In 1989, when soccer enthusiast Toni Grooms was trying to launch the Watts Friendship Sports League, the director of a recreation center in the area told her, "You can do what you want, but you'll never have soccer in my center."
When the Sports League opened later in the year, its first soccer game was played there.
Such is the power of Grooms' persuasion. She had become involved with soccer years earlier when her children played. She volunteered as a coach and later served as deputy commissioner of the American Youth Soccer Organization region encompassing Granada Hills, where she lives.
When she took a job as a youth and community services officer for the City Housing Authority Police Department about eight years ago, she brought her passion for soccer to South-Central Los Angeles. The game was the inaugural activity of the Watts Friendship Sports League, a program sponsored by several corporations and city and county organizations to provide a constructive outlet for youths and bring together the community's African American and Latino residents.
About 6,500 children and teen-agers 4 to 18 participated in the league last year; in addition to sports, activities include motivational classes to encourage students to attend college and the Sister-to-Sister program, which promotes self-esteem for girls and young women.
It is soccer, though, that remains closest to Grooms' heart.
"Soccer sets up discipline," she says. "You can get kids to exercise and have camaraderie. And you don't have to be that good a player. You can be small, be slow, and still have fun."
Her family shares Grooms' devotion. Several of her seven sons and five daughters serve as Sports League coaches and referees. Grooms is the league's deputy commissioner.
Currently she has enlisted the interest of Legacy Tour '94, the community outreach program of World Cup Soccer. At her suggestion, the Legacy Tour installed a $100,000 sports floor for soccer at the Nickerson Gardens housing project in Watts. The project's old field will be reseeded with grass and lights added.
Grooms also is taking advantage of the high-profile tour to promote parental participation in soccer at school assemblies and by distributing flyers.
"A lot of parents don't know they're supposed to be involved," Grooms says. "They think you have to be a brain surgeon to coach. You say, 'No, put the ball down. They'll kick it.' Kids want to have fun. You don't have to have a killer instinct to have fun. You'll grow with the program, as your child will."
(For more information about the Watts Friendship Sports League, call (213) 346-7392.)