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City’s bright lights

Yohance Salimu, an All-City defensive lineman at Crenshaw High, had run out of options.

His family had lost its apartment and was living at a homeless shelter far from school. He was taking trains and buses and staying with friends. There was no place to put his clothes, so they were starting to smell.

Crenshaw football Coach Robert Garrett decided it was time to intervene. He offered Salimu six lockers at school.

The catch: Salimu had to memorize six locker combinations. “I’m really good with numbers,” he said.

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Salimu stored his dirty clothes in two of the lockers. Four others contained his clean clothes. And despite all his other duties involving coaching and teaching, Garrett would take home a bag full of Salimu’s dirty clothes and do the player’s laundry.

When graduation day came in June 2011, Salimu had a 3.8 grade-point average and was accepted to the Air Force Academy.

“I’m thankful for my teachers pushing me above and beyond, and one of them was Coach Garrett,” he said.

At a time of budget cuts, furlough days, student defections to private schools and growing unease about what the future might bring, there are coaches in the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District such as Garrett who refuse to be deterred.

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“You never know who you’re getting through to,” said another of them, Dorsey football Coach Paul Knox. “You never know who you’re going to touch.”

Garrett, Knox and Mike Walsh of San Pedro have spent 21 years or longer teaching and coaching football at the same school, making them the longest-tenured football coaches in LAUSD.

They don’t have plasma TVs in their coaching offices and they each have regular classes to teach and roll books to fill out, as well. Their $2,800 coaching stipend is almost too embarrassing to mention. And yet, they are LAUSD lifers who receive inspiration from the students they coach and the game they teach.

They have stayed even though some colleagues have fled to private schools with bigger salaries. Ed Croson left Lake Balboa Birmingham in 2009 after winning four City titles to coach at West Hills Chaminade. Mike Christensen left Carson in 2010 to take over at Los Angeles Loyola. Elijah Asante resigned at Carson after last season to become coach at Santa Fe Springs St. Paul.

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LAUSD teachers are scheduled to have 10 no-pay furlough days during the upcoming school year. Paid football coaching positions have been cut from six to four, and a growing number of schools are getting rid of their sixth-period athletic classes, increasing the teaching workload for full-time coaches.

“For them to come back year after year after year is unbelievable,” said City Section administrator John Aguirre.

Below, a look at the trio of coaching lifers.

Paul Knox

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It’s 1989. Kevin Copeland is an All-City receiver and track star in his senior year at Dorsey. The Dons are playing San Pedro at Daniels Field, and Copeland has collapsed. Emergency personnel spend 45 minutes trying to resuscitate him. Police report several students have become emotional and passed out.

Copeland is later pronounced dead of cardiac arrest at Peninsula Hospital. He’s 17 years old.

Everything changed for Knox that season, when he won the first of his three City Section championships at Dorsey. A mural of Copeland is painted outside the locker room, where the team gathers for a prayer before each game.

“He was a great student, a great teammate,” Knox said. “The kind of young man he was showed me there were a lot of other positives that could be drawn from athletics that we could teach. From that point on, I broadened my mission as a coach.”

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His credo became: “Are you going to come back and help somebody like they helped you?”

That’s the message Knox passes along to his players at Dorsey. The walls in Knox’s tiny office next to the school weight room are filled with dozens of photos of players who went on to play football in college or in the NFL, including former USC and Pro Bowl receiver Keyshawn Johnson and former USC running back Stafon Johnson.

“He’s one of the pillars of the community,” said North Hollywood Coach Doug Bledsoe, who played on Knox’s first team in 1985. “He talks the talk and walks the walk. He’s a quiet general. He’s got a stare and you better get the job done.”

Knox, about to begin his 28th season as head coach, said, “There’s been a lot of heartbreaks and disappointments, but the positives outweigh the negatives.”

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Knox, 59, has faced obstacles such as declining enrollment. The school that once had more than 3,000 students is now down to 1,500. Private schools have been trying to lure away top athletes. District-wide cuts have reduced the school year by 18 days over the last four years.

But then he sees a teenager blossom like Jeremiah Allison, a defensive end who received a scholarship this year to Washington State after receiving all A’s on his report card for four years at Dorsey. His photo will soon go up on Knox’s office wall.

“The impact that coaches have on young men and young athletes is what really drives me,” Knox said. “Some kids need to be mentored. They need positive role models. They need people who believe in them and can coach them to be positive citizens.”

Mike Walsh

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It’s 1995. Holman Wiggins is a running back at San Pedro bused in from South Los Angeles. “I’m hot stuff,” he says.

Then Wiggins quits the football team after his sophomore season. Why? He’s mad that the varsity head coach, Walsh, didn’t use him after being promoted for the playoffs. Later, Walsh reminds Wiggins how talented he is and that he might have the ability to play in college.

Wiggins rejoins the team and becomes the City player of the year his senior year. He receives a scholarship to New Mexico, earns a bachelor’s degree in psychology and becomes an assistant coach at Illinois State, Tulsa and Memphis.

“I wasn’t even thinking about college,” Wiggins recalls. "[Walsh] was the person who showed me and told me I could be something other than the product of my environment.”

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For someone who considered himself the “class clown” in high school, Walsh has turned out quite well.

He graduated from San Pedro in 1972 and returned in 1981 to be a teacher and football coach.

“I coach because of what football did for me,” Walsh said. “It taught me to be disciplined. It gave me my wife. It gave me my sons. It gave me my job.”

Walsh, 58, has been head coach since 1991, winning three City Section Division I championships and five overall. He has lived in San Pedro all of his life. He said he called the San Pedro principal once a month lobbying to be hired decades ago when he was teaching in Baldwin Park.

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“It’s the greatest community in Los Angeles,” he said. “The people would give you the shirt off their back. They care about their kids. They care about their high school. They care about teaching values.”

He said teaching discipline through football is what he does best.

“We teach not only football and discipline but right and wrong,” he said. “I’ve got kids [former players] in the penitentiary. Evidently, they didn’t hear our lessons. But not everyone hears lessons that are taught, and some don’t hear lessons until later in life.”

Walsh said Wiggins is an example of the magic of football.

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“I didn’t discipline him; football disciplined him,” Walsh said. “Football opened doors for him.”

Robert Garrett

It’s 2003. Terrell Turner is a freshman at Crenshaw taking a conditioning test. The football coach, Garrett, tells him, “You have a lot of potential and I can help you. It’s going to be you putting in hard work and me giving you knowledge.” Four years later, Turner accepts a scholarship to Oregon and starts at defensive end in the 2012 Rose Bowl.

“He was like a father figure,” Turner said.

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Arrogant. Loud. Profane. Those are just a few of the not-so-flattering descriptions from parents, media and recruiters about Garrett, Crenshaw’s head football coach since 1988.

Garrett grew up the fourth of nine children raised by a single mother. He played football at Jefferson High and attended Concordia Teachers College in Seward, Neb.

“At one point, I thought I’d be the first black coach in the NFL,” he said. “That was my dream. Art Shell beat me.”

Players call him “G Man.” His teams won the school’s only City Section Division I championships in 2005, 2009 and 2010, and yet, there was a movement by some disgruntled Crenshaw supporters to have him fired earlier this year. Some have complained he doesn’t offer a warm welcome to college recruiters. Others criticize him for his politically incorrect comments.

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“Where I come from, you judge a man by his character, and you have to be straight up,” Garrett said. “I say choice words that I grew up with. I might be loud and some people might say obnoxious. My mission is to do the right thing. I’m not for sale. I can’t be bought. All you need to be is be straight up with me.”

From Garrett’s program came De’Anthony Thomas, the standout running back last season as a freshman at Oregon who’s one of college football’s brightest young stars. On the same high school team was Salimu, whom Garrett was determined to help excel on and off the field.

When Garrett found out Salimu wanted to attend Air Force, he didn’t become nicer -- he became tougher.

“It is tough love,” Salimu said. “For people who complain, they can’t live up to standards he wants them to live up to. He’s not all about football. He’s about building men into leaders. He’s one of the greatest role models I’ll ever have.”

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Garrett sees football as a means to help change a teenager’s perspective on life.

“It builds relationships. It builds character. It builds communication skills. It teaches one how to go through adversity. It allows you not to be selfish,” he said.

Coaching in the LAUSD also means dealing with plenty of obstacles and extra course work to stay up to date. Coaches have concussion training, CPR-first aid training and coaches education training, and they must pass a background and fingerprint check.

Then there are the added responsibilities of fundraising and the challenge of putting together a year-round program.

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Reflecting on why he and his longtime colleagues continue to coach, Garrett said, “What else am I going to do? . . . I have a great deal of respect for them because everybody who claims they want to do this can’t do this because it’s tougher than tough.”

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eric.sondheimer@latimes.com twitter.com/LATSondheimer


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