In the Night Club

Times Staff Writer

The lights cascading over the standing-room-only crowd at Los Angeles Crenshaw High's football field Friday night illuminated more than a team that often has quietly excelled in the considerable shadow of a nationally recognized basketball program.

They also spotlighted the coordinated efforts of a community driven to provide Crenshaw players with a rite of passage taken for granted by so many thousands of teens across the nation: Friday night lights.

"These kids deserve to play games at night in their own backyard as much as any other community in America," said Crenshaw Coach Robert Garrett, whose longtime dream became a reality when his Cougars played Coliseum League rival Dorsey in the first night home game in school history.

The historic event also served as a dress rehearsal of sorts. Since permanent light fixtures costing approximately $200,000 have yet to be erected, temporary banks of lights were used Friday. The Los Angeles Unified School District paid $8,000 for the temporary lights, which the playoff-bound Cougars may also use for their first night postseason home game.

"We've got a good football program," Principal Isaac Hammond said. "This is shining a light on them."

Though Garrett expressed disappointment that temporary lights were used for the homecoming game against Dorsey -- "We're not excited about these lights," he said -- the coach said he was satisfied progress was being made. The permanent lights are scheduled to be delivered Nov. 17 and should be installed by Jan. 1, said Doug Dunivan, deputy director of maintenance and operations for the LAUSD.

Of the 49 City Section schools that play football, Crenshaw is among 30 that have lights for home games, according to Shannon Johnson, a facility spokesperson for the LAUSD.

That Crenshaw has lights at all -- even temporary ones -- is quite an achievement, considering past failures.

"Before it was a lack of follow-through," Hammond said. "Some people would get involved and there would be some movement, but then it would fall by the wayside. Some people thought there were too many gangs around here and that it would never work."

Said Audrey Laster, president of the Crenshaw alumni club: "Nobody wanted to take up the issue."

But thanks to the persistence of Garrett and the support of public and private donors, Crenshaw no longer will be forced to play afternoon home games or travel long distances to play host to night games. Actor Kirk Douglas and his wife, Anne, contributed $25,000, and their charitable foundation contributed another $25,000. The Amateur Athletic Federation donated $75,000, and the LAUSD and Crenshaw supplied a combined $75,000.

Crenshaw students and athletes chipped in by holding raffles and other fund-raisers, and City Councilman Bernard Parks helped secure temporary lights when it became apparent the permanent ones wouldn't be ready for this season. Many of those instrumental in bringing night football to Crenshaw were honored Friday in a pregame ceremony.

"We've finally got some individuals who not only stepped up and followed through on this but, when things got tough, they were people who could talk the talk and back it up," Hammond said.

School officials initially feared resistance from the community over crowd noise and potential gang activity accompanying night games. Locke High officials had expressed apprehension about coming to Crenshaw for a recent day game, according to Aadil Naazir, Crenshaw's assistant principal in charge of athletics.

"It's no secret," Naazir said, "there's problems in the community."

But student leaders who circulated through the neighborhood with petitions were met with a largely favorable response, Naazir said.

School officials helped allay fears about gang activity Friday by blocking off several surrounding streets and arranging for what they said was an adequate security staff. In addition to officers from the Los Angeles Police Department's Southwest station, off-duty probation officers and Crenshaw teachers helped manage the crowd.

Among the sellout crowd of about 3,000 were many parents who watched their sons play high school football for the first time. The game was especially meaningful for Crenshaw offensive tackle Aleksey Lanis, whose father passed away last year and whose mother had never seen him play because she had to work during the afternoon.

"It's a big deal for everybody," said senior running back Aaron Huntley. "We're making history."

The Cougars likely won't reap the benefits of night football until their next home game because the Dorsey game is usually sold out anyway. But school officials are already excited that they won't have to pull players out of class an hour and a half early for afternoon games. They expect parental and community involvement in the football program to be heightened.

The hope is that a stadium typically half-empty for home games will be packed on a regular basis, leading to increased revenue through ticket and concession sales.

"The more revenue," Naazir said, "the more we can do for the students."

Once permanent lights are in place, other Cougar athletic teams and a Pop Warner team will also have the opportunity to play night games.

Garrett said he will be proud once the four permanent 80-foot fixtures are erected. "When you bring the big ones in," he said, "I would feel that I met my goal. That's my legacy."

Garrett's teams have often taken a backseat at Crenshaw to the high-profile boys' basketball teams coached by Willie West, who has guided the Cougars to eight state titles and 16 City Section championships.

But Garrett, who took over the football program in 1988, is approaching lofty status of his own. The Cougars played in the City championship game as recently as 1999 and had amassed a 23-game winning streak in the Coliseum League before Friday's 13-12 loss to Dorsey.

Perhaps the night games will put Garrett and the Cougars in the spotlight where they belong.

"Hopefully," Athletic Director Ken Maxey said, "this might be the beginning of something better."


Staff writer Eric Stephens contributed to this report.

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