The smell of asphalt was as pleasant as perfume to Gene Layton, who swabbed hot tar on a roof. An ex-pro football player, Layton loomed as a specter amid the telephone wires--6-foot-5, 250 pounds, bare-chested, with a shirt draped over his head to shield him from the sun.
“Hotter than the grease you use to pop popcorn,” Layton said, dipping his mop into the steaming kettle at a Lomita apartment complex last week. Only shorts and knee-high socks protected him from the splatter.
From early morning to mid-afternoon, this is how Layton makes a living.
Then he drives his truck to Wilson High School in Long Beach and makes an impression.
Waiting at Wilson, where Layton is a volunteer football coach in charge of defensive linemen, would be close to a dozen players he has coached since they were in the sixth grade, children of the inner city who he has guided through adolescence.
But first the roof had to be repaired.
“I like this kind of work. There’s no phones and nobody messes with you, you know what I mean?” Layton said as his workers, spreading gravel, hustled to keep up with him. Although Layton owns the business (Bonded Roof Construction of Torrance), he does much of the dirty work himself.
He left no doubt that he was boss. When displeased, his brow furrowed and he boomed instructions in Spanish that could be heard rooftops away.
There was a similarity to his coaching style, in which he berates players unmercifully and, moments later, praises them as passionately.
“I feel kind of bad sometimes when I look in their faces and they dissolve in front of you,” Layton admitted. "(But) it’s an emotional game. It’s a simple, violent game and when played correctly it’s a hell of a lot of fun. You gotta want it, you know what I mean?”
Layton dominated a recent practice, launching motivational tirades as he stomped through the fading daylight, still in tar-encrusted tennis shoes, his huge shoulders bare above an undershirt.
“He gets their attention,” said John Brennan, the head coach.
“He knows what he’s talking about,” lineman Scott Hamby said. “He’s a great coach.”
“He can hit you down in the heart and make you shed tears ‘cause he tells the truth,” said nose guard J. J. Fomby.
Before last Friday night’s game against Jordan High, the defensive linemen squared off in pairs for a drill, ramming each other like bulls as Layton worked himself into a head-bobbing frenzy.
“Get him, get him!” he screamed. “All right, that’s good! Give ‘em a hand.”
The spectacle of relentless hitting lit his face throughout the game, a 7-0 Wilson loss.
Afterward, Layton looked dazed. He was proud of the way his players had hit, though, and made sure they knew it. As he left the locker room, he kissed Fomby’s head.
How tough is this man, now 42, who briefly played defensive end for the Chicago Bears, Houston Oilers and various minor-league teams in the early 1970s; who then shaved his head, grew a Fu Manchu mustache and became known as the “Wrestling Roughneck” in the oil-field towns of Texas?
Layton was shot twice in the chest with a .357 magnum in his Long Beach home two years ago. He staggered toward his assailant, whom he knew from a business deal, and they scuffled against a china cabinet. Layton grabbed a piece of broken glass and cut the man’s throat. At the hospital Layton was given last rites, but four days later he was home. The assailant, who also was taken to the hospital, killed two people the same night and is in prison facing execution.
After his stint as a wrestler, Layton, who grew up in Baldwin Park, returned to California in 1974. Despite a degree in sociology from Colorado State, “all I knew how to do when I got out of school was drive a truck.”
He drove one for two years, then went into the roofing business.
For several years, he coached the Belmont Black Bears, a Junior All-American team in Long Beach, selecting most of his players from the inner city and nurturing them through their junior-high years. Many of them, as 10th-graders, followed Layton to Wilson, where he had accepted an invitation to be a volunteer coach.
“I used to promise their mothers I’d get them home,” Layton said. “I got used to doin’ it, been doin’ it ever since.”
Each night after practice, the former Black Bears ride with the dented asphalt cans in the back of Layton’s pickup, which is called the “soul train.”
“As the kids got older, I stuck with them,” Layton said as he turned at Anaheim Street and Martin Luther King Avenue. “I’ve been on the fifth floor of the Criminal Courts Building seeing judges with them, I’ve seen them bury their families. Some have gone to other schools (Poly and Millikan). Some went the other way, got into these streets and never came out. We’ve lost a lot to drugs and jail.”
Sometimes he takes them to Curlee’s, a restaurant not far from the school.
“He’s a diamond in the rough, a mean tough guy with a heart of gold,” Pasquale Cantalupo, owner of Curlee’s, said the other day when Layton stopped for a beer after practice. “Gene has a feeling for kids.”
And they love him back.
“When he was shot, there was a line half a block long waiting to see him at the hospital,” Cantalupo said.
Layton has also given the players summer jobs as roofing helpers, working them as hard as he does on the football field.
He does not elaborate on why he has done what he has, just saying, “It’s a good game, you have to give something back; you just can’t take.”
Fomby recalled his first impressions of Layton as a group of the players gathered on Monday night at the beachfront home of Layton’s girlfriend to watch a boxing match on TV.
“I was kind of shocked to see a man like that really care for me, especially with him being white and me black,” Fomby said. “I respect him as a man; he takes time out to help us. He’d feed us every day or give us money to get something to eat. If it weren’t for Gene, I’d be dead, in jail, or I don’t know what, and that’s true for a lot of people here.”
Why has Layton cared?
“I still wonder that today,” said Fomby, who hopes to receive a college football scholarship. “He never brags about it. I’m gonna miss him.”
Layton said he has no desire to become a head coach--"too much administrative bull"--and that this may be his last season helping at Wilson. Several of the old Black Bears, including Fomby, Patrick Scott, Marcus Taylor and Sid Scott, are seniors.
“This takes a lot from the business, driving back and forth to practice,” Layton said. “Besides, things have to have a normal progression and ending. I promised their parents I’d take care of them, and I’ve done it. They’re all grown up, some have cars, some will be getting ready to graduate. It’s kind of a nice thing to see. I tell them they can repay me by showing me their diplomas.”
On the TV screen, Sugar Ray Leonard was throwing a flurry of punches. The kids went wild;so did Layton.
He was one of them.