This Compton Centennial football team is hungry

After the first five days of football practice in a dusty corner of Compton, Hell Week rises to a new boil.

Jimmy Nolan, the new coach of the Compton Centennial Apaches, is wondering how he can unlock the potential in his young football team when he doesn’t even have the keys to the stadium.

Some days he scales the wrought-iron gates. Some days, his players climb with him.

“Right now we may not be too good at football, but we’re great at hopping fences,” Nolan says.

When Nolan is able to borrow keys, open the gates and drive his white Toyota minivan next to the field, the players store their clothes there because there are no locks in their locker room. They dress in the sunlight, giggling girls watching from the bleachers, 50 kids of widely varying shapes and sizes tugging on donated shoes that are too tight, old T-shirts that are beyond wrinkled, and never, ever anything blue.

Blue is for the Crips, and this neighborhood belongs to the Bloods.

“Somebody donated blue shirts, but the kids are afraid to wear them,” Nolan says. “Somebody else donated a bunch of nice blue cleats, but the kids keep them hidden in the van.”

The kids should be in pads like the players from many other local high schools who started practice last week, but there has been no doctor available to give them the required physical exams, so they have spent the first week in those ratty shirts and shorts.

The kids should be replicating game situations on their field like many other teams, but nobody ever showed up to put down yard lines or sidelines, so they set out orange cones and pretend.

When the kids have to relieve themselves, they go between a set of bushes behind the end zone because the nearest toilet is either too far away or doesn’t work.

“I am not complaining,” Nolan says. “Everything we go through builds character.”

The construction required here is immense and intimidating, its burden falling on the thin shoulders of a pale red-haired guy from Mission Viejo who inexplicably signed up to spend two hours a day driving to and from the battle of a lifetime, coaching kids and changing lives for a $3,500 stipend that he is donating to charity.

One week into summer football practice, the new coach is working with no office, no phone, no computer, no video camera. He can’t order anyone to run the stadium steps because one-third of the bleachers are surrounded in yellow tape. They were burned in a recent fire. He can’t literally bench anyone, because, well, the field contains not a single bench.

He last coached at affluent Laguna Beach High before leaving three years ago to focus on his Orange County athletic training business. Yet Friday, dressed in colorful board shorts and a white headband, he hopped around his players as if he had just struck it rich.

“Some people wonder why I picked Compton Centennial,” Nolan says. “After being here awhile, it feels like Compton Centennial picked me.”

Other local high schools face similar economic and environmental challenges, but none has tackled a new coach like this — greeting a cheerful idealist with such a stark reality.

Nolan has two returning starters from a defending league championship team, and one of them is injured. Half of his team are sophomores and many others are playing for the first time, one even asking him to define “tailback.”

Yet none of those things are Nolan’s biggest problem.

“The biggest problem here is hunger,” Nolan says. “A lot of kids were getting dizzy, forgetting assignments, it turns out a lot of them had not eaten all day.”

The No. 2 problem?

“They need rides home,” Nolan says. “Right now, I can’t practice late because it’s too dangerous for these kids to be walking home in the dark.”

The third-biggest problem is making sure all those e-mails get sent. Did you get one? It seems like everyone in town did.

After getting a look at his new team this summer, Nolan did something that football coaches rarely do. He admitted vulnerability. He sent out three mass e-mails asking for donations for his team.

“It isn’t like we could just hold a carwash or a bake sale; we don’t have enough players or involved parents,” he explains. “I couldn’t think of anything else.”

He began his first missive with, “I am the sole booster club for our program....I need some help.” He asked for water, food, cleats, socks, underwear. He asked for shoulder pads. He asked for one dollar per person. He sent the e-mails to more than 2,000 people.

“I knew it could be difficult here; that’s why I wanted the challenge,” Nolan says. “But I had no idea my coaching would begin with soliciting big jars of peanut butter.”

But the crazy idea worked. Somebody sent cases of water. Somebody else sent packages of boxer shorts. A guy showed up at practice the other day offering slightly used cleats, and Nolan tossed him a $100 bill and bought all of them.

It’s nice, but it’s only a start. Nobody is comfortable yet. The other day, Nolan was pulled aside at practice by a parent who told him that a local gang had killed a rival gang member the night before. The parent warned that retaliation could happen to someone on his football team, and that Nolan should carefully watch slow-moving cars on an adjacent street.

Oh yeah, and have a good practice.

“I’m like, ‘What?”’ Nolan recalls.

That was the reaction of the team when Nolan was hired this summer, the last head coaching job filled on a CIF website, Nolan’s best chance to get back in the game.

“Watching him give his first speech, it was really weird,” says senior linebacker Wesley Perkins, who nearly transferred. “We were all thinking, ‘What does a white guy from Orange County know about Compton football?”’

Nolan knew about preaching from his parents, a former Catholic priest and nun. He knew about playing from his days as a defensive back for Santa Ana Mater Dei High and, later, the University of Utah.

He knew about coaching from stints at Cantwell-Sacred Heart in Montebello and later Laguna Beach, where he became briefly infamous for publicly ripping an opposing coach who refused to resolve a tie game by agreeing to an overtime period.

Nolan left Laguna Beach three years ago to focus on his successful Speed Kills training business but eventually realized he missed the kids, and so he plotted his return.

“The way it worked out, I feel like it’s a mission for me,” Nolan says. “This is where I’m happiest, helping kids who could use the help.”

That philosophy touched Jonathan Kenyon, Centennial’s athletic director, who says, “I was sold on his attitude, his willingness to step in and rough it for the sake of the kids.”

Kenyon says he approved of the e-mails, comparing them to the pleas of other athletic programs’ booster clubs. Kenyon also promises that, later this week, Nolan should have keys to the gates and maybe even a makeshift office.

“It’s not like we don’t have the money, it’s just that the [Compton] school district has decided that football at Centennial is not as important as other things,” Kenyon says.

Spend an afternoon with the Apaches and you feel as if nothing should be as important.

The last day of Hell Week began Friday with players doing push-ups and sit-ups on the hard track because the field is filled with too many prickly weeds. Yet everyone growls and pushes themselves.

Only half the players are there because the previous day’s practice was canceled after there was a break in the school’s water main, yet Nolan can’t stop hollering.

“We only need 11, and we’ve got 11!” he shouts. “We’ll do with what we have! The price is high, but the reward is higher!”

It’s risky to hope for anything in today’s cynical sports world. But for one sweaty moment Friday, you hope Jimmy Nolan is right.