A rapt group of young men listened intently as Ethan Westbrooks leaned back from the round table and asked them a question:
What do you want when you get out?
“A good place for my daughter to live,” one answered.
“A scholarship,” another said.
“A career,” a third said.
Westbrooks, a Rams defensive lineman, was participating in Saturday’s “Cleats for Character” session at the Ventura Youth Correctional Facility in Camarillo. Westbrooks and defensive backs Troy Hill and Dominique Hatfield were part of a Rams contingent that included former players Reggie Doss, David Hill, Johnnie Johnson, Isiah Robertson, George Andrews, Joe Sweet, Ivory Sully, Phil Olsen and LeRoy Irvin.
About 100 of the 194 young men incarcerated at the facility — where the median age is 18 — earned the opportunity to meet the players and former players as well as participate in a football skills clinic. The Rams also donated jerseys and cleats.
“I see it as the Los Angeles Rams coming here to provide hope where it doesn’t exist and maintain it where it does,” said Johnathan Franklin, the Rams’ director of community affairs.
The genesis of Saturday’s event was born after Kevin Demoff, the Rams’ chief operating officer and executive vice president of football operations, toured the Los Angeles County Jail as part of a project sponsored by Scott Budnick, a movie producer, prison mentor and founder and president of the Anti-Recidivism Coalition. Demoff told Budnick he would like to help.
“It doesn’t hurt that I’m a huge Rams fan,” Budnick said, laughing. “Sharks see red meat, so I pounced on it…. If someone’s going to say something, I’m going to hold him to his word.”
Chuck Supple, California’s director of the division of juvenile justice, welcomed the Rams’ visit.
“The road between from turning a dream into a reality requires meaningful relationships with adults and organizations and the development of skills to be able to reach those goals,” Supple said. “So, you bring the Rams organization in … it’s going to inspire them, to have them know their dreams are real.”
The session began with an inspirational video about underdog boxer Buster Douglas’ historic 1990 victory over Mike Tyson.
Then Franklin, a former Dorsey High, UCLA and Green Bay Packers player, told his personal story about perseverance.
The players and former players then took seats at tables that seated seven or eight, telling their stories, asking questions and overseeing the completion of a “Vision Board” worksheet.
“The kids here, yeah, they’ve made mistakes, but it’s how you get up off the mat,” said Irvin, who played cornerback for the Rams during the 1980s. “A lot of them need love and support and [to] know that someone really cares about what their life is going to be like, and believe that they can change.
“That’s the message I sent them: I believe in you, and I believe you can change. Now what are you going to do?”
Westbrooks, Hill and Hatfield all overcame run-ins with the law, including Westbrooks and Hill while they were with the Rams. All three players said they were motivated to participate because of their own experiences, and those of friends or family, with the criminal justice system. All said that despite the circumstances, they saw and heard hope.
“If it’s one person that hears your message, that’s going to be a blessing for me,” Hill said.
Said Hatfield: “I challenged them, when it’s that first day out, what are you going to do? Are they going to go back to being the person that they was or are they going to take my advice and run with it?”
After the group work, the players and former players walked to an athletic field and led the participants in football drills.
Robert, 19, said that visits from professional athletes such as the Rams can change perspective.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re forgotten,” said Robert, who hopes to pursue a soccer career. “It’s a good reminder to kind of tell us no, we are important. We are able to be something better than we are here.”
As the football activities concluded, the group gathered in the middle of the field. They took a photo and then huddled.
“Rams!” they shouted in unison.
“It’s a lot easier to understand than to judge when you communicate,” Westbrooks said. “When you listen, when you actually take an ear to listen to where they’re coming from.”