a license and a curfew violation. "Some of us beef with each other, but we still come together as a team just to play."

While rare, there have been incidents at games, though none as serious as the gang-related shooting depicted in the film. Nine Kilpatrick players and former coach James Jackson were suspended after a 1996 fracas in which an opposing player collided with the coach on the sideline.

Jackson grabbed the player by the face mask and tugged him for several yards, prompting a retaliatory punch to the coach's face. The punch triggered what Diffie described as "a two-minute melee" as fights erupted across the field.

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