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Back From Brink

Times Staff Writer

It was the equivalent of a last-second Hail Mary. Only this desperate attempt worked.

Los Angeles Verbum Dei was hanging on by a thread a few years ago. Its football team had been shelved, the basketball program was struggling to survive and school administrators weren’t even sure they had enough money to keep the school open.

But in stepped a group of experienced Jesuit educators who instilled a work-study program that paired every student from the all-boys school in Watts with dozens of Southland companies, helping defray 70% of the tuition while providing students with job skills.

The program initially scared off enough families to cause the football program to be scrapped. The model program has not only kept the private school open but, to the surprise of many, has provided a surge in enrollment that has helped breathe life back into the athletic programs.

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“People said that we couldn’t do it, we couldn’t survive,” said DeAnthony Langston, the boys’ athletic director and former basketball star at Verbum Dei.

The football team is playing its first full varsity football schedule since 2001 and, except for depth issues caused by a recent rash of injuries, is holding its own against more experienced opponents.

The Eagles fell to 6-2-1 overall and 2-1 in the Camino Real League after losing Saturday to host Pasadena La Salle, 20-14, but have already assured themselves a spot in the Southern Section playoffs.

Verbum Dei Coach Kendric Knox, who was the assistant head coach at Compton College last season, said he has been impressed with the team’s athleticism and character.

“The youth is just really the challenge,” Knox said, “just getting guys back into their first year of varsity football.”

Against La Salle, the Eagles rallied to tie the score, 14-14, in the third quarter when sophomore Reginald Dunn Jr. intercepted his second pass of the game and ran 74 yards on offense to set up a 16-yard touchdown pass on a halfback option from Marquis Bradley to Marcus Scroggins.

La Salle scored the tiebreaking touchdown on a three-yard run by Chris Lara on the first play of the fourth quarter and held on to win.

Bradley was one of 23 who suited up to play La Salle. A junior all-purpose player, he was a freshman at Verbum Dei during the year the school did not field a football team. Like many of the other sophomores and juniors on the team, who compose 80% of the roster, Bradley didn’t come to Verbum Dei to play football. His family was attracted to the work-study program, in which he earns $6,250 a year toward tuition.

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Bradley works every Thursday filing and copying papers at a law firm in Pasadena. Verbum Dei provides transportation for Bradley and the three others who alternate working eight-hour shifts Tuesday through Friday and every other Monday.

Bradley said it’s “dirty work” but gives him motivation to attend college. “You don’t want to do work like that,” he said. “You want to go to college and get a degree.”

Verbum Dei, which began the work-study program four years ago, was founded in 1962 by Bishop Joseph Francis of the Society of Divine Word Missionaries, a Catholic teaching order. The athletic programs stood tall for several years. The football team made the section playoffs 13 times from 1974 to 1989, winning titles in 1981-82. The basketball program has been a small-school power for decades.

But as the religious order struggled with membership and the surrounding neighborhoods began to decline, enrollment decreased , taking with it the superiority of the football program.

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At the urging of Cardinal Roger Mahony, the Jesuits took control of the school and implemented the work-study program.

As recently as two years ago, Verbum Dei’s enrollment had dropped to 142 students. Today, enrollment is approaching 300.

“Initially, it was just a creative financial way to make an urban private school work,” said John Weling, in his third year as school president. “But now, not only is it helping pay the bills, people are seeing an inherent value in the work-study program.”


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