The sun is setting a burnished orange, and three groups of children jog across the football field in their pads and helmets to the sideline. It's quitting time on a pleasant summer evening, no school for a while yet, but 10-year-old Xavier Bernal isn't grinning.
For more than four decades, this field at Rowland High School in Rowland Heights has teemed with football players ages 5 to 14, so many jostling Rowland Raiders that each of the program's age divisions overran the next. But last year's nine squads have dwindled to three, and the usually robust cheerleading squad has gone from 80 girls to nine.
To hear Xavier tell it, blame falls squarely on the youth football league's most famous and controversial former coach.
"I'm mad at Coach Snoop," he says. "He was so cool; he told me to play my heart out and to play everything I've got. But now I just want to ask him, why did he take all our players?"
Walking with Xavier toward the parking lot, parents and coaches describe rapper Snoop Dogg as a modern-day Pied Piper luring football players with his song "Drop It Like It's Hot" blasting from a school bus pimped out with enough bass, TV screens and gadgetry to persuade any kid to sell out the old for the new.
Snoop rocked the youth football world two years ago when he volunteered as a Rowland Raiders "daddy coach," and then again last month when he broke from the franchise to start his own conference. The Raiders aren't the only team in the Orange County Junior All-American Football Conference to feel the screws; Long Beach and Compton teams, also in competition with Snoop's new league, report similar hemorrhaging.
And as Snoop talks of expanding the Snoop Youth Football League beyond its initial eight Southern California chapters, parents and coaches in the old conference accuse him and his agents of mounting a campaign of sabotage and misinformation.
Snoop's camp calls the furor sour grapes over its new league, which it says will be more effective and will better serve cash-strapped urban communities.
What's clear is that there's more at stake than football: Both practical goals, such as gang prevention and scholastic achievement, and more amorphous concepts, such as tradition and community, pervade dialogue at either end.
To understand Xavier Bernal's gripe, first enter a world where many families stick with teams for generations and involvement rarely ends with graduation from the program. Xavier's mother spent her girlhood afternoons cheerleading for the Rowland Raiders and later became the cheer coach and league treasurer. His grandfather has been coach, chapter president and now conference commissioner.
For Xavier and others, games are part competition, part family reunion.
Snoop, whose real name is Calvin Broadus, also has deep roots in youth football. He remembers the life lessons he learned while playing for the Long Beach Poly Junior Jackrabbits.
"It taught me how to work with other kids," he says, "how to have a relationship, how to learn. My coach taught me about religion as well as football, about keeping God in everything we did."
So two years ago, with Snoop's two boys old enough to play league ball, he enrolled them in the Rowland Raiders program, signed on as an offensive coordinator and weathered the media hullabaloo that ensued.
League Commissioner Bob Barna received "some e-mails from parents, saying, 'How dare you let somebody like that be with our youth?' " Barna says. "But did he bring anything negative? No. He acted like a dad."
A very cool dad. Coach Snoop was the talk of football fields and playgrounds throughout the Southland. Then, as the season came to a close, some of the league's all-stars received recruitment calls from the rapper, asking them to join the Raiders the next year. The league allows 15% of a team's players to come from outside its immediate area, Barna says, and a team can recruit without limit in cities where no team exists.
Snoop took full advantage, nabbing players like Derrick Marbrough from Long Beach. "I played against him, and then he wanted me on his team, so he called my mom," says Derrick, 11. "I switched teams."
"It was so cool," remembers Duon Rucker, who also came to the Rowland Raiders from Long Beach as a 10-year-old last year. "Everybody at school was all over me, 'Are you about to go with Snoop? Can you get me his autograph?' Everybody wanted to get a picture of me and him together."
And then there was the bus.
"It's a mini-school bus," Derrick says, "and it had TVs in it where we watched our games from last week."
"Yeah," Duon enthuses, "and everywhere we went, you could hear us coming down the street, we had like hydraulics from all the bass! We listened to Snoop's music -- our theme song was 'Drop It Like It's Hot.' "
Last year's Rowland Raiders team of 8- to 10-year-olds, with Snoop as offensive and defensive coordinator and his older son playing quarterback, steamrolled through the season unbeaten. At the team's awards banquet, the coach gave each player a DVD of team games with a special Snoop Dogg tribute to the Raiders bumping in the background.
Then, for the second year in a row, Snoop culled the best players for an all-star team to represent the Rowland Raiders in the youth football postseason. They bused out to play other California all-star teams before heading to Jacksonville, Fla., to compete in the final competition and brainchild of their coach -- the "Snooperbowl" -- a day before Super Bowl XXXIX.
More than 15,000 fans crowded in to watch the Raiders play the Jacksonville Junior All Stars (or perhaps to watch halftime performer Snoop), and the team from Rowland didn't disappoint. On the way home, Raiders all-stars lugged custom trophies donated by Tiffany & Co.
"This is a gentleman who wants it all, who wants the best kids so he can win the championship," says Frank Romero, president of the Raiders. "He didn't go through the chain of command like he was supposed to. He had the say-so of everything. It was a very difficult year."
Nobody accuses Snoop of being a derelict coach; far from it. Most grumblers say that Snoop was overly generous and doted on his team, giving them new jerseys, letterman jackets, trophies and championship rings, even though chapter rules stipulate that if any team gets new equipment, every team does, Romero says.
"After he won his first league championship game, he went out and bought scooters for everybody," Romero says. "He never said anything to the league, never asked permission. I had parents calling me all the time, asking, 'How come Snoop Dogg's team is getting this?' "
Snoop had complaints of his own. The residency requirements for joining teams seemed too strict, especially when they prevented kids from playing alongside friends and family.
"My son lives in Diamond Bar," says Shante Broadus, Snoop's wife, "but his cousin lives in Fontana, so he couldn't come and play. Sometimes boys just want to be together."
The league fees also bothered Snoop; $175 per child for the Rowland Raiders program (other league chapters charge more) precludes poor families from participating, he says, and those families have trouble driving their children to distant fields for away games.
"It's so easy for a kid to join a gang, to do drugs," Snoop says. "We should make it that easy to be involved in football and academics."
About midway through the 2004 season, it hit Snoop.
"I don't have to go against the system," he remembers thinking. "The best thing to do would be to create my own league, as opposed to me being used and them getting a lot of the credit." It would be "mine," he says. "Snoop began it."
After the season, top players in the Orange County conference received phone calls asking them to join the Snoop Youth Football League, which has no pesky residence requirements and cheaper rates -- $100 for the first child in a family, half price for any others, incidentals like cleats and pads included.
Many families and even some coaches hopped aboard, while chapter loyalists wondered aloud if last season's pageantry had been orchestrated to "steal our kids."
"I think what [Snoop] did is just so shallow," says Sandy Gonzales, a sales executive who has two boys on Rowland Raiders football squads and a girl in cheerleading. "He came here just so that he could take away from us what we'd taken many years to establish."
In Compton, chapter President Toni Smith fielded calls from confused parents "asking me why the Compton Titans have folded and are now the Compton Vikings," she says. The Vikings are the local Snoop chapter. The Titans, in fact, are still fielding teams. But Compton's usual 12 teams are down to five -- and Smith's son is among the kids left without a squad.
Even Snoop's alma mater, the Long Beach Poly Junior Jackrabbits, is struggling to stay afloat. "This has affected us in a terrible way," says Sarah L. Morrison, chapter president for 27 years. "I don't know if our program will exist after this season."
The Jackrabbits, part of the Orange County conference, are officially known as the Long Beach Poly Junior Athletic Assn., while the Snoop chapter registered as the Long Beach Poly Youth Athletic Assn.
"Only one word is different," says Morrison, who has written a letter asking that Snoop change his chapter's name. "They advertise in the paper, and who's going to notice that small word?"
The charge that Orange County youth football is too expensive is smoke and mirrors, Morrison says. "Our organization has never turned a kid away who cannot pay," she says. "We try to get donations for over half the kids who come to us. I have paid out of my own pocket for kids to play."
In Rowland Heights, not everyone mourns the loss of Coach Snoop.
"Snoop was more focused on wanting to win than on teaching the kids the game," says Angelena Moore, a Raiders parent. "He focused more on kids he brought in from Los Angeles, Fullerton and Rialto. The rest of the kids got pushed off to the side."
Not true, says Al Brown, Snoop's onetime fellow Rowland Raiders coach and now head of football operations for Snoop's league. "It was equal opportunity for everybody."
Orange County youth football coaches point out that although they welcome any kid, the Snoop Youth Football League holds tryouts to sign up the best players. And making kids compete for spots promotes hurt feelings rather than community and camaraderie, they say.
Brown counters that tryouts are a safety measure to make sure that kids who shouldn't play tackle football don't.
Whether or not he's driven by winning, Raiders teammates who followed Snoop to the new league paint a picture of a loving coach who serves on and off the field as a mentor and pal.
"We would go over to Snoop's house," says Duon Rucker. "We'd play Madden [football video game] tournaments. We'd play hide and seek and [joke] with his wife, and then steal candy from coach when he was recording in his studio. He'd just laugh. But if we ever said something mean to one of our teammates, coach would get mad."
Snoop is a major figure in 11-year-old Travion Hall's life, says his mom, Tracey Wooben.
"All Trey had was me; his dad wasn't around," she said. "But last year, Trey was gone every weekend over at Snoop's house. That gave him the opportunity to see how it was to stay away from home, and he had a ball. These kids are having the experience of a lifetime."
Even so, it wasn't easy to leave the league Trey had played in since he was 6, Wooben says. "When you start your kid off somewhere, you don't want to switch them. But I finally gave in."
As Snoop's league gains a higher profile, celebrities and corporate sponsors jostle for involvement. The rapper will stage a benefit concert Aug. 25 with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Ice Cube at the Greek Theatre, with all proceeds to be donated to the Snoop Youth Football League. ("Snoop is the Phil Jackson of youth football coaches," Ice Cube says. "He ain't going to accept nothing but a winner.")
League sponsors include Amp'd Mobile, a soon-to-debut cellphone provider that's offering cash sponsorship in the mid-six figures and has talked about giving phones to Snoop's players. Snoop's Rowland Raiders team from last year will soon star in its own video game, and Sony is making a movie called "Coach Snoop," starring: Snoop.
Willie McGinest, linebacker for the New England Patriots -- who played with Snoop on the Junior Jackrabbits -- has donated money and coaching time to Snoop's Long Beach chapter.
"This is a chance for us to save our community and to get our kids back," he says. Youth football was "my base, my starting point, my foundation. It's a big part of who I am today."
Daylon McCutcheon of the Cleveland Browns played for the Rowland Raiders and has "mixed emotions" about the turn taken by the Southern California youth football world. On the one hand, he supports Snoop's efforts to expand access; on the other, he says, "I have a son who's 2 1/2 , and I've dreamt about seeing him in a Rowland Raiders uniform."
Snoop's youngest son, 8-year-old Cordell Broadus, is slated to be the rapper's star quarterback this year, and in his first interview, Cordell let out a shocker.
"Football?" he said. "Well, I like basketball, really. I'm not going to the NFL. I'm going to the NBA."
It might be understandable if at that moment Southland youth basketball commissioners felt their hearts skip a beat.