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Heart of a community

Times Staff Writer

On game day, unlike other school days, the Charles twins don’t fight their mother about getting up in the morning. They rise early, and go through their weekly ritual.

“I’m superstitious,” Keith Charles says. A senior, he’s the quarterback for the Dorsey Dons, the football powerhouse at Susan Miller Dorsey High School in Southwest Los Angeles. “I make a CD of the songs I like during that week. The night before, I do homework and I leave the girls” -- who his mother says call constantly -- “alone.”

Marquise Charles, who plays defensive back and running back, also listens to his favorite music. “I watch tape of last week’s game for about 30 minutes,” he says, “and think about my assignment.”

Their teammate, Jeremiah Johnson, a running back who also plays defense, eats a muffin, grabs the boneless chicken his mother cooks for him to nibble on throughout the day, straightens his green tie -- that’s right, his tie -- and heads to school, anticipating his own version of the current movie “Friday Night Lights.”

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Jerome Johnson, Jeremiah’s older brother, says that even though the film is set in West Texas, it’s not that different at Dorsey. “It really happens like that,” Jerome says, and he should know: he played linebacker for the Dons, was recruited two years ago by University of Oregon and is in the process of transferring to San Diego State.

Under the Friday night lights at Jackie Robinson Stadium in Rancho Cienega Park, on this day, the Dons will take on Locke High School in a game that means much more than touchdowns and tackles to these players, and to those who took this field in years gone by. The team has become a source of pride to the largely African American community -- the Dons have won four City Section championships since head Coach Paul Knox took over in 1985 -- as well as life lessons to the players and excitement to the fans. Particularly today: It’s homecoming, and several thousand fans will be on hand for the festivities.

But, first, there’s school.

7:30 a.m. Before the bell rings

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These young men look nothing like football players.

“They have to wear ties on game day. In college, you have to wear a suit and a tie to away games and home games,” explains Dons defensive coordinator Ralph Caldwell, one of three former NFL players who coaches at Dorsey.

“You pretty much present yourself like a student athlete, not an athlete student,” Jeremiah Johnson says. “I come dressed like it’s business.”

7:52 a.m. First period

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Players get no special treatment. They must attend class, and pass, to play.

“You don’t see them skipping a quiz just because they’re a football player,” says April McNeel, the assistant athletic director, the team’s academic advisor and one of a dozen Dorsey alumni who work at the school. All players take the academic classes that qualify them for the University of California or the Cal State system.

Several, like scholar-athlete Keith Charles, who attends one of Dorsey’s three magnet schools, carry multiple advanced placement and honors courses. Every player graduates and most of those who aren’t recruited go on to smaller universities or junior college.

9 a.m. Field trip

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The players put on their green-and-white football jerseys and the cheerleaders dress in their Dorsey jogging suits for a presentation at Los Angeles City Hall.

Before the buses take off, Knox stops a player whose teacher has threatened to prevent him from going because he failed to turn in a couple of assignments. The work has been handed in and the signed permission slip is produced.

The students are expected to return to school by 10:30, but when they arrive in council chambers, they wait, and wait and wait. There are no seats. They stand so long that defensive end Courtney Williams’ legs begin to cramp.

11 a.m. Still waiting

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Knox is pacing. This is a distraction on game day. William Harris, one of the coaches who works with receivers, mutters, “We’ve got a game to prepare for” and goes to the front to see if they are next. They are not.

As the players congregate in the back of the overheated room, Councilman Tom LaBonge approaches them looking for Timothy Liburd, the team’s center. Liburd is shocked. “He told me that he was a center also when he played high school football [at Marshall],” the young man says. “None of the linemen are ever singled out. We’re in the back, behind the scenes.”

Finally, Councilman Martin Ludlow salutes the coaches, team and the cops who worked the Dorsey-Crenshaw game last month. That game, an intense rivalry, was almost moved from the Dons’ home field, located near the intersection of La Brea Avenue and Rodeo Road, because of concerns about gang activity in an area that the Bloods consider their turf. Their enemy, the Crips, claim the neighborhood near Crenshaw High School. Ludlow and Councilman Bernard Parks interceded, security was ratcheted up substantially, and the contest proceeded -- as with every other Dorsey football game this season -- without any problems.

“We’re an inner-city school. People don’t think we have a lot going for us,” Stevie Clark, captain of the Dorsey cheerleaders, says. “Football shows we have a lot of talent and puts Dorsey on the map.”

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12:15 p.m. Back to school

“Go straight to class,” Knox tells them. “There’s 15 minutes left in this period.” Which also means 15 minutes until lunch, and the players are starving.

12:34 p.m. Lunch

They rush through the meal in the cafeteria, and head to the pep rally where DJ Quess is pumping John Legend, The Game and Ciara. Students dance outside in the center circle surrounded by classroom buildings. The cheerleaders don’t lead their usual cheers on this Friday because they aren’t wearing their uniforms with the short, pleated skirts. Instead, they hold a piggyback, hopscotch contest. Marquise Charles and Lee Sprewell, a wide receiver and defensive back, win.

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3 p.m. Pregame meal

“We didn’t give them any rice before the Crenshaw game because we didn’t want them to be sluggish,” Marlette Byrd says, of the afternoon meal prepared by parents. She’s the mother of the Charles twins, and when it’s her turn to cook she gets up at 4 in the morning to bake more than 100 big pieces of chicken. On this day, she brings Caesar salad. Kim Hall, mother of Stafon Johnson, Dorsey’s leading rusher, brings pasta salad.

The mothers usually cook the entire meal, but most of the regulars attended the morning presentation at City Hall.

Stan Johnson, who is Stafon’s father and a Dorsey assistant track coach, shows up with 70 large shish kebabs with chunks of chicken, bell peppers, carrots and onions bigger than a newborn’s fist, and 70 long, thick chicken links. The shish kebabs run out, and he goes for more.

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4:30 p.m. Putting on the uniform

One of the first to suit up is Keith Browner Jr. He probably faces more pressure to excel than any other player on this team. His dad, Keith Browner Sr., an outside linebacker for USC and All-American, played in the NFL. His uncles, Ross, Joey and Jim Browner, also played pro ball.

“It makes me want to be like him. I want to be great. I want to keep the tradition going,” the Dorsey starter says. “Since everybody knows my dad and all my uncles, it keeps a lot of pressure on me.”

As the players finish dressing, a few keep on their traditional and brightly colored lava-lavas, a Samoan calf-length wrap.

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5:30 p.m. Prayer time

John Eatman, a right guard and defensive tackle, heads to the wall of a classroom building. He presses his body against it and touches the mural of Kevin Copeland, a star wide receiver who died of heart failure on the sidelines during a game against San Pedro in 1989.

Players pray individually, and as a family, before every game. While they wait for stragglers, Eatman tries to pump them up.

“It’s show time,” he says. “This is the Coliseum League. They [Locke] shouldn’t even cross the 50-yard line.”

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The last player arrives. David Gettis a wide receiver and defensive back, leads the group prayer.

“Father, God ... " he begins as they pray for the team and the safety of the Locke players as they travel. After the prayer ends, the Dons walk through the practice field and cut across the park to the stadium, located two blocks from the school.

6 p.m. An hour to go

Fans are filling the Dorsey side of the stadium. The Dons attract a large following for every game because of the prominent football program that has sent 94 players to Division I colleges and produced 21 NFL players since Knox moved up to head coach.

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In this, his 20th season, seven players are being heavily recruited by major colleges. Undefeated in league play (8-1 overall, before Friday’s game against Jefferson), ) the Dons will return to the playoffs.

An old-school coach, Knox runs an extremely disciplined program with three-hour practices that grow longer if the players don’t perform; tough drills, including some used in the NFL, and imposing physical punishments that require running “up-downs,” a grueling combination of running in place and push-ups until a coach says stop, and rolling up and down the field for 200 yards and more.

“The coaches are very strict. If we mess up, they’ll keep us out at practice late, until maybe 8:30 or 9:30,” says senior Chad Lowe, a tight end and linebacker who had 17 tackles against Crenshaw.

His mother, Lisa Grantham, attended Dorsey. So did the mothers of the Charles twins and the Johnson brothers, Jeremiah and Jerome -- both of those women, Marlette Byrd and Sabrina Pumphrey ran track for Knox. Many mothers, including Charisse Browner, attend tonight’s game.

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6:40 p.m. Taking the field

They huddle, take a knee and remove their helmets. Albert Russell, a tight end and linebacker, leads them in the chant that every Dorsey team has done for 20 seasons. “We’re going to fight till we can’t fight no more,” he begins, later adding, " ... lay down and bleed for all. Get up and fight some more. Never give up.”

In another pregame ritual, they begin, “To all our fallen soldiers, the ones who played for Dorsey,” and recite the names of Dons who have died.

7 p.m. Kickoff

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Alumni pack the stands.

Reggie Jernigan, ’88, has just flown in from Dallas with his wife, Adrian, ’89, his high school sweetheart.

It’s his first time back.

“Once a Dorsey Don, always a Don no matter where you are living,” he says.

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Jernigan, a running back who played with Copeland, spies a teammate, Beano Bryant, who went on to play in the NFL and now coaches the junior varsity team along with another ex-NFL player, DeMarco Farr.

As they catch up, former players from other classes arrive.

“I always come to support the Dons. My blood is green on the inside, it only turns red when it hits the air,” Chris Hill, ’77, says. He played defensive end, and his two brothers also played for Dorsey. He lives in the same house he lived in when he attended the school. “I was disappointed with the Crenshaw game (which the Dons won, 24-20) with the tackles. They knocked some guys down then helped them up. Coach K (Ray Kasparian) would never have gone for that.”

“Hi, Coach,” Hill says, greeting Winston “Tex” Thompson, who was the Dons’ defensive coach for 10 years. Thompson, ’72, also played offensive guard for the Dons and is sitting with former teammates Steven Patterson, who played center, and John Jordan, who played guard. Thompson also coached Rico Lee, ’75, who played JV ball. He sits a couple of rows in front of them. Up walks Vander Dale, ’71, who played defensive end.

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They stand and cheer as their Dons dominate on the ground and in the air. Running back Stafon Johnson flies down the field for a touchdown. Jeremiah Johnson, another speedster, carries the ball for two more. Gettis shows how good he is at catching the ball and scores another touchdown. They go for two each time, and succeed once to rack up 26 points in the first half while the defense, led by linebacker Chad Low, the league’s most valuable defensive player this season, shuts down Locke.

During halftime, when quarterback Keith Charles is named homecoming king, the old players joke about how the guys who play the glamour positions get those tributes.

During the second half Thompson points out Devyn Brown, who is playing defensive back and makes a crushing tackle, and says, “I coached his father, Sheldon Brown, and his uncles.” Locke scores. The clock runs out. The final score is 26-6. The players shake hands. The Dons return to the campus where they eat the rest of the shish kebabs and links, and other snacks the parents provide. Some players leave quickly, others linger savoring their latest victory.

Postscript

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Today, Knox and representatives from the other leagues will meet to determine pairings in the City Section playoffs, which start next week. The Dorsey Dons are in the hunt for another championship.


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