The Gang's Not Here Any More : Santiago High Player Gave Up Street Life

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There's Alex Ripley, see him? There he is on the football field, scoring touchdowns for Santiago High School. There he is at the girls' volleyball game, supporting the team while talking with friends. There he is on campus, laughing, joking, having fun.

Alex Ripley, the football star. Alex Ripley, the hard-working student. Alex Ripley, the role model.

Alex Ripley, being the best that he can be.

Sometimes, even Alex can't fathom the change in his life. A senior at Santiago, he has run the gauntlet and emerged relatively unscathed.

The troubles Alex faced are not unusual for a kid growing up in Garden Grove--exposure to gangs.

In fact, the path he followed was all too typical for the area. What is atypical is that Alex, who spent three years in a gang, got out of that cycle.

Sure, it took two transfers--from Santiago to Garden Grove and back again--and all the help his family could offer. But the end result is that Alex is looking toward the future and has a future that is worth looking toward.

"I decided it was time to grow up," Alex said. "I really had an attitude. I used to think I was bad; I used to think I was hard. I was dumb."

Alex has wised up.

His parents, Eddie and Maggie Ripley, have spent the past two years trying to help their second oldest child. They have moved the family twice to get Alex away from the wrong influences and instituted weekly family meetings to open lines of communication.

Alex finally listened. He returned to Santiago this year with a new attitude and an improved dedication toward sports.

Alex, a 6-foot-3, 235-pound running back, is the Cavaliers' leading rusher with 630 yards and has scored six touchdowns. His abilities have attracted some attention from college recruiters, according to Coach Paul Allen.

A football scholarship would be nice. It would give Ripley a chance to continue playing the sport he has come to love, not to mention further his education. But, for now, what Alex really cherishes is a life that was saved.

His.

"I feel really lucky to be out of that way of life," Alex said. "I thought it was never going to end. If I would have continued, I would have ended up being a dropout and a bum. Or worse."

Two years ago, Alex was the worst that he could be.

By the time he reached high school, he had already joined a gang in Long Beach--the Sons of Samoa. The gang, which included many of his cousins, was a faction of the Crips and was located in west Long Beach.

"A lot of my friends were in gangs; that's the way I grew up," Alex said. "I thought I had to join one. I partied almost every weekend and almost every weekend there was a fight."

The Sons of Samoa are well-known to the Long Beach Police Department. In fact, it was the focus of a sweep a few years ago after gang members had jumped two police officers.

"They were a very tough group, especially when they had been drinking or were high," said Detective Norm Sorenson, who works in gang control in Long Beach. "They were also low on tolerance. They would fight at the drop of a hat."

Alex said he was never involved with drugs. However, he liked to drink and he liked the fist fights. He attended parties, in Long Beach or Garden Grove, looking for a fight.

"I wouldn't start anything, but I would sit back and wait," Alex said. "I would be dressed up like a gangster--baggy blue jeans, a white shirt and blue rag (bandanna). All I had to do was sit there and wait. There would be problems."

Eddie and Maggie Ripley knew little of their son's gang activities. They just thought he was visiting relatives in Long Beach.

The Ripleys had tried to steer Alex and his brother, Dana, away from gangs by getting them involved in sports. The tactic had worked with Dana, who is two years older than Alex.

Dana was a football star at Santiago and received a scholarship to play at Hawaii. He left school after last year to pursue a baseball career.

"Dana, somehow, he knew that gangs weren't a good thing for him," said Maggie, who had moved to Garden Grove from American Samoa with her parents in 1965. "But I always worried that Alex would be the one who had problems, even when he was a kid. He was born with an attitude."

Alex played baseball and football as a youth at his parents' insistence. When he was a freshman at Santiago, he was moved up to the varsity football team.

Although he was talented, Alex didn't really care about sports. He played football, but was not as fanatical about it as Dana.

Still, Alex became an important part of the team, on raw talent alone. He was a starting running back and linebacker.

The Cavaliers finished third in the Garden Grove League, but were eliminated in the first round of the Southern Section Central Conference playoffs.

"I liked playing the sport, but my mind wasn't set on football," Alex said. "I started hanging out with some of the older guys, going to parties and drinking. I kept things from my parents, but as soon as I left the house, I would put on the blue rag."

When he was a sophomore, Alex stopped doing his schoolwork and sometimes didn't come home until after midnight. He also began having problems with a gang in Garden Grove, which was at war with the Sons of Samoa.

"Some of my home boys (pals) beat up some of their guys," Alex said. "I started hearing that they were after me. I didn't go anywhere alone after that."

Maggie became aware of Alex's problems when he was a sophomore. She said school officials notified her that Alex had been ditching classes and that his grades had dropped considerably.

His mother was concerned about the friends he was bringing home. After meeting with school officials, she confronted Alex.

"Some of them wore gang colors and they used a lot of gang slang," Maggie said. "I knew his friends had a lot of influence on him and I didn't like some of his friends. So I did what any mother would do, I grounded him.

"I told him, 'You're not going anywhere even if I have to fight you to the ground.' I guess that did something to him, because he obeyed me. He stayed in the house."

Maggie decided to get Alex away from Santiago, where she felt he had come under bad influence. The family sold the house and moved to another area of Garden Grove within the Garden Grove High School boundary.

However, things got worse there. Ripley had decided to get out of the gang, but found the going tough.

"Alex was pretty withdrawn and sometimes he didn't want to practice," Garden Grove Coach Jeff Buenafe said. "He would give me some excuse, but I was sure there was some other problem. But he wouldn't talk about it."

Alex played on the Garden Grove football team, but wasn't happy. He had trouble adjusting to a new school, a new coach and a new set of friends.

His drinking increased and he became moody.

"He wouldn't say anything, just go in his room and shut the door," Maggie said. "I was worried he was on drugs."

But Alex was struggling to get away from gangs. He was having trouble pulling away, though.

He said students of Lake, a continuation school in Garden Grove, would hassle him, knowing he had gang connections.

After practice one day, Alex was walking home from school when a car pulled up. According to Alex, someone inside the car shouted at him and then a shot was fired.

"I didn't know if they were just shooting in the air or shooting at me and missed," Alex said. "But, after that, I started carrying a gun."

There were more problems for him with kids from Lake and a fight with a kid at school, which led to Ripley being suspended.

"I had come to Garden Grove for a fresh start and everything became worse," Alex said. "I went to my mom and said, 'I think I'm messing up again.' "

Maggie still doesn't know why her son came to her for help. She's just happy he did.

"He just came to me one day and said, 'I'm stuck Mom, I can't do it alone,' " she said. "He felt like he was trapped and needed help."

But opening up was hard.

Last spring, his parents began getting the family together on Sunday evenings for meetings. Alex attended the meetings, but did little talking.

"We had to have patience, a lot of it, with Alex," Maggie said. "I would tell him about what I had been through when I was a teen-ager. How I didn't feel accepted by my parents, that they didn't love me. And how I had finally realized that they did love me and had done the best they could for me."

It had an effect. In July, Alex became more active in the meetings.

"Those meetings have really helped," he said. "I never thought my parents cared about me. But when my mom broke down and cried, I knew I was wrong.

"Every Sunday, we tell them about our week, how we're doing in school and what problems we're having. I can talk to my parents about anything now."

Alex talked his parents into allowing him to return to Santiago. So once again the family house was sold and, this time, the Ripleys rented a condominium near the Santiago campus.

Paul Allen, the Cavaliers' first-year coach, was a little wary at first about Alex returning to the team. He had been an assistant at Santiago three years before and remembered Alex as a troubled kid who also caused trouble.

However, it didn't take long for Allen's worries to disappear.

"His attitude is completely different, on everything," Allen said. "I've never seen such a change in a kid. He's concerned about school and he's concerned about his future. I think he sees football as something that can get him ahead."

Alex didn't play in the first two games because Allen wanted to make sure all the paperwork was in order. He checked and double-checked to make sure Alex was eligible.

In the seven games since becoming eligible, Alex has averaged 90 yards rushing per game. Against La Quinta last week, he scored two touchdowns, one off a blocked punt.

"I had always played sports because my parents forced me to," Alex said. "I finally made up my mind that I want to play college football. I've decided I really do love the sport."

Alex has changed off the field as well.

He said the kids who he had problems with in the past have either graduated or left school. The Sons of Samoa are no longer a factor in his life because most of the gang members he knew are in jail.

Alex has become a model for other troubled students who have relationships with gangs. He said several younger kids have come to him for help, including a cousin who was a member of the Sons of Samoa.

"They ask me if it's true that I've changed," Alex said. "When I tell them yes, they ask me how because they want out, too.

"I used to to think I was better than everyone else and no one could touch me because I was in a gang. Now, I say, 'Hi,' to everyone and I try to be everyone's friend. It's important to me to get along."

And, what's important to Alex Ripley--athlete, student and role model--is important to everyone around him.

"I still worry about him," Maggie said. "But I know that the worst part of his life is over."

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