Yohance Salimu, an All-City defensive lineman at Crenshaw High, had run out of options.
His family had lost its apartment and was living at a homeless shelter far from school. He was taking trains and buses and staying with friends. There was no place to put his clothes, so they were starting to smell.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, August 16, 2012 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 4 News Desk 1 inches; 41 words Type of Material: Correction
City football coaches: An article in the Aug. 13 Sports section said that Dorsey High football teams coached by Paul Knox had won three Los Angeles City Section championships. Knox's teams have won four championships: in 1989, 1991, 1995 and 2001.
Crenshaw football Coach Robert Garrett decided it was time to intervene. He offered Salimu six lockers at school.
The catch: Salimu had to memorize six locker combinations. "I'm really good with numbers," he said.
Salimu stored his dirty clothes in two of the lockers. Four others contained his clean clothes. And despite all his other duties involving coaching and teaching, Garrett would take home a bag full of Salimu's dirty clothes and do the player's laundry.
When graduation day came in June 2011, Salimu had a 3.8 grade-point average and was accepted to the Air Force Academy.
"I'm thankful for my teachers pushing me above and beyond, and one of them was Coach Garrett," he said.
At a time of budget cuts, furlough days, student defections to private schools and growing unease about what the future might bring, there are coaches in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District such as Garrett who refuse to be deterred.
"You never know who you're getting through to," said another of them, Dorsey football Coach Paul Knox. "You never know who you're going to touch."
Garrett, Knox and Mike Walsh of San Pedro have spent 21 years or longer teaching and coaching football at the same school, making them the longest-tenured football coaches in LAUSD.
They don't have plasma TVs in their coaching offices and they each have regular classes to teach and roll books to fill out, as well. Their $2,800 coaching stipend is almost too embarrassing to mention. And yet, they are LAUSD lifers who receive inspiration from the students they coach and the game they teach.
They have stayed even though some colleagues have fled to private schools with bigger salaries. Ed Croson left Lake Balboa Birmingham in 2009 after winning four City titles to coach at West Hills Chaminade. Mike Christensen left Carson in 2010 to take over at Los Angeles Loyola. Elijah Asante resigned at Carson after last season to become coach at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul.
LAUSD teachers are scheduled to have 10 no-pay furlough days during the upcoming school year. Paid football coaching positions have been cut from six to four, and a growing number of schools are getting rid of their sixth-period athletic classes, increasing the teaching workload for full-time coaches.
"For them to come back year after year after year is unbelievable," said City Section administrator John Aguirre.
Below, a look at the trio of coaching lifers.
It's 1989. Kevin Copeland is an All-City receiver and track star in his senior year at Dorsey. The Dons are playing San Pedro at Daniels Field, and Copeland has collapsed. Emergency personnel spend 45 minutes trying to resuscitate him. Police report several students have become emotional and passed out.
Copeland is later pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at Peninsula Hospital. He's 17 years old.
Everything changed for Knox that season, when he won the first of his three City Section championships at Dorsey. A mural of Copeland is painted outside the locker room, where the team gathers for a prayer before each game.
"He was a great student, a great teammate," Knox said. "The kind of young man he was showed me there were a lot of other positives that could be drawn from athletics that we could teach. From that point on, I broadened my mission as a coach."
His credo became: "Are you going to come back and help somebody like they helped you?"
That's the message Knox passes along to his players at Dorsey. The walls in Knox's tiny office next to the school weight room are filled with dozens of photos of players who went on to play football in college or in the NFL, including former USC and Pro Bowl receiver Keyshawn Johnson and former USC running back Stafon Johnson.
"He's one of the pillars of the community," said North Hollywood Coach Doug Bledsoe, who played on Knox's first team in 1985. "He talks the talk and walks the walk. He's a quiet general. He's got a stare and you better get the job done."
Knox, about to begin his 28th season as head coach, said, "There's been a lot of heartbreaks and disappointments, but the positives outweigh the negatives."
Knox, 59, has faced obstacles such as declining enrollment. The school that once had more than 3,000 students is now down to 1,500. Private schools have been trying to lure away top athletes. District-wide cuts have reduced the school year by 18 days over the last four years.
But then he sees a teenager blossom like Jeremiah Allison, a defensive end who received a scholarship this year to Washington State after receiving all A's on his report card for four years at Dorsey. His photo will soon go up on Knox's office wall.