Dorsey High’s football program is about more than athletics

Members of the Dorsey High football team ride the bus down Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles, escorted by police, to face rival Crenshaw High. They're the last two predominantly black high schools in an increasingly Latino city, and their annual gridiron match-up splits friends and neighbors and sometimes city blocks, red against blue, Blood against Crip. > > > Audio slide show
Members of the Dorsey High football team ride the bus down Crenshaw Boulevard in South Los Angeles, escorted by police, to face rival Crenshaw High. They’re the last two predominantly black high schools in an increasingly Latino city, and their annual gridiron match-up splits friends and neighbors and sometimes city blocks, red against blue, Blood against Crip. > > > Audio slide show
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Jeremiah Allison sits stone-faced inside the big yellow bus as it winds through a maze of South Los Angeles streets, escorted by police. His jaws clench, his eyes narrow and his mind races to the hard, if not impossible, task ahead.

He is not alone. All around him, shoulder-to-shoulder, sit 50 other nervous boys. They crack their knuckles and wring their hands. They crane their necks and say their prayers. They stare out the windows, passing a row of dangerous apartments where some of them live.

This is Jeremiah’s team, the Susan Miller Dorsey High School football team.

It is a Friday in mid-November, and this is their night, a night Jeremiah has dreamed of since grade school, when he first heard about the raw-nerved battles between Dorsey and Crenshaw High.

Dorsey-Crenshaw is the rivalry game in black Los Angeles; tense and talent-kissed, pitting two of the last predominantly African American high schools in an increasingly Latino city against each other. It splits friends and neighbors and sometimes city blocks, red against blue, Blood against Crip.

Fifteen, handsome and whip-smart, Jeremiah hears his coach’s voice. “Quiet,” says Paul Knox, disturbed by a din coming from the back of the bus. “Keep your focus, please.”

He does not shout. There is no bite to his voice. But as they’ve done at Dorsey for almost three decades, his players do as told.

Knox, 56, who doubles as a U.S. history teacher, is the dean of high school football coaches in Los Angeles. He’s been coaching at Dorsey since 1982, at the helm since 1985. He’s a legend in South L.A. for his winning, and for his steady calm.

Poor and shopworn Dorsey, stuck in the path of crack wars that reached an apex in the 1990s, has imbued Knox with painful perspective. He’s spent a career wading through woe: players jailed, shattered by despair, swallowed by gangs . . . or worse. It has not been uncommon for him to attend three funerals in a year.

Yet he’s also overseen the creation of a football haven. In Dorsey’s 72-year history, the school has won five city titles. Knox was an assistant for the first, the head coach for the others. Many schools would crow at sending a handful of players every decade to play college ball. At least 100 of his Dorsey Dons have earned athletic scholarships. Twenty-six are veterans of the NFL.

But for years, something more important than wins, losses and glory has been at work here. With little fanfare, on a team where most players are raised by single mothers, sisters, grandparents or in group homes, Knox and his assistants have created a family for boys who need extra care, support and guidance -- particularly from men.

You can see it on the dusty practice field before the Crenshaw game. There is Knox -- “Pops,” as he is sometimes called -- lips pursed, hands clasped behind his back, eyes trained on his team like a hopeful father. Spread before him are not just his players but his assistant coaches -- 16 of them, 16 stand-in uncles.

Like Knox, they seem to need the team as much as the boys. They work for next to nothing, a volunteer second job that keeps them busy almost all year. Unlike Knox, they bark, push, cuss, tear down and prop up. Among them is a probation officer who starts work before dawn, gets off at noon, then drives straight to Dorsey for hours of putting kids through their paces. An assembly-line worker. A teacher. A contractor. A former L.A. city councilman. An ex-NFL receiver.

After practice, they sit with Knox in his cobwebbed office, and former players stream in. They remain his kids, always. There are men who struggle along with well-situated men. There are men like onetime NFL star Keyshawn Johnson. They watch their words and stand flag-pole straight, still seeking his approval.

But in all those years and with all those players, Knox has never coached a game like this. He doesn’t know what to expect. His team has lost just one game, but is young, inexperienced and inconsistent. Meantime, Crenshaw, a larger school less than three miles away, is undefeated, ranked first in the city and second in the state. Some say they are the best inner-city L.A. team in history.

The bus presses close to Crenshaw. Police have cordoned off the surrounding streets for safety. Tension weaves through the cabin like a strangling weed. Everyone on board knows this will be a chance to defy all odds, like the lives Jeremiah and many of his teammates are living.

It’s just as the coaches promised, Jeremiah tells himself, walking from the bus, his eyes roaming the Crenshaw field as he remembers their words and warnings: “It’s gonna be a snake pit. . . . You’re gonna want to brag on this game, that you won it, when you’re an old man at the barbershop getting a cut from some dude who went to Crenshaw.”

It’s just as he’d dreamed. As he’d imagined when he woke that morning, draping a black shirt over his shoulders, reaching into a cabinet and pulling out two obituaries -- one for an uncle killed last year, another for a friend killed last March. Neatly, lovingly, he had tucked the obituaries into a binder he carried all day.

“Dorsey! Dorsey!” he bellowed again and again. A sophomore lineman, this is his first rivalry game. “Dorsey! Dorsey!”

At Crenshaw, he hears it again. “Dorsey! Dorsey!” It comes from the stands, where throngs of his school’s fans sit. The sound weaves through the pulsing music, the crash of stomping feet and the sing-song replies from the home team’s fans: “Crenshaw! Crenshaw!” He takes it all in: the flags, the smoke from concession stand barbecues, the cheerleaders, the drill teams, even the police streaming through the stadium and hovering in a helicopter above.

He does his best to look unfazed. He’s good at that. Jeremiah has endured a lot in life. He was born when his mother’s life was on the rockiest of ground. Lucille “L.A.” Allison speaks of it through slow tears; how she survived abuse. How Jeremiah, just a toddler, saw a lot of it. How the two of them and Jeremiah’s sister found themselves in Minneapolis, living in a drafty motel she paid for by begging.

Those early years gave Jeremiah a resilience and toughness he’d need.

Like so many others, he is handcuffed by the reality that survival for an African American boy in South L.A. is never certain.

Living on a forlorn block half a dozen gang neighborhoods from Dorsey, there’s no riding city buses for him. Too dangerous. There is no hanging outside his small green house. Too unpredictable. He doesn’t leave home in the morning without huddling with his mom, saying a prayer for prosperity and safety. “I sort of live indoors and on the football field with the team,” he says. “I can’t cry about it. I just have to deal with it. And get me and my family out of here.”

So Jeremiah dreams; not just about football, which he loves because it releases his frustration. Not just about Crenshaw. But about his future. Knox and his assistants, men like Lonnie “Tex” Pumphrey, make sure to push those dreams. When Pumphrey drives Jeremiah home after practices, he warns him about the streets. He speaks of being a “Dorsey man” -- strong and true and proud. He shakes his head, smiling because Jeremiah is getting straight A’s again. “Don’t you limit yourself to thinking about playing in the NFL,” Pumphrey says. “You can be the commissioner.”

“Coach Knox thinks I could play for one of those Ivy League schools,” Jeremiah answers. “That’s what I want, Tex, the Ivy League.”

Despite his lack of experience, and the fact he’s thinner than most opponents, Jeremiah leads the team in sacks. He is also emerging as a leader.

“All those people came back to Dorsey football this week, did you see them?” he shouts, just before getting on the bus in his crisp white No. 8 jersey. “They love it with a passion! And I am sitting up here nervous because I want to cry, and I want to take my anger out because I love it too! This is the biggest game y’all will ever play in! So love and cherish every part of this game!”

In a Crenshaw dressing room, he sits in the front row as emotion builds and a series of assistant coaches pick up where he leaves off.

The room pulses with whoops and shouts. It becomes a sea of raised fists and flexed biceps, of cursing and boasts.

In the thick of this appears the salt-and-pepper-haired Knox, walking carefully, hands in the pockets of his green jacket, calm to the bottom of himself.

“Listen,” he says, adjusting his wire-rimmed glasses, “we already put the work in for this . . . Today is the day to have fun. There’s no reason to be worried. No reason to be nervous. You guys just go out and execute. . . . fly around the field and make plays. We do that, we gonna be laughing in here at the end of the game.”

It’s hardly Knute Rockne. It never is. But it works. It always does. With the game minutes away, Jeremiah and his teammates line up behind him. They walk toward the field holding hands.

Knox was not always so even-tempered, or so self-assured. When he became head coach -- first sharing duties with another teacher, Eugene McAdoo -- he was unprepared. He’d never played in college. His father kept him from suiting up for the varsity at Hamilton High. He was simply a fan who’d loved studying the chess match patterns of games.

It wasn’t nearly enough. Dorsey had just bumped up to the largest school category, and they struggled. Knox became consumed with winning. From his players, he demanded strict discipline. He ran them ragged, forcing them to lift weights and run sprints until they nearly dropped, holding warlike, all-out scrimmages the day before games.

By 1989, he was finally on to something good. The Dons were led by a slashing wide receiver named Kevin Copeland, who wasn’t just a great player but one of the smartest, most charismatic kids anybody at Dorsey had seen. When Knox imagined having a second son, he imagined Kevin.

Then that October, Dorsey played San Pedro. Kevin made a tackle and ran slowly to the sidelines. With no warning, he collapsed. He was dead at 17.

“It was the worst day of my life,” Knox says. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think of it. It’s safe to say what happened to Kevin changed the way I look at things. I discovered there’s a lot more to life than winning football games.”

He let the team vote on whether to play the season out. When they said yes, he vowed that from then on, his team would have more of the feel of a family. He’d provide routine and discipline. He’d be a constant touchstone.

The rules and customs laid down during that time exist today. There are constant players-only meetings, encouraged by Knox. Nobody is cut from the team. Not the special-education kids who have trouble remembering plays. Not the foster kids who miss practices. Not the kids with one foot in gang life.

In 1989, with the crack wars in full swing, gangs were brazen. Kids were getting jumped in the hallways at Dorsey. Knox began running his players through a special drill: what to do when guns go off during a game. They were forced to use it during that year’s Crenshaw game when shots rang from a nearby street. The shooting showed Knox he was right: he’d rather keep kids tempted by gangs near him than on the streets.

In that terrible year of Kevin’s death, the team won its first city title for the biggest schools. Kevin was posthumously named Southern California’s best football player.

There’s a bright mural on a wall at Dorsey. Before each game the team kneels before it, prays before it, cries on it, touches it like it’s connected to a spirit that hovers above, ready to descend at game time to help Dorsey win. It’s a mural of Kevin Copeland.

It’s the first quarter, and the stadium is in a frenzy. A Crenshaw back plows through the Dorsey defensive line: five yards, 10 yards, 20. . . . Touchdown. Easy. Too easy. Dorsey tries to respond, but little works, then nothing works, and on the sidelines, players argue, coaches glare and shouts can be heard from the stands -- “Knox ain’t doin’ his job!”

“Calm down,” Knox says on the sidelines, to his team as much as himself. “We’ve just got to make a few plays. Just got to keep chipping away.”

Dorsey has to play perfectly to win. They aren’t. Not yet. Knox looks out at his undermanned team, and he feels proud.

There’s the kid whose mom, recovering from addiction, comes to every practice and game. The defensive back who was kicked out of his house by his mother. The safety who lives with his sister.

There’s the team’s best player, whose family has just been booted from their apartment. He prepared for Crenshaw by sleeping at another player’s home on a clump of blankets. There’s the tough lineman, whose father was recently murdered, whose mother was shot and paralyzed when he was just a baby.

With these kids, trying so hard and doing so much right, Knox can’t be too upset.

It’s near the end of the first half. Crenshaw sits a few yards from a two-touchdown lead. If they score, a runaway begins. It they don’t, Dorsey has a chance.

A Crenshaw back takes off again. Knox spots Jeremiah, socks low, thin ankles churning. He’s been playing a sophomore’s game -- worried and tentative -- but he’s something like Kevin Copeland, special. Giving no quarter, he throws himself at the scrum, and the ball spurts loose. “Fumble!” Knox shouts. “Fumble!”

Jeremiah rises. He cradles the ball in his large hands. Dorsey ball. “I came to play!” he yells, running to the sideline, spotting his mother there. “We gonna win this thing, Momma. We are going to win this game!”

Dreams don’t always come true. After the fumble, there are few moments of joy. As time edges away, Crenshaw wears its opponent down, steady as a metronome. The final score: 44-7.

Tears well. Shoulders slump, and helmets drop sadly to the ground. It helps when the coaches speak. “Don’t ever forget,” one of them says, “we love every last one of you. We always will.”

The team returns home, the assistants in their cars, Knox with his boys, on the bus. It’s quiet there again. Some of the players stare out the window, spent. Others shut their eyes. The tension is gone but even though he doesn’t show it, there’s a hole in Knox’s gut.

At first Jeremiah finds a seat in the back. But it eats at him to see a clutch of reserves snickering there -- losing to Crenshaw doesn’t burn them enough. So he carefully gathers his gray pads and his green helmet and he limps down the aisle. Near midnight, as the bus eases back to Dorsey, he sits down. He’s where he wants to be. Right next to Coach Knox.

Dazed and depressed by the Crenshaw loss, Dorsey loses its final regular-season game. But Knox turns his team around again. In the city playoffs, they upset San Pedro High, 33-17. They travel to favored Taft High and win 24-20, with Jeremiah making a key defensive play. Tonight at 7, in the playoff semifinals, Dorsey faces undefeated Crenshaw once more. The odds are against them.