Sports Illustrated on 05 December 2011

SAFE HAVEN

by Jeff Benedict

Dominguez High coach Keith Donerson helps kids avoid trouble by making them choose football over gangs

SAFE HAVEN

WHEN THE Dominguez High football team arrived by bus at Compton High for a Friday-afternoon game in September, the Dons players found four police cars parked around the stadium and every entrance to the field in lockdown. The stands had been emptied half an hour earlier as a further security precaution. Such is game day in Compton, where fears of gang activity overshadow even the city's biggest sports rivalry.

After waiting for 10 minutes while guards unchained a padlocked gate in the security fence that surrounds the stadium, the Dominguez players ran onto the field and broke the silence. "The Lord is my shepherd," chanted the team captains in unison.

"I shall not want," the rest of the team shouted back.

The players repeated the opening to the 23rd Psalm twice more before falling into formation for pregame stretches. Fans and the Compton marching band were allowed back into the stadium, and the Dons went on to beat the Tarbabes 21--14. To Dominguez coach Keith Donerson, however, the victory was less important than the broader lessons he tries to instill in his players every day about following the right path in life.

"We try to let the kids know you have to pick a side," says Donerson, a Los Angeles native who has coached at the school for 25 years. "You're either going to play football or you're going to be a gangster."

To counter the lure of the streets, Donerson uses football as a substitute for family. "A lot of kids here are raised by grandparents," he says. "The father is in jail or dead. The mother is preoccupied. So the kid is on the street."

Gangs typically fill the void left by broken homes. But at Dominguez, football offers an alternative. "We try to create a family-type atmosphere," Donerson says. "We do a lot of things together."

Four of Donerson's starting seniors are being heavily recruited by Division I football programs. All of them have bought into his message, especially cornerbacks Brandon Beaver and Alphonso Marsh, considered by many to be the best cornerback duo in California. "Coach is a father figure," says Marsh, who has been raised by a single mother. "If it wasn't for him, I wouldn't have stayed with football. And if not for football, I'd be on the street, gang-bangin'."

Since joining the football team, Beaver has changed his routine and now stays at home at night. "I'm afraid of going out," he says. "I was at a party and shots were fired. People were running everywhere. I don't go out anymore."

Donerson says he spends about 60% of his time mentoring his players and 40% teaching them X's and O's. "Football decisions are minor," he says, "but a decision to go to a party is not minor."

Lacy Westbrook, a 6'5", 300-pound offensive lineman who has committed to UCLA, lives in a neighborhood rife with gangs and violence, but he has been able to avoid trouble. "Lacy goes to church and Sunday school every week," says his mother, Stephanie, "so he's spiritually based. His coaches are the same kind of men. And I'm not a dump-off mom. I'm involved with Lacy every step of the way, including his football."

The Dominguez players all say their biggest fear is their environment. "Basically, from Thursday to Saturday night I don't go anywhere unless it's to a USC game or church," says defensive back Lavell Sanders. "The rest of the time I'm either at practice or working out or staying inside.

"We all have friends who gang-bang," adds Sanders. "Football is a big outlet. It separates you. You easily could make the wrong decision and be in the streets."

When asked to explain the toughest part of being a teenager in Compton, Beaver doesn't hesitate. "Growing up with the right people," he says. "All my friends have tattoos all over their neck and face. They are in jail. They smoke." When a visitor notes that none of the four players being interviewed has any visible tattoos, they all smile. Beaver's answer sums up the challenge of surviving in a world rife with gangs and violence. "It's easy to be like everyone else," he says. "Being different is hard."