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Memory Lane

L.A. High's players lost their leader when Jamiel Shaw II was killed last spring. So together, they took a long, hard walk to honor him.

September 12, 2008|Bill Plaschke

They are a football team, so they marched.

Across the rutted field. Out the iron gates. Down Mullen Avenue.

They are 30 high school kids who lost their leader, so they went to bring him back.

Left on Pico Boulevard. Right on Crenshaw Boulevard. Left on Washington Boulevard.

They are 30 moving targets in bright white football jerseys, so the two-mile walk was filled with vicious catcalls, gang signs and slow stares.

Right on 5th Avenue. Past 21st Street. Ending at the house on 2120 5th.

They are fragile children, so when the Los Angeles High Romans arrived at the spot where star Jamiel Shaw II was gunned down last spring, they draped their arms over each other and cried.

Then they huddled in the middle of the busy street, bounced wildly against each other, and chanted.

"One-two-three-JSHAW-JSHAW-JSHAW!"

The high school football season can officially start now. The city's most devastating off-season loss has been reclaimed and fitted firmly in the hearts of teammates who found a most peculiar, perfect way to reach it.

They are a football team, so they marched.

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It was a crazy idea, and Hardy Williams knew it.

"People were like, 'You're going to do what?,' " he said. " 'You're going to march those kids where?' "

It was a crazy idea, but Williams hasn't survived for more than 30 years at Los Angeles by caring about crazy.

His team had showed up for fall practice having lost its best player, running back and defensive back Jamiel Shaw II. The Romans were closer than ever but more confused than ever. They were holding this memory that was at once both horrific and endearing, and they didn't know what to do with it.

Shaw was a model student who avoided gangs. Yet on March 2 he was murdered three doors from his house by a gunman who allegedly asked of his gang affiliation before firing.

Shaw was a funny, yet devout kid who led the weekly team in pregame prayer. Yet at age 17, he was murdered while standing on his street talking on his cellphone.

"The question is, how do we deal with all that?" asked Williams. "Then driving to school one day, on the streets where Jamiel used to walk, I had an idea."

On the eve of the team's first game of the season, why not put Shaw permanently under their jerseys by having them retrace his steps? Why not lead them along the streets of both his tragedies and triumphs to show them that it is OK to mourn, but also OK to live?

J-Shaw walked here. He laughed here. He was loved here. He was shot here. He is still here.

So are they.

"It was a matter of respect," Williams said. "I wanted them to show respect for the memory of Jamiel but also for the team family that he would want them to become."

So, Thursday after practice, the players would wear the new jerseys with the black Shaw peace patch, carry a white carnation, and walk in silence from Los Angeles High to the site of Shaw's death.

Williams didn't tell the players until a couple of days ago. He didn't tell anyone else, and didn't call the media, The Times only hearing about it after a routine call by reporter Ben Bolch.

"This was not for anybody but us and Jamiel," Williams said.

From start to finish, those were the only school participants in the walk. There were no fans. There were no parents. There were no television cameras. The players weren't even allowed to turn on their cellphones.

The march featured only 30 players, Williams, assistant coach Art Pena, and an angry part of the city that was not going to swallow them up.

"This is who we are now," said junior receiver James Grace, walking shoulder to shoulder with teammates on narrow sidewalks.

The opening steps down Mullen were silent except for the flapping of oversized, ratty tennis shoes and the gentle swoosh of giant, frayed basketball shorts.

The group waited for about five minutes for the light on Pico, then marched across the street and down toward Crenshaw, past the barred windows of mini-marts and nail salons and one foul-smelling hotel.

They made a right on Crenshaw, this trudging bunch of young football players carrying flowers, and city folks started to notice.

"Did somebody pass away?" asked a woman sitting at a bus stop as the players marched past.

She looked into their thick eyes and found her answer.

"Oh my God," she said.

Further down Crenshaw, the reception wasn't so pleasant.

Some young people on a second-story balcony began screaming and gesturing at the players. A red Cadillac pulled past with two guys hanging out the window making gang signs.

The players wanted to shout at all of them, but they couldn't, they wouldn't.

"This is about respect," said Grace. "We will have respect."

Walking up Washington, the players spotted a woman waving to them from a fast-food drive through window. Grateful, they waved back.

Nearly an hour after the walk began, they marched down the crowded street where Jamiel Shaw lived, stopping three houses from where an American flag flapped from his front porch, stopping at the exact point where he died.

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