It was the summer of 2002 and Lonnie Neal Jr. had come home after spending time at college. He was working on his car when a stranger walked up and shot him, point-blank, nine times. The gunman, who ran off, had mistaken him for someone else.
Bleeding and dazed, Neal pulled up his shirt to survey the holes in his chest. Then everything went dark.
"I could see my own body lying on the ground," he recalls. "My life flashed before my eyes."
Just when the end seemed near, a gruff voice echoed through his head, a memory bubbling up.
The words kept him from slipping away. It was the growl of his high school football coach.
Not that he means to be uncooperative, but the coach would rather not see a story about himself in the newspaper.
"There's nothing to write," he says. "Nothing special about me."
Robert Garrett is built round as a bowling ball; he is wearing a bright blue T-shirt and shorts in the chill of evening, a cap tugged down over puffs of black hair. Aviator sunglasses conceal his eyes.
"I've just got a job to do," he says. "We've all got to work somewhere."
For the last two decades, Garrett has worked at transforming Crenshaw High from a downtrodden team into a powerhouse that will try for its second consecutive Los Angeles City Section championship against Carson on Saturday afternoon.
The program has produced dozens of big-time college players and a few — such as Brian Price and the Gbaja-Biamila brothers — who have reached the NFL. But for all his success, Garrett remains a controversial figure.
His temper is the stuff of folklore. He can go from smiling to furious in seconds flat, his wrath directed at players and officials, even parents. So, depending on whom you ask around Crenshaw, the man is either a godsend or a cancer.
Tilting his head at a skeptical angle, peering over the top of those sunglasses, Garrett dismisses the commotion that whirls around him. He pulls out that Jack Nicholson line from "A Few Good Men."
"You want the truth?" he asks. "You can't handle the truth."
Crenshaw was known as a basketball school when Garrett became coach in 1988. It took a while to build up the football team and, in the process, good players kept transferring to schools on the Westside or in the San Fernando Valley.
That is what happened before the 1996 season, when a star running back left.
Garrett summoned the remainder of his squad onto the field. All these years later, former defensive end Akbar Gbaja-Biamila recalls the moment clearly.
The coach said: "I only need 11 good men to follow me."
Then he walked to the opposite end zone, yelling for his players to meet him there.
"If you guys are with me," he said, "you've got to follow."
This dance continued for half an hour, Garrett shifting from one spot to another, the team moving in his footsteps. It might sound corny, but the message stuck.
"He was challenging us," says Gbaja-Biamila, now an analyst for CBS College Sports Network. "That's what he does."
The Crenshaw players know when they have made a mistake.
"That loud voice," says De'Anthony Thomas, the star tailback this season. "You'll hear him from miles away."
Garrett refuses to tell his age. If his style — blunt and in your face — seems outdated, he does not care to discuss that either.
"I guess you do what your upbringings were," he says. "In my era, they were hard on us."
Winning helps. Crenshaw began to turn itself around with a championship in 1991 and a near miss three years later. Over the last seven seasons, the Cougars have gone 70-22 with two titles and now a shot at a third.
Each successful season persuaded more and more local kids to hang around. Yet when players talk about Garrett — about their devotion to him — they don't just talk about football.
Their coach, who also teaches physical education, helps them with schoolwork and always seems to have a sandwich for anyone who shows up hungry before practice.
"I try to find personal things about each child," Garrett says, slipping into a preacher's cadence, which he is wont to do. "Mama's name, daddy's name, where they live, who they hang out with, what they're doin' and why they're doin' it."
Chuck Price, an NFL agent whose father coached at Crenshaw through the early 1980s, recalls visiting Garrett recently because two of his clients wanted to stage a football camp at the school. When a player burst into the office and shouted out a question, Garrett sat the teenager down to lecture him gently, but at length, on being more respectful.
"Honestly," Price says, "how many coaches take the time to do that?"
Brian Price, who plays defensive tackle for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and is not related to Chuck, puts it another way.
"Coach gives tough love," he says. "But it's good love."
By the spring of 2009, Jabari Ali could no longer contain his anger.