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COLUMN ONE : A Proud Struggle on the Field--and Off : Gangs and poverty and despair taint their lives. But come game time, the Garfield High Bulldogs get a chance to turn fear and rage and pain into glory.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Aguirre pushes a switch, and day becomes midnight in the gym at James A. Garfield High.

Dark, restless lumps line the floor. The only sound is the heavy breathing of teen-agers nervously awaiting their weekly two hours of truth.

Feeling his way through the darkness, carefully stepping over these small men stuffed into big pads, is Aguirre, the head coach of the Garfield football team.

It is a Friday, 4:35 p.m. In less than three hours, the Bulldogs will step outside onto a patch of uneven grass in the middle of a temperamental neighborhood. In front of several hundred people, they will play a game against Bell.

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“Gentlemen,” Aguirre screams into midnight, “this game is not just for you. This game is bigger than you!”

This is one of nine Garfield games this season. This is one of about 30 games in the average Garfield player’s career. That’s 30 chances to throw out your chest, 30 chances to have the world scream for you until it is hoarse.

Thirty chances. And no more.

In the last 15 years, not one player from this East Los Angeles school has received a college football scholarship. Scouts rarely even venture inside Garfield’s usually locked outer gates. The players are small. Their 40-yard dash times are slow.

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All but one of the 48 on this year’s team are Latino. The number of Latinos who’ve ever made it to the NFL is minuscule.

These 48 believe none of it.

They have spent the previous week practicing every day until dark. Juggling jobs and baby-sitting and housework. Dealing with muggings and gang colors.

All for a chance to step on the field and force somebody to notice.

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“You are playing not just for yourselves, but for your entire neighborhood!” Aguirre yells. “This is not just for Garfield, it is for all of East L.A.!”

On autumn evenings throughout America, to play high school football is to live a dream.

But for these children of immigrants, single-parent homes and dangerous streets--for these appropriately nicknamed Bulldogs --the dream is awkward, heavy.

The star linebacker sometimes leaves practice early to care for his mother, who is blind. One star running back works as an auto mechanic during the day.

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Another starting running back--the team’s only black player--missed several practices when Latino gangs tried to force him out of a nearby housing project.

Three of the team’s players watched their estranged fathers die from drug- or alcohol-related problems this season.

Tonight, many parents will not be in the stands: Who will pay the bills? Who will watch the children?

Many friends are also absent, having lost a weekly battle to persuade a player to quit. More than 2,200 boys attend this school, these friends say. If only 48 play varsity football--on a team where nobody is cut--how good can it be?

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None of this matters to the 48 who, at this moment, feel they have been granted a higher calling. They can sense outsiders looking at them on the street as if they were punks who would be lucky to live past their 18th birthdays. They watch on TV as Latinos are treated like thugs.

Tonight they will be something else. They will be heroes.

As Aguirre pauses to catch his breath, it is so quiet in the Garfield gym that you can hear the whispers of 48 prayers.

“Think about why you are here!” Aguirre shouts. “You just think about it! Just think!”

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With the departure of the NFL’s Rams and Raiders, critics nationwide have chortled about the fact there is no football in Los Angeles.

Spend a week with the Bulldogs and you realize that, indeed, there is still football here. Football at its sweaty, soul-searching, heart-rending, triumphant best.

MONDAY

Willie Mercado is missing.

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The team’s first meeting of the week has begun. More than 40 shaved heads and pimply faces gather around a fuzzy TV in a classroom with barred windows.

They will watch films of Bell. They will study a mimeographed game plan. Both teams are 3-1. It is an important contest with playoff ramifications.

But their star defensive back is missing. Where is Willie?

Injury? Hooky?

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“Nah,” says Victor Ohm, equipment manager and trainer, with a shrug. “Guy got robbed again.”

An hour later, as the team takes the field, Mercado shows up. He is wearing a grimace and stone-cold stare. He is 17. He dresses quickly in the cramped locker room. It smells like a subway. The yellow lockers are battered. The wooden benches are reed-thin and chipped. Most of the toilets are clogged up. One has a gang symbol carved into its seat.

Yes, Mercado says, his car windows had been smashed during school. His stereo and speakers were stolen. “And my damn books, they got my damn books,” he says.

He will practice hard today, smothering smaller players with his long arms, leaping on them with a fury, sometimes kicking them before they get up.

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“Kids like Willie, they keep coming here because this is where they are loved,” says Ohm. “They don’t need gangs, because this is their gang.”

And Ohm, 35, is one of their leaders.

An imposing bald man with a stud in one year, Ohm has a constant scowl and a sharp mouth to match. He has been involved in Garfield football for 25 years, lives a few blocks down the road, walks to work every morning at 6.

Every high school team, it seems, has somebody like him.

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And no team has anybody like him.

He is not just the equipment manager and trainer, but the players’ tormentor and their protector.

He sees their hunger, he buys them lunches. He sees them coming to school with holes in their pants, he buys them blue jeans.

Cleats are not supplied by the school. Many times, they are supplied by Ohm. He gives the sexually active players condoms.

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Because of his intuition, most call him “Radar” after the character on “MASH.” Some players, however, quietly call him “Dad.” Ohm is most beloved for his medical knowledge. As in, he knows where to arrange for free X-rays and treatment.

This is important because the average Bulldog--about 5-foot-8, 180 pounds--is readily injured. Many players are uninsured beyond the school’s limited coverage.

Sometimes Ohm relies on doctors who are former students, sometimes he hits up old friends. Other times he relies on his wits.

As practice ends, one of Ohm’s children is attempting to hide a slight limp. It is linebacker Douglas Meza, who is recovering from a foot operation. It was performed last summer, after he played on a broken toe for two months during spring workouts because he couldn’t afford the medical bills.

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Ohm shuffled a few papers, held the boy’s hand when doctors were allowed to make the correct diagnosis and arranged for the surgery.

Meza hopes to play in his first game, against Bell. “When I told my mom about the operation, she cried because we had no money,” he says. “On Friday, I want her to see this.”

TUESDAY

Two hours before the first practice snap, and already there is a problem. A student walks up to Aguirre as he monitors the team during study hall.

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“Coach, over there,” the boy says. “I think somebody needs you.” He is pointing to a player, sitting alone, head buried in his knapsack, softly crying.

Aguirre knows the problem from 10 steps away. It will involve the boy’s family. Players have come to him when their father has beaten their mother, or beaten them. Then there are the times their mother has thrown them out of the house for fooling around with football and not getting a job.

Aguirre spends the final 30 minutes of study hall huddled over the player, a stocky defensive lineman with scared eyes. The boy will be sent home from practice. He will not be seen for two more days.

But he tells Coach he will be ready for Bell. Aguirre, a product of a nearby project and this high school, wants to believe him. “I grew up in the shadows; I was never anybody,” says Aguirre, a small man with a big mustache and soft voice. “Adults would always ask me what I wanted to be, but the choice would always be janitor or machine operator.

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“I listened to them, but in my heart, I always wanted to be a coach.”

When Aguirre graduated from here 23 years ago, only his mother attended the ceremony. He never knew his father, his sisters were working, and his closest brother was in jail. Aguirre knows about being 17 and feeling alone.

Aguirre is also strict. Again, he says, he has no choice. His team is required to address every adult, in every situation, as “sir.” They may miss a block, but they never blow that greeting.

During practice, players on the sidelines stand with their hands behind their backs and do not speak.

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Gang members sometimes scream at them from the end zone. Neighborhood women flirt with them from the track.

They do not speak.

Midway through the session, though, bodies begin nervously shifting and eyes glance to the side.

It’s Mario Hernandez. He is troubled again.

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The star defensive end is pulled out of the scrimmage by two volunteer assistant coaches.

Unlike some schools in Southern California, Garfield has just two paid assistants. Aguirre must rely on seven volunteers, usually former players, who show up after work or between jobs.

Tommy Lopez, who will soon begin training as a prison guard, and medical supplies salesman Lawrence Galindo notice that Hernandez is not playing hard. They surround him.

“Don’t b.s. us,” Lopez says. “What is wrong with you?”

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Hernandez stares down and says nothing. But the coaches know.

Hernandez’s father died this season. His mother fears her son has joined a gang, and she wants to send him out of state. After Hernandez missed two recent school days and practices, Lopez and Ohm left the field during drills and drove to the projects to look for him.

They didn’t know his address, so they walked through the streets shouting his name. They shouted and shouted until from behind one of the thin doors appeared a woman’s face. Behind her was Mario.

Lopez explained to the woman that her son was one of the team’s best players and that he was not in a gang. While the assistant coach talked, Hernandez gathered his gear.

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He carried it past his mother and into the men’s car before she could change her mind.

Today, Hernandez finally admits to his coaches, his mind is on his problems at home. Apparently he is not the only one.

It has been a warm day, the players are tired, but when you have just 30 chances, excuses are few. Aguirre calls the team together, glares and walks to his office.

The final speech of this day will be given, as it always is, by the team’s leaders.

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“Are you guys scared of something!” shouts receiver and defensive back John Cole, 5-foot-7 but with a 6-5 glare.

The team is kneeling, huddled before him and the other leaders in the end zone.

Linebacker Josh Villalobos is almost hysterical when he shouts, “Remember, every game is our last game. Every play is our last play!”

The day ends with several players walking backward on their hands across the darkened turf. They are being punished by their teammates for messing up, for not remembering.

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WEDNESDAY

A typical day in the life of a football team working without a net.

Jose Casagran, the paid defensive coordinator, begins practice by showing more videotape from Bell’s last game. But one of the TV wires has corroded. Lopez must stand behind the set and hold it in place to maintain a picture.

They take the field in 90-degree heat and things get worse. Players begin complaining of dizziness. Ohm shakes his head knowingly. It happens about this time every week. Those are the ones who barely have enough to eat.

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A couple of children--no more than 8 or 9 years old--gather in the end zone and taunt the offense. “I’m gonna rock you!” shouts one. “I’m gonna screw you up good.”

In the other end zone, offensive and defensive linemen practice separately, alone.

Their volunteer leaders have not yet arrived from work and college.

Along the sidelines in this heat walks lineman Eddie Garcia, known as “Flounder,” a genuine senior college prospect at 6-3, 245.

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That is, if any recruiter could ever find these bleachers. There have been no obvious spectators at practice so far this week. Or for weeks before.

Today they couldn’t watch Garcia play anyway. But they could understand a measure of his toughness. He is battling a fever that has reached 102. Yet he won’t go home. He won’t take off his pads. He won’t even take off his helmet.

For the next two days he will circle the field in full uniform, not playing, not speaking, just circling.

“Sure, I could order him to go home,” Aguirre says. “But would you do that to the kid? He would rather be here than anywhere in the world.”

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Somehow, in the late afternoon, from this madness a football team emerges. The hitting becomes louder, the tackling comes quicker, the players moan longer.

Villalobos has a sprained ankle but won’t leave the field. Linebacker Tony Zamorano might have a broken hand, but also won’t go.

Ohm shrugs in frustration. Not that he could help. The average Garfield player has other ideas about healing. They are called sabadoras, elderly women who give massages and ointment rubs from homes and storefronts. The coaches liken it to visiting a witch doctor. The players believe it is magic.

Just the other day, a woman rubbed oils and a bit of shrubbery on Mercado’s injured back. He hasn’t missed a practice since.

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“Doctors,” Mercado snorted. “Those are for white people.”

By the time practice ends, the players are in a good mood. They have seen the injuries, watched Garcia’s struggle, felt the strength of their hits. They know they are becoming ready for Bell.

After congratulating themselves for a great practice, the players are screaming at each other about Friday night.

Reminding the players of the race of Bell’s star running back, Villalobos yells, “Friday, we’re all going to spill n----- blood!”

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There is silence. The teams looks uncomfortably at T.J. Sheppard. He is their star running back. He is the only black on the squad.

A long pause. Then from underneath his helmet, a smile. Relieved cheers.

Sheppard, a junior who leads the team with 350 rushing yards and two touchdowns, understands his teammates’ hearts if not their words. He discovered this last season when gangs terrorized him and his mother.

All the windows of his mother’s car were broken. The windows of their living room were adorned with “KKK.”

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His mother, Emma Birden, had seen enough. She made plans to move to another school district.

Then the Bulldogs showed up.

Zamorano and Cole, who both live in the projects, visited the gang members and asked them to back off. For the good of the team, they said. It was the only argument that would work. And it worked.

His mother is happy, and T.J. can’t wait for Bell.

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“I feel comfortable now,” Sheppard says. “My sister and everybody used to say the Mexicans were racist. But not here.”

It is dark. Puddles and tape clutter the locker room floor. The last player grabs his knapsack.

It is Zamorano. Senior captain. A SAT score of 1090. One of 20 players with grade-point averages better than 3.0.

These should be Zamorano’s glory days. But these are also his days of drudgery. Back at home in the projects, he must clean his small apartment. He must make dinner. He must shoo away gangbangers.

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It has been this way for several years, since his mother went blind after an illness. He has missed practice to drive her to the hospital. He has rushed home to be her eyes. But she will be here Friday.

That she can’t see is the source of his inspiration.

“She sits up where she can hear the public address announcer. She listens for my name,” he says. “That is why I make so many tackles. Because that is the only way she will know that I am there.”

THURSDAY

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The day begins with Ohm leaving the team to investigate reports of taggers on school property. Crime is as common around the Bulldogs as ankle sprains.

Paul Sarni, a junior linebacker, was wearing his blue-and-red jersey before last Friday’s game when he visited a doughnut shop with teammates. He was the first to walk outside, where he was accosted by a gang member who demanded his jersey.

“I said, ‘No way,’ ” Sarni recalls.

The gang member threatened to “shank” Sarni.

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“I said to myself, ‘There is no way I can give him this jersey,’ ” Sarni said. “How could I go back and face my teammates?”

The punk then threatened to “blast” Sarni. That was enough. He was prepared to undress when his teammates rushed outside. The punk fled to his car.

That night, the team took out its frustrations with an 18-15 victory over South Gate.

Such endings have not always been happy.

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Javier Perez, a junior wide receiver, was waiting for a city bus after practice recently when two men approached. One bumped him while the other reached under his knapsack and grabbed his helmet.

He chased the men but could not catch them.

“It was hard coming back to the locker room,” Perez says. “I mean, that was my helmet .”

Practice ends, as it does every Thursday, on a good, full note. In a small house on campus, Aguirre’s wife, Maria, has arranged for a full meal for the team, paid for by Aguirre and donations.

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“Tonight, you dream big!” exhorts Aguirre as the carne asada sizzles on the grill. “Then tomorrow, you come out and live it!”

FRIDAY

A day that should be a celebration of life begins with death.

Kickoff between Garfield and Bell is 7 p.m. Just after lunch, three players can be found at Rose Hills Memorial Park in Whittier.

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Zamorano, Villalobos and Mercado, decked in their jerseys, are planting flowers, weeping and wondering. They surround the marble gravestone of Carlos (Cooch) Alvarado, a fullback from two seasons ago who was gunned down on this day last year outside the school for no apparent reason.

Mercado sobs.

Six hours to game time.

“I used to think I could never leave East L.A.,” Mercado says later. “Now that I look around, I don’t see how I could stay.”

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Three hours to game time. One of the last to arrive at the locker room is Juan Marez, a starting running back. As other players are having their ankles taped, he sits talking with a girlfriend while hurriedly downing a Jumbo Jack.

But he can be excused for rushing. After all, he is a working man.

Marez, who leads the team with five touchdowns, also is the leader in changed transmissions. He is a mechanic for Nungarey Tire Service. He works full time when he does not have a full class load.

“I support myself and help my family,” he says. “Sometimes I am tired. But it is my choice.”

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At 4:30 p.m, the team files into the gym for its weekly hourlong quiet time. After Aguirre’s speech, the players will spread out on the floor and sleep like babies.

At 6:30, they are preparing to take the field.

Unlike teams at many schools, during games they do not wear earrings or gloves or tape on their shoes. Some players in this league actually wear gang colors.

“My rules,” Aguirre said. “We are not one person. We are one team.”

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THE GAME

The Bulldogs jog onto the grass amid virtual silence. The band has not started. The bleachers are not half-full.

But when the ball is kicked, the players behave like it’s the NFL.

With Sheppard and Marez running through the bigger Bell defense, Garfield moves down to the 16-yard line. Marez runs 15 yards and prepares to score and . . . oops . . . he drops the ball.

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Bell recovers.

The Garfield defense takes over. Garcia cannot be blocked. Zamorano has a hand on virtually every tackle. His name is announced so often, his mother cannot believe what she is not seeing.

Then, trouble.

Hernandez, who has forgotten his home problems and is playing with abandon, limps to the sideline. It’s his ankle.

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Ohm runs over. One problem. His tape-cutters are so poor, it takes him five minutes to unwrap Hernandez’s ankle. The delay forces Garfield to call a timeout.

Things get worse. Late in the first half, the struggling offense has yet another chance to score. This time, it is Sheppard who fumbles. He stumbles to the sidelines and plops on the bench. Even beneath his helmet, you can see he is crying.

Teammates rush up to hug him. The sobs continue. On this team, the emotion is common.

Once, after a tough loss, Garcia lay down at midfield and refused to go home.

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Halftime. 0-0.

The players trudge to the locker room and sprawl in front of the showers. It is the only spot that will hold them all.

The outside doors are carefully closed, and for good reason. Several times each season, gang members wander in at halftime to try to inspire the players or scare them into losing. Each time, Aguirre shoos them away.

“We got 24 minutes, just 24 minutes!” shouts Aguirre tonight.

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He says it as if they have but 24 minutes to live.

They begin the second half as if that is true. Moments after Cole recovers a fumble in Bell territory, quarterback Carlos Garcia scores on a 20-yard run.

The defense holds Bell after a long drive, then mounts another long drive. Sheppard runs one direction, Marez runs the other. Bell should stop them but can’t.

Then just like that, Sheppard bounces outside with 8:45 left and runs 32 yards for a TD. It’s 14-0.

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Sheppard’s tears are gone. His teammates engulf him.

The defense holds and it is over. Heroes again.

Eddie Garcia falls to the ground in excitement and exhaustion. Meza hops gleefully on his broken foot. Zamorano shuffles and waves his bad hand. Mercado slugs his teammates’ shoulder pads, his last bit of anger diminishing for the week.

They run through a tunnel of cheerleaders to the locker room. While the boys dance and sing inside, Aguirre shakes hands and hugs well-wishers outside.

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He has not seen any of these people this week. He knows he will not see them until next week. This task of nurturing flowers among the rocks must be handled alone, by him and his coaches.

Right now, it does not matter.

“Our players responded tonight, huh?” he says. “This is what makes it worth it.”

He leaves for a steakhouse dinner with his staff. Most of his players are down the street at a loud hamburger stand.

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The locker room clears except for one boy, Villalobos. A day that began in a graveyard is ending with a rebirth under a long, long shower. He remains under the water, laughing and singing, when he spots an adult bystander.

The smallest Garfield Bulldog steps out of the stall, covered in soap and a smile.

“Sir! Sir! " he says, as if this were the most wonderful, unbelievable thing in the world. “We beat Bell!”

Garfield will play its last game of the season at 7 p.m. today at home against Huntington Park.

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